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Page Turners


Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla

Reviewed by Kate McCorkle

Without a doubt, India is one of the most complex societies on earth. Caste, religion, political affiliation, economic status, and family ties combine to define each individual’s role to an almost inescapable extent. At the bottom, in terms of status and almost everything else, are those of the untouchable caste, those in traditional Hindu society who carry out the most menial jobs.

The author of Ants Among Elephants was born an untouchable in the years after the British left India in 1948, and the story of her family demonstrates the tightrope of circumstances faced by anyone wishing to rise above his own station in this newly liberated nation. Originally nomads, Gidla’s grandparents were forced into farming as lands were usurped by rich Hindus, who allowed the nomads to farm under their rule. When the British relinquished control, every political faction in India made a move to get power. The farmers thought they would simply get the land for themselves. Instead, corruption and chaos ensued. Even in the slums where Gidla’s family eventually lived, everyone had a political bent. Rallies, agitations, and arrests were commonplace. Gidla’s uncle, the first of the family to go to college thanks to the Methodist mission schools, became radicalized.

Wending his way through various affiliations, including the Communist party, Gidla’s uncle, a starving student and aspiring poet, rises to the status of beloved poet and defender of the oppressed. When Gidla’s story is told, virtually every turn of fate–personal and political, for better and for worse, has befallen this one man, this one individual who is determined to make his society better. Considering this, multiplied by the population of India’s striving poorest, the effect is stunning.

This is a book dense in detail because this is a country teeming with stories. It is a complicated book, because this is no simple history. In the end, as the author goes off to college in the United States, the Indian Communist party is being accused of caste-ism within its ranks! Gidla makes this saga accessible to the reader through her own story. For the reader, it is well worth the winding journey.

Ants Among Elephants is among the many nonfiction books on the Recent Arrivals shelf in the Biblioteca Pública.


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