Review: Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Sujatha Gidla was born into the lowest level of India's caste system, the untouchables. She compares it to anti-black racism in the United States, and then goes on to explain, "Each caste has its own special role and its own place to live. The brahmins (who perform priestly functions), the potters, the blacksmiths... and so on--they each have their own separate place to live within the village. The untouchables, whose special role--whose hereditary duty--is to labor in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all.... Every day in an Indian newspaper you can read of an untouchable beaten or killed for wearing sandals, for riding a bicycle." She goes on to list several of the thousands of restrictions placed upon this unit of society that, if violated, are often dealt with by violence or death.

In Ants Among Elephants, Gidla tells her family's history, of her great-grandparents, grandparents and parents who came of age when the caste system was still in full force--when India was becoming an independent nation, shaking off the mantle of British rule. Most of the story is dominated by Gidla's uncle Satyamurthy, who became a famous poet and leader of a Maoist guerilla group in the early 1970s, a position that forced him to go into hiding for most of his life. Revolving around Satyamurthy's stories are those of his extended family, Gidla's grandparents and parents, who lived in poverty yet managed to obtain educations and do a bit better for themselves.

Throughout, Gidla does not hide the atrocities of the caste system. She discusses how untouchable women are forced to clean public toilets using their hands, a broom and a tin plate to fill baskets to carry away the waste on their heads; how they are forced to become mistresses to those higher on the social ladder; and how they are not allowed to marry above their class. Gidla's family history is intertwined with the evolution of an India in which society severely restricts people's lives based on beliefs and long-held principles. Ants Among Elephants is a fascinating and moving portrayal of one family's struggle to live. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

Shelf Talker: A woman from the untouchable level of India's caste system tells her family's history as it relates to their country gaining its independence from British rule.

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