Sujatha Gidla, author of Ants Among Elephants: My book wouldn’t stand a chance in India

In a close-to-90-minute conversation, the former Wall Street professional discusses caste, the limitations of India’s reservation policy and how she remains a Marxist but not an Ambedkarite.

Published: 11th February 2018 03:48 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th February 2018 01:14 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

Sujatha Gidla sounds annoyed. I discover a day later that this may be because she has clarified and re-clarified the statement she had made at the Jaipur Literature Festival late last month regarding Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. She was quoted as calling ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi casteist and racist. She clarified on Twitter that she called Gandhi, not Mahatma Gandhi, casteist and racist, her point being that she hadn’t referred to him as ‘Mahatma’ since the “age of 14”. Two days after this detailed note in which she said “the true colours of Gandhi are new only to those who aren’t politically minded untouchables or communists or Perry Anderson, or any number of people”, I emailed her follow-up questions to a Skype interview she and I had done in early January including one on Gandhi. She was understandably exasperated.

Gidla’s views on Gandhi ought not to come as a surprise to anyone who has read her debut book Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India. Gidla describes the book as ‘family stories’ but it is also an unflinching examination of caste against the backdrop of India’s independence, the Naxalite (Maoist) movement, and the agitation for Andhra statehood in the 1950s. The book, of course, is made possible because of who her family is. Her maternal uncle K G Satyamurthy was one of the founders of the Maoist revolutionary militia, the People’s War Group. Her family’s story unfolds from the perspective of Satyam, as she calls him, and that of her mother Manjula.

Ants is an exceptional endeavour in documenting the history of the family, and relying as it does on  the memories of the key players it is subject to the frailty of memory. No one’s family story would go uncontested (even within that family), Gidla’s less so given the historic role played by her uncle and the scores of documentarians of the movement he was part of. In Andhra and Telangana, left-leaning activists and writers who witnessed the Movement unfold firsthand have raised objections to Gidla’s account of events. She is unfazed, however.

Ironically, Satyam’s role in the Naxalite movement may be among the less interesting sections of the book. In a close-to-90-minute conversation, the former Wall Street professional discusses caste, the limitations of India’s reservation policy and how she remains a Marxist but not an Ambedkarite. Excerpts from the interview:

Do you see this book as memoir or non-fiction novel, or historical work?

I would call it literary nonfiction. It is not a memoir because it is family stories. I think family stories is the recognised genre now.

The introductory note to the book is dated 2012, and the book came out in 2017. So when did you start working on this?

I would really say towards the end of the last century (laughs). In 1999 or so. But I didn't start it as a book. So it went through some kind an evolution into a book finally. I started it to find what's the relationship between caste and religion. I started looking into that aspect, and I called my folks and they told me these stories, and I thought, “Wow actually they do know how we became untouchables, and they do know how we became Christians.” And I started writing them down and in the process it became a book. But that wasn't my idea at first. And also I have to work, so it took a long while to do this.

At the end of producing this book have you found the answer to the relationship between caste and religion?

I definitely have. Caste has nothing to do with religion. It only looks like that but it really is a social institution. If you look at America, race is not a religion, right? So it's the same way. Except that caste looks like Hinduism because Hinduism is tailor-made to support caste's social system. It is basically a prop for the caste system with some mysticism added. Islam and Christianity were born elsewhere, not in a caste society, but when they came to India they had to fit themselves in.

They adapted to it.

Yeah. You can see caste among Syrian Christians and Konkani Christians. And there is caste among Muslims and even Parsis, I think.

In this book there are two main characters: your mother and your uncle. Your uncle is very well-known and kind of steals a lot of attention. Was it your intention for the book to be about him and his journey or did that just happen?

Yeah, his life was very eventful, removed from average life. My mother's life too was eventful but a lot of women have the same issues. Whereas Satyam's life was not like the average man's life. Also, I'm not so much of a feminist like people in my circles should be. I'm more of a Marxist than a feminist. Marxism absorbs the women's question. It’s not like Marxism ignores women, it subsumes feminism.

You're also not someone who identifies as an Ambedkarite right?

That's right.

Would you say that Marxist ideology absorbs caste as well?

Yeah, it does. You know Marxism is a framework and a worldview. Like, Marxism teaches you how to multiply one number with the other. You know, like two times four. So you have to view caste in that framework. It's not that it doesn't apply. It has to be applied using Marxist methods. In special circumstances like race in America and caste in India.

Do you think that that has been successfully done? Are the Communist parties in India which supposedly follow Marxist ideologies -- you call them out in your book – also blind to the caste issue?

Yes. They call themselves Marxists. They are not real Marxists. As you can see, CPI and CPM, they behave just like any other normal party in the sense that the CPM when it came to power in West Bengal they too unleashed the police and the military on poor peasants, right? They can hardly be called Marxists or Communists. Even ML (Marxist-Leninist) parties, the Naxalities, they don't say anything about caste. They did not study Marxism very well and they think Marx only talked in terms of class not caste even though it is staring you in your face. It was the same case in America also. Communists said race is not part of Marxism so we should not address it separately. Lenin and the Bolsheviks told them race is a reality and they should have special programmes to fight against it. Unfortunately, we don’ have anybody telling Indian Marxists that, “Look you cannot ignore caste”.

Do you think it is possible for the liberal community in India to have a dialogue with Dalit  groups in a meaningful way? Many of them are Savarnas (upper caste). Do you think a conversation is possible?

Of course, definitely and I think it should be that way also. It is not just is it possible but has to be that way. I always look at this caste and race thing, like if I can't find answers regarding one issue I will look at the other: how does it work? So if you look at the race issue, there are so many white people involved in anti-racist struggles and they are genuinely anti-racist, it's not like they wear it as a badge or something. So why should it not be possible for upper caste people to participate in anti-caste Dalit struggles?

Among some of the Ambedkarite groups there is scepticism that such a conversation is possible. You sense that in some of the online discourses...

Which specific online discourse are you talking about?

Well, if you look at the past couple of years, especially since Rohith Vemula's suicide you would probably notice on Facebook and Twitter people talking about Dalit issues and making memes calling out savarnas, etc.

You know, really speaking these people are very creepy Ambedkarites.

How do you mean?

Seriously, they are. They just sound very militant about everything. Like they denounced Arundhati Roy writing the introduction to (Ambedkar‘s) Annihilation of Caste, they call everybody manuvaadi and Brahmin... Actually I wonder about their antecedents and how they work and where they get funding from. Basically they bloody denounce everybody and they think savarnas have nothing to say. See those words also. I think it is BSP and Kanshi Ram that gave these words ‘savarna’, ‘manuvaadi’, things like that. I don't know what their agenda is but they (denounce) everybody. I thought I had perfect credentials. I am a Dalit, I am a woman, I have participated in struggles, I went to jail, I'm a working class person. You would think that these people would have zero reason to criticise me but they still tried to do that. I have no idea what their motivation is but it seems to me that they want to be in the public eye, in magazines or books or something. And they don't get to do that because everybody's a talentless hack. They just object and there are a bunch of them with all these (Twitter) handles. They have people in America also, sneakily trying to invite me to some event knowing that I don't like them. And they send other people pretending to have nothing to do with the people I don't like. I really don't have any idea what their whole intent is. They complain that their books don't get published, they aren't in the media. And their only concrete aim is to vote for the BSP perhaps? That's all I can think of.

(Later, over email, Gidla made the following clarification: When I said "creepy Ambedkarites" I did not mean ASA, BAPSA, etc. I meant those Ambedkarites who protested against Arundhati Roy writing the introduction to Annihilation of Caste. That is not the only thing they do. They accuse everyone of being brahminist. Even those who are sincere. They hate English. And other identitarian nonsense. To them JNU is shit, Kanhaiya is a shit kicker, all of that. Ironically many of them are non-Dalits and some even Brahmins. Ironically, also they write in English.)

How have you been criticised? Have they criticised you?

Uh no, I haven't been but right after the New York Times review came out, they were saying that (does a voice), “Oh you know, my priority is not to get published by New York Times. I have my priorities with my own people. I don't care…” It's balls, you know.

You also disagreed with them on the Raya Sarkar (sexual harassment) list right?

Definitely, that kind of infuriated me because, so basically this woman says, “you should all believe that these men are really bad people because I say so”. Who is she? I didn't even know her name before. And why should people think that she is some paragon of trust that we have to trust her? Why should I believe her? And I think it is also a ploy to be talked about and I think to some extent they were successful in it. And it's a bad thing because if you point a finger at somebody, even if it is proved that that person is innocent, he has already lost his reputation, right? It cannot be got back. Also this kind of stuff can be used very well to target political opponents. For example, in California there is a Palestinian professor and something about him; the Zionists are ruling the university there and they used it to get him out.

You identify as a Marxist, you said. How does that align with living in America which is not Marxist in any way?

(Laughs) Alright fine. I have a very good answer for this. Is India a Marxist paradise?

No... I don't know what country would be.

So why would it be a betrayal to my theology to live in America? Neither is a socialist paradise but at least American life is a little bit more free. Marxists also don't have nationalism, patriotism things like that. We are internationalists.

Since you are talking about freedom in America, do you think that Westernisation, or as it happened in the case of your family, conversion in itself is a means of getting around some of the worst aspects of caste?

When you say taking Christianity as westernisation, then no, it has not brought any freedom except that they (her mother’s family) were able to go to school and get an education but their position as untouchables was virtually unchanged. Dalit Christians don't live among Hindu people. There are still untouchable colonies, so that has not changed. And if you mean Westernisation as in coming to America, then yeah. ’Cos yeah, in some ways they are able to (get around the walls of caste) because in non-Indian eyes they are just Indians, not untouchables.

But I also mean in terms of, say, if you come to a city, unlike in a village where everyone knows who you are, there are ways in which your caste identity is not immediately apparent. You can dress in certain ways, or speak in certain ways, if you have access to education, if you speak English. That's what I meant.

Yes. That's possible.

But obviously you don’t see that as a way out.

No, how is that a way out? Then you're living a lie. It's a way of getting around in a sneaky manner but that doesn't give you real freedom, right?

Do you think reservation for Dalits helps or hinders progress?

No, it does not. You know like... let's say, how do I put this? (long pause). So the thing is that people should be able to go to school, right? Reservation says, “yeah ok you can come into school” but what about the (Dalit children’s) circumstances? Will their circumstances allow them to even take advantage of reservation? In rural areas if he or she, the child, is an earning member of the family and if you send him to school, the family loses its earnings. So there itself is a failure of reservation. And then there are a million other obstacles for people who want to use reservation and get out of this situation. They cannot go to school, first of all, because they do not have enough money. At school they are harassing you and punishing you, they are making you do the cleaning. If you come from a background where it is not easy to understand (the lessons), there is no remedy. When Dalits reach higher education, the obstacles are really stacked up against them. Recently there was a Kanpur IIT kid who was harassed for the way he spoke, that he could not speak English. So, he was hounded out. Then practical exams are really another way that they keep you down. You could do well in the writing exams, but the professors will fail you in the practicals. And in that thing that has an oral interview part, they fail you. And I heard that a large number of theses by Dalit scholars don't get accepted. So all these things. Reservation is a kind of a joke perpetrated on Dalits. And it is getting harder and harder to even use reservation. Then the thing is that Ambedkar fought for reservation and they grudgingly gave it. But they have so many loopholes that they cannot be properly used. They are using it to create categories among untouchables (and they are) fighting for that four per cent quota. But reservation should not be dismantled as that's taking away what little was given.

It's just that there is systemic, institutional casteism that reservation does not help by itself. Do you think leaving India made it easier you to arrive at what might be termed as your Dalit articulation? Do you think you would have got the same response to the book if you had written it while you lived in India? Would it have been published at all?

Zero chance of it ever getting published if I had written it in India. You know there is a saying in Telugu that unless you put it through the conch the water won't become holy water? Same thing. Unless you get recognition abroad, Indians wouldn’t recognise a book like this. You know, NYT wrote, The Economist wrote, Wall Street Journal wrote, so of course they have to take stock of it. Of course, what surprised me is that there is a liberal layer (of Indians) right now who seem to be sympathetic to this caste issue. Which didn't exist actually, as far as I know, when I was there.

What do you think has created that layer?

Ummm, since 1991, market liberalisation, some things changed. There are bad things but there are also some good things. Like people have more sources of information like TV channels and magazines and newspapers and also intercourse with people abroad, I mean foreigners. What happens in America, such as these riots when that black man was killed. They see all of this and they also see how Americans are reacting to those very same kind of things. If you are trying to westernise and become like an American, listen to their music and read their books, you are also influenced to look at things their sort of way. It's the same thing with homosexuality. No one wants to say anti-homosexual (things) openly. Right now, I think this influenced people in India also to be, at least pretend to be, anti-bigotry. A lot of people here, very conservative people, say, “Oh you shouldn't look at gay people as separate or something”. They just do it because they know that Americans in their workplace and so that influences them.

We have in India a parallel of the articulation of white anger that arguably led to Donald Trump becoming president. You can see similarities in the Indian discourse right now in which a certain kind of bigotry has become acceptable to be expressed. Do you think those are just two separate independent things that just happened to coincide?

I think that worldwide neoliberals lost the trust of people, you know, like the Democrats here, supposedly pro-working class, pro-women, pro-gay and all of that stuff, but their rule produced no results, you know. So they brought in Obama who has black skin and so just by dint of his skin people believed that Democrats are good people. It didn't happen, you know. More racial killings (happened) in his regime than before and he dropped more bombs on Syria and Yemen. So people lost all trust that liberals are any good. Anti-incumbency is part of Trump's victory; in Britain also it's like that and India too to some extent. But in India nobody understands that under the garb of nationalism the BJP and RSS are most willing to sell India away to foreign corporations. That is what is happening in the mining areas. For example, so many auto companies, Honda, foreign car companies, came here because BJP promised that we will have union-less factories here, will suppress anybody who talks about unions, make them work for a pittance under bad conditions. That's their promise. And that's why they terrorise people. In the end it is in the interests of big business that they are doing this so that people will be too scared to protest, you know. That is the reason why they are using all this violence and horrible censorship. In the end they want people to take what they give them without protest.

But this is all coinciding with a from-the-ground-up Dalit movement which may have started with Rohith Vemula's death and spread to other universities, to Una. You have someone like Jignesh Mevani winning an election as a Dalit candidate. Do you see that as a hope for the movement?

Jignesh Mevani winning?

Not just him, his winning is just one of the many things that have come up in the past few years.

I think that the exploitation of Dalits has intensified. It recognisably changed in the late ’60s and early ’70s with the Green Revolution and kept on becoming worse. Then in addition reservation is making caste Hindus angry. Conflicts in the rural areas have become sharpened, landed castes vs Dalit castes. Whatever is happening in the cities, for example Rohith's case, is just a reflection of what is happening in the rural areas. In the rural areas, it's outright violence. In the urban areas they drive you to kill yourself. They want to keep Dalits where they are needed, which is as dependent labourers in agriculture. As those circumstances are worsening, Dalits are becoming more restless, and as they become more restless, BSP has (attracted) them. I mean for the longest time they were happy to see one of them sitting on a throne wearing silk salwars and stuff like that.

But the BSP is mainly in UP, right?

I know but that is the only so-called Dalit party. So Jignesh Mevani moved into the vacuum but however militant he's sounding, even if he wants to do something he won't be able to do because what he does depends on the framework in which he's going to be working. As long as that framework exists he cannot do anything even if he wishes to.

So you don't think his existence or his representation or his victory offer any symbolic...

No. I mean the thing is these people, each time they fail they come from a different route. Congress lost the trust of Dalits, so the BSP comes; the BSP loses trust, Jignesh Mevani comes. So there is a continuous struggle of Dalits because they are prevented from realising that these things don't work. So their hope in these false things is extended by these measures. He (Mevani) may be symbolically something to them but he won't really be able to do anything.

Do you think there is a space or a need for a Dalit party per se?

No, I don't think that because the Dalit problem is not just the Dalit problem. It is the problem of the entire society not just in a rhetorical sense but caste is the central thing in India and its maintenance causes all kinds of different evils in India. You know, the women question is very much linked with caste. So the Dalit struggle is not just their struggle, it is the struggle of all oppressed people in India, all who are denied equal rights. They must participate in it. Not just somebody who follows Dalit leadership. So a Dalit party by itself won't be able to do anything.

People bring up the notion of a separate electorate for Dalits. What do you think about that?

Again it is the same as reservation, you know. If there are reserved political seats, those candidates will be propped up by the landlord caste people. They won't be running on their own. It will be them running the show behind the Dalit candidate. That is how it is everywhere if you look in the rural areas. Any Dalit in political office is a puppet of the landed caste.

Coming back to the book, you call it literary non-fiction. How did you break it down in terms of research and writing?

Right after I decided to find the origins of my family, I started recording conversations, some of them on the phone. Research was going on simultaneously. There were times that I devoted solely to research. I made at least three trips to India only for research. Those were conversations. While writing, everytime I came face to face with something like Telangana, I had to put it aside and read on Telangana. One of my agent's assistants said she had never seen so much research. She said it was a flabbergasting amount of research. And I also work and it's a hard job, so there were stretches of time when I wouldn't do anything for four months or five months. Then in the end I wrote many many drafts of the same thing depending on my mood, sometimes in a funny way, sometimes in a lyrical way. So it took a long time – literally 50-60 versions of the same thing. I had to sit and see which is the best one, and sometimes parts of it are from different versions and I had to bring them together. That took a long time.

How does your work inform your writing? Do you think it gave any kind perspective to your writing?

No. Except may be in the last section, called Afterword, that too very indirectly, like a working class point of view.

Who are the writers you enjoy reading?

I liked this book by this Icelandic writer named Halldor Laxness called Independent People. Even subject-wise it's similar. It's the poor peasants buying their independence and trying to have their own farm. It's very similar but it's fiction and it's a very big book. It's very beautifully written. And then I like Katherine Boo. There is a book called A Hindu Holiday. It's actually travel writing. Some Englishman comes to India to be the personal secretary of a small prince and it's his observations of the daily life of the court, the divan and the prince himself. It's written in a very simple language and I did unconsciously take that style. It's a very good book. I liked the simplicity of the language. He isn't treating Indians as colonial subjects, let's be kind to them. He's also not trying to be haughty, saying these people are such savages. He does it very skillfully without looking down his nose. I liked Samuel Beckett. It's not the authors I like so much as books. If I read another Samuel Beckett I wouldn’t like it.  I liked Murphy.

Do you read a lot of Telugu writing?

I did but nowadays it's not so good. It was good in the ’70s. Nothing great coming out as far as I know. There are some people writing short stories from Telangana and Rayalseema. They are very, very moving and very good short stories.

I was talking to someone who told me that this is perhaps one of the only works of this nature in English, in terms of Dalit writing from the Telugu region, the other being My Father Baliah. Do you read a lot of Dalit writing?

No. I read My Father Baliah. I read a man called Narendra Jadhav’s book, simply called Untouchable. Vasanta Mohan, was Ambedkar’s follower. I read his book. It was very good. I remember these three Dalit writings.

But it’s not a genre (of writing) that you consume in that sense? If we could call it a genre.

No...

The first wave of Dalit writing arguably was of memoirs and accounts of Dalit life. Your book comes very close to that in a sense but you also attempt to put it against a historical context. Was that intentional?

Definitely. Without that who would want to read your family story? Without trying to link it to history I don't think I would have attempted this book at all. So the main thing for me was to talk about politics and social turmoil and caste and how women are treated in India. And fortunately my family story was closely linked to these events, Independence, separate linguistic states, Naxalite movements. So those things came together. I have people whose lives intersected these phases, they were either affected or participated in it. I also come from a Dalit caste, caste being the central question of India. So all these things came together.

Was there any interest from your side of trying to document your history? You started off trying to find out the relationship between caste and religion. You’ve produced something that gives a historical context to your family as well. But when you talk about biography, memoir or family tales there are contested histories and memory is very fragile. Not everyone has the privilege to be able to document their history too far back. Certain social groups may be able to trace their genealogy further back. Is this an attempt to give your family that background and history?

No. My uncle always linked his own personal thing with society at large. When he wasn't able to pay his fees, he didn't think I should do something so that I should be able to pay the fees. He asked why is there such a thing in society. He always looked at personal things from the point of view of society. And I feel the same way even without trying. It's like I grew up like that. So I don’t think I came here (the US) and I escaped caste. I don't think that. It affects me that there are Dalits who are unable to live free and satisfied lives. I don't have any 'me, my family' kind of feeling.

Well you are quite dispassionate about the foibles of your family. How did that go down?

(Laughs) You know how Marxists say the family is a bourgeois unit? I feel that way even without consciously thinking, “Oh I am a Marxist and I should not pay much attention to this family unit, and marriage is a bourgeois institution”. It's just very innate for me. So it would be very conceited of me to say I wanted to record my family history. At a very young age, my mother decided that she would do nothing that would have to be kept a secret. So she is very very proud of her character, and chastity and all that. It's very irritating. So she is very proudly disclosing everything, “this is how I did, that is how I did”. Because this stuff, about wanting upper caste friends is not something she considers so shameful, as – let us say – if she slept with someone, so she said all of this without any hesitation. She didn't have any problem with what was written about her. I think my siblings had some trepidation like, “oh my god, what did she write?” Because of that they didn't talk about my writing or the book until they saw the NYT article. They also don't have problems. My uncle is dead, so he doesn't have any problem.

But I believe your cousins filed an injunction against the publication of the book.

Yeah, how did you hear about this?

There has been criticism of your book in certain circles in Telangana and Andhra.

(Laughs). Really? What is this?

I heard your cousins filed an injunction against the book, and (People’s War Group co-founder) Kondapalli Seetharamaiah’s granddaughters also filed a case against the book.

So this is public knowledge?

Well, it is among certain left-leaning circles. (Poet) Varavara Rao, for instance, has compiled a list of factual errors and sent them to your publisher, I gather.

So what happened is this. A translator was after me to translate the book into Telugu for the longest time, even before I found a publisher. So I recommended her to my publisher here and said ok. And then she started reading the manuscript. I referred to one of her friends in the book. So she said, “why did you say that, it's really insulting?” I would have changed it right away but she told me I was being misogynistic, it's horrible, etc etc. I am not a Dalit living in India to take a chiding from someone like that, so I got irritated. I said you're an editor and you should act in the capacity of an editor, not someone who is interested in the characters in the book. The reason I put in that reference was that I wanted to convey the atmosphere in the wake of this whole Naxalite thing. There were elite Leftists within the movement who were writing literature and experimenting with ways of life, monogamy, bourgeois relationships. So people were in that circle and were doing things to show that they don't respect bourgeois relationships, and I wanted to convey that atmosphere, how it was at the time. And suddenly they were all up in arms about that. So I said I would remove it, but not because I am wrong but as a concession to you. And she said at that time, whatever books you have already printed you must withdraw them, otherwise I will have a big international protest against your publisher. And Farrar Straus & Giroux are a very capitalist publisher, they treat things very matter-of-factly, and they don't want any bullshit like this and they have big-time lawyers so they said you can go ahead and do what you want. Then they told me, “why have all this nonsense in the next edition, let's just remove it”. So I said fine. Then I didn't want to have anything to do with her because she was bringing up some things like this. They didn't want to give it to her anymore.

Varavara Rao is a very, very big detractor of my uncle. He denounced him in very harsh terms, called him a lame horse. And so, obviously, he doesn't like that my uncle is getting some attention even after dying, especially internationally. So that's his problem.

Kondapalli Seetharamaiah’s granddaugthers wrote a letter, and before I could reply they got upset that I hadn't replied and started threatening me with defamation. That doesn't work on me. So similarly, they went to my uncle's daughters and got them to file defamation. The thing is all the language in all the complaints is the same. Obviously someone is coordinating all of this. But I don't give a shit at all. If they see a problem with it, they have a right to feel upset about some things. They have also the right to take action against it. But if you threaten me and ask me to change, I am going to dig my heels in deeper and not budge at all.

But the question of factual mistakes. Do you think that holds water?

No, not at all. The only thing that holds all water is that Varavara Rao mentions that the two youths that were hanged, Bhoomaiah and Kishta Gowda, were not tribals but from some backward caste. That is the only plausible thing that they can complain about. As you know, it's a very minor thing. All other things are, you know, facts So it doesn't really hold any water. So I am not really scared. The second thing is: as for fame and money – well, I haven't been paid yet – I have got more than I expected in life and I don't care for more sales and more fame. So if they say, “oh they win, you have to take out this stuff”. I'll say, don't take out this stuff, just don't print the books anymore.

Do you think the issue of factual inaccuracies undermines the larger story you're trying to tell? Since you are contextualising your family's journey against history.

Ok let's take that. I think the biggest thing is Seetharamaiah’s granddaughters. I said that their mother and father ran away when the Naxalite movement started in AP. They said no, they didn't run away, they were never interested in it in the first place. Neither of the parents is alive. So what they say is only a second hand thing. If I am writing, that is also a second hand thing. So how can one verify which one is true? But on my side what there is my uncle who was present. And everybody agrees.

But wasn't the meeting in 1969 and the daughter started her job in 1970?

And what's the conflict there?

Your book says Seetharamaiah did not attend the key meeting as he was accompanying his daughter and son-in-law to join duty but apparently they joined duty the year after the meeting.

She started in 1969 in Bastar and they moved to Delhi in 1970.

So you don't think these criticisms undermine the story you're trying to tell?

No, not at all. They can do whatever they want to do to prove it. I have zero fear of being exposed or anything like that. First of all, it's my word against theirs. And if there is any support it is on my side, everybody knows he (Satyamurthy) was present there. Even if he lied, because everybody says he was there, that single act adds support to my point.

The question why Satyamurthy left the party (the People’s War Group) was contested even when he was alive. He said he brought up the caste issue, but the party said he never did anything of the sort.

You can talk to Kobad Ghandy, I think he’s just got released. He has those original documents and someone called Venu in Kerala. He also has the original documents. They can find out from them.

So how did you weigh your primary sources, your mother and uncle, and take what they said and fact check with your relatives? How does that work?

As regards my mother's and uncle's stories while they were in Gudivada, I went to Gudivada, I went to the untouchable colonies. I met people from their class. Actually, even before I started talking to them they started telling me, “oh your mother did this or that”. And so I verified with them. I talked to some of her college mates, for instance, the guy who was in love with her and his brother, and classmates from that time.

How did you find all these people? Was your mother in touch with them or did you have to track them down?

That is a different story, but yeah she knew these people, where they were. And as for my uncle, I don't know. And there were certain times, I made my own judgement as to whether they were telling the truth or not.

About your father, in one of your interviews you said you were sad you had to depict him in a particular kind of way. Was that for narrative purposes, I don't know. You seem to describe him quite thoroughly but he was more than what he was in the book I guess.

Yeah, I think the reason is that I decided that this story is being told from Satyam's point of view and Manjula's point of view and I should record it as they saw it. That's why I left out his part.

Do you think it was unfair to him?

That he was physically violent to her was a fact, but we don't know what his thought processes were... those things I did not write. What I wrote about him was what people would see.

Including yourself.

Yeah. It's not about his inner life at all.

Your mother is obviously quite a remarkable person. I cannot imagine a woman from that time and that age being put on a train and sent across the country to Varanasi study in a university. Especially someone cosseted so much she was dressed in white so that her beauty would not be evident. It's like her family went from one extreme to another. So what are those things that you would see in your characterisation of her that she would not perhaps see herself in recalling these things?

I would see that she is somewhat beholden to upper caste people. I see that. My sister also sees that. My mother says that that was how she was at that time. But then she continued to be like that afterwards also. That is a contradiction. Because on the one hand she is very militantly Dalit and talks about justice but at the same time on a personal level, she tries to placate her upper caste friends.

Did you find it hard to assess people in this unflinching way?

No.

Because as you said earlier you don't really have that kind of family thing.

Yes. I really don't. (Laughs)

You too joined the movement, you agitated, you went to jail. But you don't go into too much detail about what happened to you and how you came out of it. But you remained committed to the ideology per se, even though the movement has disappointed you. How have you kept faith in the ideology if its practice was a disappointment?

Practice is the practice of that organisation not the fault of the ideology. The original goal of seeing an egalitarian society and everybody having equal access to everything. You can be somebody who is fervent about an egalitarian society, everybody lives happily but are you affected by how Congress is doing or how BJP is doing? So ideology, particularly the end goals, don't have anything to do with this particular organisation.

Can you talk about that time in prison? Like, what happened to you?

I don't want to talk too much about what has been done. But they came to my house in Kakinada and transported me to Warangal. Put me in a jail and tortured me. Kept moving me from one precinct to another. There was a time when slum people living around the precinct called my mother and told her we think they killed your daughter. And then they assigned some female cops to beat me up. The thing is the female cops were also Dalit. That really shows you, people say, “Oh police are also working class”. But without doing their job they won't have that job.

They are ultimately instruments of the State.

Exactly.

How did the experience affect the way you look at the world?

I think one reason I did keep up the ideology was because around that time the Karamchedu massacre happened. They killed Dalits. That really touched every Dalit, no matter how apolitical he considered himself till that time. It just jolted them out of whatever it was. And so right around the time I was leaving, my uncle was expelled for the caste thing. Along with him a lot of Dalit cadres came out. They said, “see no one treats us well, so we need to have our own organisation”. So their militancy was something I witnessed just before I left. Actually somebody came to the train station just before I left to give me some books. And I looked at him and thought, “my god what a betrayal, I am leaving these people here and going away”. His face stayed in my mind. Then I came here and saw how black people are treated. And then I saw these white people, anti-racist, anti-war people and said when they can be in this then why not me. So that's how it continued.

How has your engagement with Dalit issues sustained itself from abroad? Because you've talked about experiencing caste among the Indian diaspora. How often do you get to visit India?

Every year? And my mother keeps me informed.

Are there groups among the diaspora working on caste?

Yes there is Thenmozhi Soundarrajan. I know them but I don't like them.

Is there more awareness of caste among the diaspora?

Upper caste casteism is already there. The Kamma caste they do their own thing. Brahmins do their own thing. Now, thanks to BSP, Dalits are talking against Brahminism. That's all over social media, so they do read that. I think the book is also a factor in this, you know, especially because an Indian wrote a book and it's successful. So they think, “oh she wrote about caste and everyone in the world is coming to know”. So there is a bit more than before.

In California there is a group fighting to remove mention of caste from school books.

Soundarrajan is fighting that thing.

How did you sell this book to a publisher?

I understand that it is very hard for writers to find a publisher. Before I even finished I sent an email to this woman who publishes Amy Tan and she said the story has to be more fleshed out or something. At the time I was just trying to test the waters but obviously it wasn't done completely. After that I stopped trying that. After I finished, a friend of mine has a friend whose wife was friends with my agent. So this was so many people removed but none of them needed any coaxing or persuasion. They read it and said this is good and the agent had never represented any book like this. She represents fantasy and self-help or something. But there was a concerted effort and she did a good job and enough publishers were interested and Farrar Straus & Giroux grabbed it right away. They were extremely enthusiastic. It seems they never invite writers to their office but they invited me, they were very polite. In a polite manner they tried to figure out if I am genuine or not.

Do you plan to continue writing?

You know I think that anything that I write now will be a step down. For this book all things came together. Me being Dalit, my family, India's history. If I write, I will never write fiction and if I write on any subject, say farmer suicides, I need somebody who will articulately tell me their stories, so I doubt it very much. But I have a prequel already ready. My agent tells me there is a lot of interest in a sequel, that is my own story but I don't know... but the prequel is pretty much ready.

What does the prequel cover? Would it also be about your family?

Yes, about how they came out of the jungles.

About how they became entangled in the caste system?

Exactly.

I am also curious about the sequel because I realise in your interviews you are quite a private person. You don't delve much into your personal life or the circumstances of your personal life beyond your employment or family. So how would you deal with the idea of delving into your own life?

Uhhhh... I don't know how to answer this...

Would you be willing to engage in that?

That would be my story while I was growing up till I came here. There are things that are personal but I might reveal them because it would be relevant.

But you haven't made up your mind on that.

No.

But you're ready with the prequel? Would we be able to read that in the next couple of years?

Sure, definitely. I told the editor that it's time. He didn't say anything. He doesn't say anything when he has something up his sleeve.

READ: Poet Varavara Rao's letter to publishers of Ants among Elephants - An untouchable family and the making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla

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