Monday, 31 July 2017

Sujatha Gidla's 'Ants among Elephants'

What is the story behind the story Sujatha Gidla tells us in 'Ants among Elephants'?

In order to tell ourselves that story we have to ask about her 'vrata' and therefore 'varna'- her vocation and therefore the colour of her collar. 

Was she a rocket scientist whose wings were clipped by the Wall Street crash?
A budding FinTech maven forced to don the uniform of a subway car conductor?

Is literature- that too the mythologising literature of the emigre seeking to recover a parochial family history already much eroded by the collapsing fabric of an abandoned motherland-  her substitute for something mathematical and arcane which has to do with the book-keeping of giant Corporations operating in Global Markets? 

Or is what we have here a simple, eusebiac, exercise in filial piety?
A touching tribute to the great woman who gave birth to her and brought her up?
Of one thing we can be certain.
Like V.S Naipaul, Sujatha Gidla comes from a very gifted family.
Her theme is similar.

Naipaul, in Trinidad, wondered why the Hindu is inferior to the Brown Christian who in turn is inferior to the urban 'Blacks' whose ancestors, as Sir Edward Cust had noticed, were too smart and solicitous of a better future for their children, to remain as simple cane cutters in the countryside. Cust pays lip service to the High Church notion that Christianity might reconcile the ex-slave to servitude. But he repeatedly lets slip the fact that Black West Indians had a thorough grasp of the  principles of the Christian Religion and were determined to rise up by its lights. Cust is disparaging of the Indian coolie brought in under articles of indenture. Their physique is unimpressive, their features unprepossessing; still, they are merely Hindu and thus incapable of emulating the superior rationality and self-confidence of the African origin ex-slaves who were quitting the plantations in droves.

Gidla, a Telugu speaking Mala Christian, whose parents were lecturers, faced the opposite situation when growing up. To her it seemed that the Hindus were superior to the Christians. However, in reality, this had to do with two quite different things- firstly, Caste prejudice against 'Untouchability', which she mentions openly and secondly something more damaging and invidious which reveals itself over the course of her narrative. The fact is, some of the menfolk in her family, though very bright, had developed some unfortunate habits or predilections of a type once in vogue amongst antinomian 'Dalit Panther' poets and the artistic milieu which sustained them. 

This meant that some women connected to the family may have been exposed to predatory behaviour. The author mentions two of her aunts as both having an irregular connection with the same 'bowlegged, cross-eyed, drooly-mouthed Hindu man'.  For a young girl growing up in a small town, this meant not just humiliation but fear of an every present and existential sort. It is astounding that Sujatha did so well at school as to secure admission at a prestigious Engineering College. Indeed, her scholastic success- she later did Research connected with the Indian Space Program at IIT Madras- would be noteworthy even if she had been born in America or Europe.

However, it is only recently that the intellectual success of women has brought them security and respect. Even now, in some small towns, it is the conduct of the men of the family which determines status. For reasons I have hinted at, it appears her family did not have the social standing which was their due, by reason of their superior intellect and attainments, within the Christian Community in Andhra Pradesh. That community has risen up over the last two decades by its own efforts. But, it is superior adherence to conventional morality, not some Naxal nostrum, that has enabled these pious and thrifty people to rise up and contribute so much to Society.

Sujatha, following her mother's lead, took pride in her very poetically gifted maternal uncle who was a Maoist and thus spent periods underground. In other words, the family- more especially the girls- would have felt menaced by the Police and Paramilitary outfits as well as by the goons commanded by local bigwigs associated in one way or another with the ruling party. As I say, what Sujatha accomplished, what her mother accomplished, was extraordinary in itself. Yet something more extraordinary yet was to come out of Sujatha's research into this Uncle of hers. We now have a book that we can put on a par with Naipaul's 'House for Mr. Biswas' while being its polar opposite. The two books illumine each other. Do they also cancel each other out? Perhaps. Let us see.

Sujatha, a physics student, comes to the great question of Sociology by way of her encounter with a 'High Caste' Syrian Christian girl, Jessie, from Kerala.

After Regional Engineering College I went to yet another citadel of engineering education. I went to Madras to attend the Indian Institute of Technology. IITs are the most elite, most cosmopolitan technical institutions in India, the Indian equivalents of MIT and Caltech. I was a research associate in the department of applied physics working on a project funded by the Indian Space Research Organisation.
In the ladies’ hostel, my eyes were dazzled by the sight of the other girls. They were all so beautiful, rich, happy, charming, high-class. I felt as if I were surrounded by movie heroines, but with brains. And in the hostel I saw many more of those elusive superior Christians.
One thing I noticed quickly: they all came from the southern state of Kerala. That movie I had seen, I found out later, had been made in Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala, and dubbed into my own native language of Telugu.
These Kerala Christian girls lived in the same wing of the hostel as me.
Jessie’s beauty was otherworldly. She was always flanked by two brahmin girls, her loyal sidekicks.

Supriya Abraham, when she descended to the ground floor to go to the mess, was like a star from the sky deigning to visit the earth.
The brahmin boys who fawned over these Christian girls would look at me in disgust. In my town, Christian girls were called crows, pigs, scavengers. One boy in my neighborhood used to call me and my sister “shit lilies.”
I wanted to make friends with these Keralites. Wasn’t I a Christian like them? But they shunned me just as any Hindu would. I was deeply hurt, more deeply than when it happened with the Hindus.
But I was determined to find out why I was different. Jessie was kind, one of the only girls who would talk to me. Her room and my room were on the same floor. I tagged along with her to church even though by then I already didn’t give a damn about God.
I asked to see photos of Jessie’s family. They were obviously wealthy. I started probing, asking questions. Jessie explained, “We are brahmins.” She told me her family came from a brahmin caste in Kerala called Nambudiris. Nambudiris are so high in rank that they look down on all other brahmins.
“Why did you become Christian?”
She explained that among the Nambudiris, in ancient times, the eldest son inherited all the property, and only he was allowed to marry. The rest of the sons inherited nothing and had to find lower-caste mistresses or remain celibate.
When Jesus’ disciple Thomas traveled to Kerala, some disgruntled younger Nambudiri sons left Hinduism altogether and were baptized by Thomas.
“So we are brahmin Christians,” Jessie told me.
But I refused to believe her. Is that all it took? Some Christians decide to claim brahmin heritage and everyone believes it? It was too far-fetched. When I came to America, I met more Kerala Christians. By this time I was brazen. Every time I met one, my first question would be “How come you have high social status whereas we don’t?” They all told me the same story: they were brahmins converted by Saint Thomas. “When?”

“Fifty-two AD.”
So what is the relation between religion and caste? Between caste and social status? Between social status and wealth? Between wealth and caste? I thought about these things incessantly.
I decided to find out how my family became Christians. I called my mother. That was when she began to tell me the story of our ancestors.
What is happening here? Why does Sujatha not mention the fact that Syrian Christians tend to be fairer skinned & have 'sharper' features than people like me or her whose genes owe more to the 'Ancestral South Indian population' and less to Eurasian pastoralists or iron age agriculturalists?

 Put more simply, migrants have tended to do better than indigenous populations. Those who arrived last- this includes smart people like Sujatha who emigrated to the States quite recently- often work harder or show greater entrepreneurial skill or scope and thus end up as an envied 'upper class'. The travails of Dr. Devyani Khobragade  are a case in point. She, like Sujatha, came from an educated Dalit family- albeit Buddhist, not Christian. Their original castes were commensurable- Khobragade came from the Mahar caste of Dr. Ambedkar while Sujatha was a Mala. These are dominant, ritually higher, castes within the Scheduled Caste fold and tend to monopolise the benefits of affirmative action. Khobragade, a diplomat accredited to the U.N in New York was accused of enslaving a Christian woman of higher caste and subjected to a humiliating strip search by the authorities. India asserted Diplomatic Immunity and kicked up a fuss. Otherwise the lady- a medical doctor- might have faced jail time. This happened four years ago, when Sujatha herself, having been squeezed out of well paid work in Finance by the sub-prime crisis, was more humbly employed on the New York subway system. At the time, the victimisation of Khobragade seemed to play well with indigenous New Yorkers envious of the prosperity of highly educated immigrants from South Asia and elsewhere.

Sujatha's ancestors had moved from one religion to another and, having acquired 'cultural capital' were able to move up the occupational ladder. This by itself made them more likely to migrate geographically. Once they did so, their social status changed for the better- if that is what they wanted. However, migration is not always frictionless. It is an irony of the Telengana movement that it targeted Andhras occupying well paid jobs, like Sujatha's uncle. This pushed him down the path of an even greater, but wholly irreal, radicalism. He might have been shot as many of his ilk were shot. He might have become rich as some of his comrades did. In the end he did neither but simply added noise to signal.

Why did Indian Christians not do particularly well under the British- save in 'first order' professions like Teaching or Medicine? We know the answer to that. India was administered according to immemorial Indian custom. The Raj sought to coopt existing 'elites' so that what Dadhabhai Naoroji called 'shakkar ki churi', the knife of sugar, could cut and cut while everything seemed sweet as sweet.

Socialistic policies did the Dalit Christian no favours. A few of exceptional ability- like Sujatha- did rise up but the mass of the productive populace, more especially in rural areas, saw no corresponding improvement in their own life-chances. Naxalism proved a false God- it turned out to be a Casteist gangsterism. Dalits were expected to do the dirty jobs and supply cannon fodder.  But caste based radicalism of a literary sort- with its dreary distinction between alethic 'crow' poets and hypocritical 'nightingale' poets- did not Épater la bourgeoisie at all but, rather, confirmed middle class stereotypes. Antinomianism is all very well for Aristocrats. A drunken helot is all the more a helot for being drunk. As for sleeping with high caste girls- well, someone has to and perhaps the lower classes are inured to insanitary tasks.

In the end, Sujatha's Uncle said, his life became 'a terrible joke'.

Meanwhile, with economic liberalisation, things began to change for the productive classes. Corrupt caste based Politicians and a gerontocratic 'Left Liberal' Academia fought a rearguard action. For those, like Sujatha, who had emigrated, memory became a barzakh, a limbo populated by phantoms; to try to write the story of how one had come to be meant quitting the world one still shared with one's peers in order to populate an 'antarabhava', a liminal state, suspended between two worlds, one wholly Mythological and Manichean, which couldn't die because it never existed, and one purely Normative or Notional and thus powerless to be born.

Sujatha, wisely, has chosen to write in a naive style. Perhaps she is genuinely naive. But, like Kipling, but, unlike Rushdie or Roy, she 'shows more than she knows'. Why? She is attracted to poetry but poetry is just another word for work. But work is what Physicists study. Forces may be unified by some grand theory, distances may have some hidden and paradoxical metric. While all else abides our question, Work is free.

My uncle Satyamurthy, who was also known as SM or Satyam, was a principal founder in the early seventies of a Maoist guerrilla group recently declared by the government to be the single greatest threat to India’s security. But the story of his political awakening began much earlier, when India was still under British colonial rule.
In August 1942 Gandhi called on the British to “quit India.” Gandhi had been a principal leader of the nationalist agitation for more than two decades. Never in all that time had he taken such a militant tone.
Now that it seemed as if something was finally going to come of all the talk Satyam, eleven years old at the time, had been hearing, he embraced the nationalist cause. For over two hundred years, the British had ruled his country and stolen its vast wealth. Freedom from that rule would naturally change everything, including his family’s situation. He had heard that the white lords lived in bungalows, ate bread they sliced with knives, and wiped their mouths with cloth. When they left, surely all Indians could live like that.
Gandhi called for “open rebellion” to back up his demand. The Indian people had been waiting for such a call. But they did not heed Gandhi’s strictures to keep the struggle nonviolent. When British troops fired on protesters, they fought back. Young activists attacked police stations, cut telegraph lines, burned post offices, derailed trains carrying war supplies.
He had heard that the white lords lived in bungalows, ate bread they sliced with knives, and wiped their mouths with cloth. When they left, surely all Indians could live like that.

Satyam longed to take part in these acts of rebellion. He searched high and low for those daring heroes. But alas, within twenty-four hours of Gandhi’s speech, all known supporters had been locked up.
Gandhi, in prison himself, deplored the destruction. He relied on the threat of mass resistance to weaken the British hold on power and persuade them to hand it over to native elites. But the last thing he wanted was for the masses to arm themselves and take power in their own hands.
When Gandhi called off the Quit India Movement, Satyam lost respect for him. Satyam dreamed of contributing his own blows against the empire. At times he felt his body had been taken over by the ghost of Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary anti-imperialist martyr hanged by the British. Satyam scrawled “Quit India!” inside abandoned buildings and defiantly walked on railway tracks, which was forbidden in those days out of fear of sabotage.
Despite his disillusionment with Gandhi, Satyam was not drawn to his main rivals, the Communists, because they did not join the Quit India Movement. Satyam asked his Communist neighbor why not. The boy explained,
“We must support the British in the war. They are allies with U.S.S.R.”
“But why should we care about U.S.S.R.?”
“Because it is the country for all poor people in the world.”
Satyam wasn’t convinced. His family was poor and so were all his neighbors. Because of this poverty his mother had died, and his father had gone away. Everyone said it was the white lords who were looting India of its wealth and impoverishing the country.
Satyam supported Congress, the political party allied with Gandhi at the forefront of the nationalist cause, because it opposed the British. But his hero wasn’t Gandhi; it was Subhas Chandra Bose, who had led a militant faction in the Congress. Unlike Gandhi, Bose held that the British could not be pressured to leave India willingly but had to be forced out. To this end, he sought help from Britain’s imperialist rivals: Nazi Germany and Japan. He raised an army in Singapore—the Indian National Army—to liberate the subcontinent. He would later die in a plane crash before his plans could be realized. But he remained an idol to the restive Indian masses.
Satyam bought a cheap, mass-produced portrait of Bose in the bazaar. One night he and Carey snuck into Satyam’s classroom and tacked it on the blackboard. This was Satyam’s act of sedition.
The next morning, the teacher demanded to know who was responsible. Satyam kept quiet. “Whoever it was,” the teacher announced, “I salute you! I am proud to be your teacher.” In those times, even some teachers in government schools were brave enough to express nationalist sympathies.
But the repression of the Quit India Movement meant Congress activists were lying low. It took Satyam a long time to find any. When he finally met them, it was by sheer chance.
Since barber-caste people will not touch untouchable hair, Satyam went to a “Christ barber”: a Christian trained in haircutting by the missionaries to serve their fellow untouchables. But the Christ barbers were not professionals. They cut hair in their spare time, working for free and without proper equipment. Satyam was tired of being ridiculed by his classmates for his poorly cut hair.
A caste friend from school insisted on taking him to his own barber, Veeraswami. Veeraswami, a fervent nationalist, believed all Indians, caste and outcaste, must come together to fight the British. Satyam had finally met a bona fide activist. Veeraswami not only cut Satyam’s hair, he gave him political lessons and kept him supplied with seditious reading material. As young as Satyam was, Veeraswami talked with him seriously and introduced him to the like-minded people who congregated in Veeraswami’s shop.
After World War II ended in 1945, the Labour Party came to power in Britain. The new government recognized that it was no longer possible to maintain direct colonial rule over the subcontinent. The best hope for protecting British interests there lay in transferring power to the Congress Party. The political prisoners rounded up during the Quit India agitation were released (except for Communists), and elections to form native governments in the provinces were announced. The British viceroy would stay in power in the center for the time being.
A short, chubby boy had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?”

In preparation for these elections, Congress held their own elections for party leadership. Satyam, now fourteen years old, was voted treasurer of the Gudivada Youth Congress. He was the only untouchable to hold office on the town committee.
When his Congress friends came to see him in the home his grandmother had recently purchased in the new untouchable colony of Slatter Peta, she proudly referred to him as “ma Jawallalu” (our Nehru). His siblings idolized him, bragged about him to their friends, and made all his ideas their own.
In his final year of high school, Satyam led a student strike. The strike demanded an end to the “detention system” that required graduating students to pass an exam at their own school before they’d be allowed to sit for statewide final exams some two months later. The policy was seen by students and parents alike as unfair and oppressive. When agitation against it broke out across the state, Satyam led the struggle in Gudivada. He gave the strike a political character, turning it into a protest against British rule.
He stole his father’s military shirt to dress up a straw effigy of imperialism that the students set on fire in the center of town. The strike lasted a month before the government gave in and abolished the detention system. It was a sign that the old colonial structure was giving way.

At midnight on August 15, 1947, India’s Independence Day, the day that Satyam had been dreaming of these last five years came at last. He could not sleep that night. In the morning he washed up carefully and put on his best clothes. He left his room early, not wanting to miss anything. Students from colleges all over the district, joined by thousands of municipal workers, thronged to take part in the celebration on his campus. The crowds swelled like a river in monsoon.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, the students and workers sang in one voice:

A different world,
a different world is calling us.
As he joined in the singing, Satyam’s eyes filled with tears. British rule was over, but the real work of independence still lay ahead. “They are leaving,” he thought. “But we will have to build this nation.”
In their speeches the politicians, intellectuals, and trade-union leaders all talked of bhavi bharata pourulu—“future citizens of India.” Who were they? They were him. Young men such as himself.
The celebrations went on all day. As he watched the dances and dramas and competitions, Satyam realized that in all those crowds of students, he knew no one well enough to talk to. They were all dressed in their best, and what a difference there was between his best and everyone else’s. The girls wore fine saris and the boys all had on nice Western shirts and trousers. Beside them, in his white cotton lalchi (a traditional men’s shirt) and pyjama, Satyam looked out of place.
For weeks he had worked side by side with the other students, day and night, to help prepare these celebrations. But the solidarity he had felt was no more. Now that the common enemy was defeated, the differences between him and the other students came to the fore. He noticed he was not included in any of the performances.
The difference between his family and the rest of the untouchable community was small. They were all ants. But now Satyam was an ant among elephants.

The celebrations continued into the evening. The program included a fancy-dress contest. A girl dressed up as a Lambadi—a member of an impoverished tribe in Andhra whose traditional costumes are remarkably colorful and ornate—won the first prize. “Would a real Lambadi woman get this admiration?” Satyam asked himself as the girl—the darling daughter of a rich Hindu family—got up before the applauding crowd to receive her prize.
As he looked on, a short, chubby boy Satyam had never before seen came up to him and introduced himself. He had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?”

Some years later, Satyam began studying at the prestigious A.C. College in Guntur. But when his father’s rising debts sank the family into deep poverty, Satyam no longer had money to pay for college. He was in a painful predicament. He knew no one at A.C. College, no one in the entire city of Guntur, whom he could turn to for help. He did not pay the mess bill for July. He was given a month’s time, but when he failed to pay the following month, the administration added his name to the list of delinquent students posted at the entrance of the mess hall for all the world to see. To avoid running into his classmates he started going to the mess just before it closed, after everyone else had left. Even then, every time he walked in, the manager would look at him as though to say, “You don’t pay bills and you show up to eat?” Satyam skipped meals as often as he could.
Poverty was nothing new to him. All his life he had been poor. In Slatter Peta the difference between his family and the rest of the untouchable community was small. They were all ants. It mattered little if one was a bit bigger than the others. But here at A.C. College, Satyam was an ant among elephants.
No other student was in his situation. He suffered from hunger, but even more from loneliness and shame.
Now Satyam was all alone in a strange town with no one to ask for help. His family had made a mistake in sending him to A.C. College. They had been greedy. They wanted too much for their own good.
Satyam was ashamed that his classmates might have seen his name posted at the entrance of the mess hall. He had no money for books or lab records or term fees or exam fees. He couldn’t afford to dress the way students were supposed to, in shirt and pants. The strap of his thongs was broken and secured by a safety pin that kept coming undone. So he stopped going to classes.
A nation is not the soil. A nation is the people.

With nothing better to do, he started reading newspapers at the college library. After finishing the papers, he would wander into the stacks.
The A.C. College library, located above the lecture hall, had a large collection of Telugu literature. Satyam had never been particularly interested in Telugu literature. What he had seen of it in his high school textbooks had bored him. Classical Telugu poetry was of two kinds: puranas (mythological poems in praise of the gods) and prabandhas (courtly poems in praise of the rulers). They were written in a highly formal dialect that borrowed heavily from Sanskrit. To most Telugu speakers, including Satyam, it was all but unintelligible.
While looking through the stacks in A.C. College library, Satyam discovered a new kind of poetry that took as its subject matter neither gods nor rulers. It was about ordinary people and contemporary life. The verse, Satyam found, was free of the strict and complicated metrical rules that marked the older forms. The language was modern colloquial Telugu, easy to understand and yet beautiful. Satyam read the Navayuga Vythalikulu (Harbingers of the New Era) anthology of Muddu Krishnudu. It was the first anthology he had ever seen, a selection of modern Telugu verse.
Much of it was love poetry. Reading it, Satyam felt new sensations stir inside him.
He went on to read every modern poem in the library. Poems by Joshua, Devulapalli, Nandoori, Duvvoori, Thripuraneni, Karunasree, Gurajada. These were pioneers of navya sahityam, “new literature,” as the movement he had chanced upon was called. While on the floor beneath him lecturers lectured and students studied, Satyam read. He read eda-peda (left and right). He learned to hide in the library when it closed at night and even slept there sometimes.
The father of navya sahityam was Gurajada. His most famous poem was one he wrote in 1910 called “Love Thy Country.” Two lines in this poem had a great impact on the political consciousness of Telugu speakers:

A nation is not the soil.
A nation is the people.
Two simple lines and yet so powerful. It was as though Gurajada was explaining what a nation was to the many for whom this was a modern and abstract notion. These two lines followed Satyam wherever he went.
I don't know if Sujatha is a good writer or a bad writer. Since she is writing in English, that question is not for me to decide. However, this is good 'Indglish'- because the Telugu behind it is good Telugu. Well, at least, for older people like me. Actually, that isn't true. Mahakavi Sri Sri shat that bed when I was still in short pants. Still, there was a time when, as Sujatha says, Gurazada's works were actually appropriable by workers so a new type of Work might commence.

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