? Her extraordinary story is, by turns, deeply affecting and enraging. Against very steep odds, she manages to reach the MA level of education, then takes a series of temporary jobs as a teacher: she is shunted around from one town to another, fired repeatedly because she is lower-caste or because her job has been given to an upper-caste person...The historical context in which Satyam’s life unfolds is vividly drawn...It is only for convenience of discussion that I’ve separated the family story from the narrative of political activism; the two are inextricable. Nowhere has that old wisdom that the personal is the political seemed so vital, so much a matter of life and death. Sujatha Gidla’s indispensable book comes from a place of deep and necessary anger.
Gidla’s beautiful book, parts of which are as deeply absorbing as anything I’ve read, comes to this question of self-consciousness and how we think of and express ourselves from different directions. Ants Among Elephants is an account of Gidla’s family, from the life of her grandparents to her own. This matter of both the accidentality and gift of self-consciousness, and the long periods of vacancy when one is not aware of the value of one’s own experience (a vacancy so important to writers and human beings, as it’s a time when no judgment or formulation is arrived at), is dwelt on in the first two skeletal but eloquent sentences: “My stories, my family’s stories, were not stories in India. They were just life.” ...No wonder Gidla’s own narrative is part essayistic, part novelistic; no wonder Manjula devoured Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novels in Telegu translations as a child, and modelled her own life on this Bengali Brahmin’s singularly “strong” heroines. There’s an incandescent fictionality about that age in India that derived from a capacity for belief that now seems unbelievable, and which cut across caste. And yet Gidla wryly knows that, for her forefathers, not character but caste was fate. So was transformation, undeniably. One of the singular results of that transformation is Ants Among Elephants itself.
In this unsentimental, deeply poignant book, Sujatha Gidla gives us stories of her family and friends in India — stories she had thought of as “just life,” until she moved to America at the age of 26 and realized that the “terrible reality of caste” did not determine one’s identity in other countries, that being born “an untouchable” did not entail the sort of ritualized restrictions and indignities she took for granted at home...In these pages, she has told those family stories and, in doing so, the story of how ancient prejudices persist in contemporary India, and how those prejudices are being challenged by the disenfranchised.