When Sujatha Gidla was a student at the Regional Engineering College (REC) Warangal, she heard about a professor who was deliberately failing students from the lower castes. It led to several students, including Gidla, calling for a strike – one that ended badly. Though she wasn’t on the strike committee (she was, however, a member of a radical left students’ union), Gidla and other students were detained by the police. She was the only woman.

As she recounts, they were taken to destinations undisclosed to their parents and tortured. “Beat her until I can see welts on her” – she overhears the police deputy superintendent tell two policewomen

Warangal was where her uncle, KG Satyamurthy, the Left leader and a founder of the People’s War Group had been especially active. He had worked with textile mill and railway workers, and reached out to Dalits (the “untouchables” in Gidla’s title), and other marginalised communities. In the early 1960s and earlier, Satyam, as he is referred to by Gidla, had been part of the “Visalandhra” movement and the Andhra-Telengana riots that followed a few years later.

The experience of being in police custody, and the worry it caused her parents, turned Gidla off the rebel cause, despite attempts by the far Left to recruit her. She moved to the US, where after a stint as an engineer she now works as a subway conductor. A radical, even iconoclastic choice of career, but of a piece with what her uncle, Satyam and then her mother, Manjula, did with their lives. Both were unconventional and progressive in their own ways; both equally heroic in the struggles they waged.

The modernity of caste

It is particularly opportune that Gidla’s memoir of her mother and uncle appears on the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. This fact itself is coincidental. Much of the remembering has been, and quite rightly too, of the Partition – the sundering of regions and communities that came with independence. But the old injustices remained alongside, only perpetuating and entrenching themselves – as with caste, a system indelibly associated with far too many Indian stories.

Gidla’s account of her untouchable family begins from the pre-independence India in coastal Andhra, then a part of the Madras Presidency. Converted to Christianity by Canadian Baptist missionaries, her grandfather Prasanna Rao became a teacher, adept at the English he learnt in missionary schools. It was his dying wife’s wish that her children – Satyam, Carey (named after the British Baptist missionary at Serampore in Bengal) and Manjula – be educated. A wish her husband did his best to fulfil despite his abandonment of his young children – an abandonment that would have lingering consequences on his children, especially Manjula, who grew into adulthood and later living in one temporary home after another.

Gidla tells this story almost 70 years later, from conversations with her uncle that she began recording only a few years ago (he died in 2012) and her own mother. It is her family’s story of seeking education and employment in post-independent India – lives spent in determined pursuit of self-respect and fulfilment. It’s a wider story of caste, its tentacles hooked into every sphere of Indian life, the oppressive burden of untouchability, and the insidious ways in which caste manipulates and adapts itself to “change”, to ideologies and political systems.

“If you are educated like me, if you don’t seem like a typical untouchable, then you have a choice. You can tell the truth and be ostracized, ridiculed, harassed – even driven to suicide, as happens regularly in universities.

Or you can lie. If they don’t believe you, they will try to find out your true caste some other way. They may ask you certain questions: “Did your brother ride a horse at his wedding? Did his wife wear a red sari or a white sari? How does she wear her sari? Do you eat beef? Who is your family deity?” They may even seek the opinion of someone from your region.

If you get them to believe your lie, then of course you cannot tell them your stories, your family’s stories. You cannot tell them about your life. It would reveal your caste. Because your life is your caste, your caste is your life.

Whether they know the truth or not, your untouchable life is never something you can talk about.

It was like this for me in Punjab, in Delhi, in Bombay, in Bangalore, in Madras, in Warangal, in Kanpur, in Calcutta.

At twenty-six, I came to America, where people know only skin color, not birth status. Some here love Indians and some hate them, but their feelings are not affected by caste. One time in a bar in Atlanta I told a guy I was untouchable, and he said, “Oh, but you’re so touchable.”

Only in talking to some friends I met here did I realise that my stories, my family’s stories, are not stories of shame.”

The Left in the 1950s Andhra

In college, Satyam, a bright student and the hope of his family, had no money to pay his fees. Lodged among better off, upper caste classmates, Satyam was the “ant among elephants”. In the early 1940s, he was drawn to the Congress’s Quit India Movement, but its quiet fading away – following the imprisonment of Congress leaders and their later negotiations with the British – disillusioned him. It was around this time that, having no money to formally attend classes, he was drawn to Telugu literature, its old classics and avant-garde poetry.

The Telengana agitation that began in 1946 was waged by the peasants (a broad spectrum which included the landless, the wage-labourers and some rich peasants too) against the Nizam (who at that time was waging his own battle for independence) and the rich landlords. There were many grievances against the “dora system”, which institutionalised a framework of feudal obligations and services on servitors and other economic and social dependents. The Left, inspired by movements in China and the Soviet Union, championed the causes of the tiller and the toiler.

Gidla details the oppression unleashed on the protestors, the rebels and the oppressed by the Nizam and his infamous Razakars and, later, by the Indian state under Jawaharlal Nehru, who unleashed the army against the Communists and their supporters. Nehru, as Gidla recounts her uncle’s words, was a letdown in every sense. For instance, in a tragicomic scene (and this book has several of these), Nehru’s oratory – at the peak of the Visalandhra campaign for a separate state – is felled by a poorly functioning mike (the Communist workers, at Satyam’s behest, were responsible).

An incomplete transition

But Satyam’s differences with the leaders of the Communist Party were apparent from the very beginning. It began from his opposition – not vociferously aired – to the Left’s contesting independent India’s first elections in 1952, when they became the largest opposition party in Madras Presidency and then agreed to support the Congress government.

Satyam believed the movement was incomplete, that the tillers had not been emancipated yet, nor been granted land. The Communists were irrevocably divided – and caste as a factor was never acknowledged. There were the rich reddys, kammas and kapus who dominated the party in the Andhra region, and with the Dalits making up castes such as the malas, the madigas were simply disregarded.

Satyam’s disillusionment with the party continued with the split following the war with China in 1962. But the call for true revolution was never sounded, frustrating the likes of Satyam and his colleague, Kondapalli Seethramaya. Inspired by Charu Mazumdar and the Naxalbari uprising, the two would later be involved in forming the CPI(ML) (the People’s War group in the late 1960s).

In the intervening period (1962-1967), Satyam immersed himself in leading, and then calming, the Andhra-Telengana disturbance in Warangal, and winning smaller, yet vitally important, struggles: standing up for lepers whose colonies were being razed by the municipality, aiding the unorganised railway and textile mill workers, and even reaching out to students at the St Gabriel school in Warangal after they complained of sexual abuse at the hands of priests.

A sister’s struggle

Satyam’s story is intertwined with that of his (and Carey’s) sister Manjula, the youngest sibling, and Gidla’s mother. For all his compassion and empathy for the marginalised and lost, Satyam and his brother Carey dominated and regulated every aspect of their sister’s life – a stranglehold on her habits, routine and dress that became more rigid once Manjula went to college.

The divisions that Satyam came up against in the public spheres of education and politics were ones that Manjula encountered at every turn, at home and away. All too often, her struggle appeared bleak. Yet the will to seek a better life was powerful and consistent, despite being hemmed in by the forces of privilege. Privilege in the Indian context was clearly identifiable, also exercising its hold in undefined but well-entrenched ways, such as decisions over who and how one married, the friendships one formed, the jobs one could do.

Satyam’s and Manjula’s journeys were different, but there was always the insidious presence of caste as a decider. While Satyam did recognise discrimination for what it was, his idealism and faith in communism made him, especially in his younger years, blind and oblivious to the clear divide in the Communist leadership. He always had his eyes fixed on the revolution, breaking away every time the old guard made a revisionist turn. The inspiration of Naxalbari was followed by his meeting Charu Mazumdar, a man he would remain in awe of, and Naxalbari would lead to the Srikakulam peasant uprising (1967-70).

For Manjula the struggle was against something almost hydra-headed. She faced not only the punishing impositions of caste, but also strictures of religion and family. Her inclination to befriend the higher kamma and kapu girls, for instance, made her caste peers turn against her. And when her beloved older brother went underground, was tormented by her inability to secure a permanent job as a teacher.

At every temporary job that came Manjula’s way, it wasn’t so much her own ability as the benign intervention from well-meaning upper caste superiors that made the difference. There were always sadistic superiors to contend with, and Satyam’s absence in these crucial years of her life meant Manjula had no one to turn to.

Darkness visible

To slip into pathos would have been the easiest thing for a book of this kind. But Gidla has a clear-eyed view of the past, her own past, and a restraint in how she writes of it. The darkness is tinged in places with quiet comedy. In the hospital, for instance, the time her third child was due, Manjula had a close shave with death, while her sister-in-law and the janitor actually resorted to fisticuffs to resolve a misunderstanding.

But there is no comedy when Gidla writes of her own childhood, the time she was left alone with her two younger siblings with her mother at work. Instead, a stark dry-eyed practicality prevails. Desperate to have someone look after her young children (her husband worked in another town), Manjula accepted everything – a tyrant of a mother-in-law and even a chronically ill distant relative who sexually abused Gidla, an incident the writer graphically recounts.

This is a clear-eyed, unflinching look at caste, and the systems that conspire to institutionalise discrimination in every system. As Satyam realised later in his revelation to his niece long after he is “expelled” – the Left had always refused to countenance the presence of caste in all their plans and interventions.

For some, like Satyam, the response was clear and apparent, leading to his expulsion. For others, to ask questions was to invite opprobrium. Gidla doesn’t make as political a statement as this. Yet her book is personal and also, assuredly, political. Read it and despair, but read it you must.

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, Sujatha Gidla, Farrar Straus Giroux.