Released in the US to critical acclaim in 2017, Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants is now out in India. Hailed as one of the best books about the country in years, Gidla’s careful non-fiction about her mother and her uncle (who belong to an untouchable caste) in modern-day Telangana narrates the difficult, violent and chequered history of the state through the lives of her well-known Naxalite uncle, and her own mother who raised her children through extreme poverty.
Though the book is best known for its treatment of caste, its examination of gender, domestic violence, Andhra politics, the violence of Nizams against the common people, and other seminal social realities is just as powerful. Gidla spoke to Scroll.in about her book’s journey into publication, the prequel and sequel that await us, books she recommends, and what her mother thinks of it all.
The opening lines of the book read, “My stories, my family’s stories, were not stories in India. They were just life.” In those two simple sentences, you capture so much of why the undertaking of this book itself is so unusual. When you started on this project, did you imagine these stories would find a receptive audience?
I started this project as a way of finding answers to obsessive questions of my own, such as how and why my ancestors became untouchables and if our being Christians had anything to do with it. I called my mother, half-expecting that she wouldn’t know anything about these things. But she did. I also spoke with my uncle, who knew even more than her, and started recording these conversations. Only a few years later did I think of turning this material into a book. I knew people here in America would be interested in the stories I was learning because all my American friends found them fascinating.
Ants Among Elephants came out in the States to rave reviews. Michio Kakutani of the New York Times called it “Dickensian.” Did it make any difference to you that some of your first readers were people who weren’t necessarily a part of the contemporary India you wrote about?
It was non-Indian readers that I had in mind in writing the book. That is why I explained very basic things about caste, such as the fact that it is not based on skin colour. It turns out there are many Indian readers who did not know these things. Young Indians have been extremely interested in the recent history of the country presented in my book.
You have said elsewhere that you don’t think of yourself as a writer. When you were writing this memoir, were you paying attention to the craft of each sentence? The book is so well-written, I can’t help but ask.
I rewrote constantly. Since I am not trained as a writer, I did not know how to revise things. So, when I wasn’t satisfied with an episode, I rewrote it from scratch. The biggest task in putting the book together was going through all my drafts and deciding what to use from each one.
I had to think about craft in other ways too. I have two main subjects, my mother and my uncle, and I had to figure out how to weave their stories together. Another decision was to use the first person only in the introduction and the afterword. I did not insert myself in the rest of the book even though I appear in the narrative as a small child, except in one place where I describe witnessing my father beating my mother. There was a bit of debate between myself and my editor over this. He thought it was odd to refer to myself as Sujatha.
How has your mother responded to the book and to the attention it has received?
Right from the beginning, when I started asking her about our family history she was very excited. Whenever I would send her a section of the manuscript she would sit up and read until she finished. For the last several years she had been asking, “When will the book come out, when will the book come out?”
Several times she has told me, “It is not because you are my daughter, but this is so good.” She says that what I wrote about the Telangana Armed Revolt is unique, that she had never read this kind of analysis anywhere before, and that people would learn a lot about that struggle from my book.
Every time I tell her about another review the book has received it makes her swell with pride. She says she is in seventh heaven.
But since an article came about me and the book in a Telugu newspaper she has lost all her friends – ex-colleagues (she was a college lecturer), close friends for the last 40 years or so. The caste Hindus among them resented that I wrote about caste in India. Some were jealous too. Others are too ignorant to appreciate books, writing, and literature. That should have been a huge blow for her. She has been staying on in India because of her friends and now in one fell swoop they’ve all disappeared. But she does not seem to be too bothered by it.
Tell us a little about your publishing journey. After you had finished writing the book, how did it make it out into the world?
I understand that getting an agent interested in your writing is almost impossible, let alone a publisher. In my case it wasn’t like that. The wife of a friend of a friend knew an agent. I did not have to coax or persuade any of these people to pass it on to the next person. In fact, it was all their initiative to get the book published. Everyone absolutely loved it. My agent never represented anything like this before. I think she specialised in fantasy and self-help. But she did a great job and got several publishers interested in the book. FSG was the most enthusiastic and first to offer a deal.
Are there other books out there that you would recommend to people who learned a lot from Ants Among Elephants?
I like Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, a novel by the British-Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif. The main character is a young Christian untouchable nurse. Many Pakistanis I meet in New York strenuously deny the existence of caste in their country, saying there is no caste in Islam. I am glad Hanif wrote about this very marginalised community in Pakistan. His writing is delightful to read, clever, and funny. I recommend this book highly.
I also like Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I modelled the introduction in my book on her Author’s Note.
Among the recently published books, I liked Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others, a novel about young Naxalites in Calcutta (Kolkata now) in the mid-1960s.
What are some of the books that are most important to you?
One is Independent People by an Icelandic writer, Haldor Laxness. It is a very long novel about poor Icelandic sheep farmers at the turn of the century that deals with some of the same themes as my book.
There is a Telugu writer I like named Rachakonda Viswanatha Sastry. I love all his books, especially a novel called Raju-Mahishi. It’s a love story of sorts, and in it he describes each class of Telugu society quite shrewdly and hilariously.
Another novel I’m fond of is Murphy by Samuel Beckett. I don’t know if there is a deep meaning in it. I just find it extremely funny.
Is there another book, another set of stories, that you’re thinking of turning your attention to?
Yes, I already have a prequel almost ready. It tells the story of my family after they left the jungles to settle in the plains in Krishna district. Then I am thinking of writing a sequel – that is, my own story. My agent tells me it would make an interesting book.