Casteism is rampant in America too (Sujatha Gidla)

Article published in India Life and Times magazine

New Yorker Sujatha Gidla’s book, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, has got much attention in America and India. (Read the first chapter below)

Gidla comes from a line of Christian untouchables in Andhra Pradesh. She recounts the experiences of her mother and uncles under the yoke of caste. She laments the continuation of the oppression even in a free and modern country.

Gidla works as a conductor in New York Subway system.

Your book got much attention. What do you feel about the reviews?

I always knew that the book was going to be good. And I also knew that if it got what it deserved it would get all these good reviews.

But things don’t always happen the way they should. Some crappy books do end up getting an enormous amount of publicity. And some very good books suffer non-recognition. I am glad that what I imagined the reaction would/should be like is the same as the actual reaction. So to some extent, when the book gets good reviews, I think, “Of course.”

There were negative reviews too. What is your reaction?

It is clear that the negative comments are all casteist comments — in some comments the casteism is open, and in others it is disguised as genuine concern that the book is too long or that it should have been edited down to fewer pages, or that I should have mentioned this or that or that I avoided to bring up something or the other.

One or two reviews said that the writing was difficult. I don’t deny them the right to feel that way, but the book is not written for such readers.

Is caste system as bad in India as it was, when you left the country a quarter of a century ago?


You said upper caste people are not interacting with your family in India after the book was published. Are they jealous?

They are angry that I washed India’s linen in public. They are jealous. Some are too ignorant to know that book-writing is considered a desirable thing let alone highly respected thing.

(The upper-caste neighbors, they shut their doors and they haven’t said a word since the New York Times article came out. Not one word. They haven’t recognized it. A colleague of hers, she came to visit my mother when the BBC interview was coming, and when she saw the interview, she just got up and left the house. It’s another upper-caste colleague. Two of her colleagues actually woke her up in sleep and berated her, “How dare your daughter write this stuff, haven’t we treated you well enough? What’s your complaints? Why are you still talking about untouchables?” It’s very sad that even though she’s very proud, there’s nobody in India that she can share her happiness with-she told Isaac Chotiner, of earlier)

How is caste system among Indians in America?


(Indians definitely have brought along the caste system to America. There are some who are more refined than the others. The refined, they identify with the liberals here in America. They vote Democratic Party, and they talk about women’s issues and gay issues. But when it comes to caste, they’re still casteist. In India, you can be as progressive as you want, and you can even be a very dedicated anti-caste activist, but caste still is present even in those people. It’s like that. In every American Indian organization, there is caste. There’s one caste that dominates those associations.)

Christianity is supposed to not practice caste system. Yet it is there, at least in the minds of the so called upper class Christians. What is your experience?

I did not experience this because our churches were all Mala-Madiga churches. We didn’t have upper caste Christians in our churches.

But it is like this in other places, Reddy Christians, Kamma Christians, Kapu Christians. I am sure they practice caste. I heard the late chief minister YSR, a Reddy Christian, married a Mala Christian woman. That also happens sometimes.

Is not the job conductor job a tiring one? How do you make time for creative work?

I don’t because I can’t. It is that demanding. I wrote during breaks or taking a few days off. I wrote while riding subway (as a passenger, not as a conductor)

(Conductor in India means an entirely different thing: It’s the employee, the worker who sells tickets and things like that. Conductor in the subway, in New York City’s subway, is very different. We don’t sell tickets. We are more like what they call a railway guard in India. We make sure that everybody got in the train and nobody’s stuck between the train doors, nobody’s getting dragged on the platform or falling off on the train tracks. We open and close doors and make announcements. The conductor is in charge of the train while the train is in the station. He/she’s the one who tells the train operators what to do next.

Do you like the job?

It’s interesting because I like my co-workers very, very, very much. They’re really the best. They’re very witty people, have a sense of humor, and are kind and compassionate, and people with varied interests. The best thing is that it’s a very multiracial workforce, and we get to share our stories and culture.)

A few lines about your family here.

My family — every one was special. Not bragging. My dad extraordinary English literature buff and a teacher, much loved by his students.

My mother, of course, is actively involved in Dalit issues. She paid legal fees for the victims in which Dalit boys were accused of stealing and got their heads shorn. It is a 15-year old case and those who fervently fought for justice either died or lost interest. My mother stuck with it.

My sister is a very passionate worker for justice for untouchables. She is very kind person and a good doctor. Very clever too. She has some extraordinary capability with language that I can't describe, but people used to come just to listen her speak.

My brother is in Canada. He has some reputation of his own — good at his work. While he was working in Saudi for Exxon, he was third in command after the Arab and the American chief.

My grandma was a very kind woman who suffered much as a widow, ill-treated and used and ignored.

Our mother always had to fight for implementation of reservation during college admissions . She helped both Dalit and other students.

(Some of the quotes were from an interview by Isaac Chotiner, published in

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