How to defeat a rogue nation? Find a bigger thug
That is the meaning of every Dalit migration and conversion—a quest for a force that can stare India down
One stormy night, when Sujatha Gidla was a little girl, the head of a snake appeared under the door of her home. There was just the snake’s head, the rest of its body had been consumed by some animal. The head, as she remembers, slithered across the floor, leaving a trail of blood. On another day, some boys spun tops on her head, drilling holes in her scalp. On another day, an adolescent neighbour showed her his erect penis and she thought the swelling must hurt him, the reason why he was asking her to massage it.
These are, by the standards of her childhood, the unremarkable parts of her life. For she was a Dalit girl, and almost every day was surreal as India tried to convince her that she was not only a civilizational outcast but probably a different species.
In her youth, she joined a band of Communists. Not the type who eat salad, but those malnourished types who eat bananas and walk on thinning rubber slippers and dream of overthrowing the Indian state. Even though she did not do anything criminal, she was arrested and beaten in police custody with sticks and ropes, and pins were stuck into her nails. In return for all this, India asked her for love. But then some Indians can see clearly that patriotism, like morality, ethics, values and decorum, is nothing more than the leash of the upper castes to control the rest.
Gidla, though, was actually fortunate. “My family is the top 2% of the untouchables,” she told me when I was in conversation with her at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January. Her parents were graduates and even though they were poor, their education offered her a slim chance. She joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, as a research assistant, and, later, about 18 years ago, when she was 26, she fled to the US.
Her memoir, which is a private history of a Dalit family, was published last year. Ants Among Elephants does not bother to pay the mandatory obeisance to B.R. Ambedkar. The hero is her uncle, K.G. Satyamurthy, who once wished to overthrow the Indian state through armed struggle, and co-founded the People’s War Group. He somehow escaped unnatural and torturous death, and died an old man, of natural causes, in 2012. There was the light of political genius in him and those who saw it early were women. In an extraordinary scene in Gidla’s account of his youth, a beautiful Christian upper-caste girl who was smitten by him drew him to her house when nobody was around but she made him come in through the back door because he was “an untouchable”.
Ants Among Elephants pushes the grand historic events to the backdrop, and shows the lives and minds of the wretched. A man battered by thugs walks bleeding to a shop, buys a soda and slowly lights a cigarette; a husband invites his wife, very fondly, to sit on the bed with him and asks if they must commit suicide to escape debt; a band of Communists who march somewhere to liberate the poor are interrupted by a landlord who complains that among them is his slave, whom he wants back for the day’s work (and the Communists give the slave back); a malnourished Andhra Dalit girl’s blood freezes, breath stops and brain goes “numb” when she watches a Malayalam film in which all the rich and the upper-caste are Christian and the poor underdogs are Brahmin; a humanitarian activist who keeps lamenting the rape of women because it excites him; a Dalit man whose great hope is to liberate a prostitute and marry her.
But through it all, Gidla shows what actually matters when your nation is incompetent, and society, cruel—family. As she tells this story, we see a way of life that most of us know nothing about. She shows, for instance, how important the pig is to a Dalit wedding feast, how on its final day it is chased by naked youth until it falls down exhausted (slaughter will waste blood); and how the pig is so fattened, its neck so thick, it never sees the sky in its life until its final moment, when it is strung to be roasted. And finally, about the historic Dalit love for pig’s meat, she says, “the cheapest meat for the cheapest man on earth”.
How does the “cheapest man” defeat his rogue nation? By finding a bigger thug than his nation.
That is the meaning of Gidla’s flight to the US—to a bigger syndicate than the Indian state. And that is the meaning of every Dalit conversion to Christianity, and romance with communism and revolution—a quest for a force that can stare India down.
The West is such a force but none of the domestic movements could destroy India from within. The armed Communist movements, for instance, were doomed because most of the cadre comprised just regular folks with no criminality in them. In a scene in Ants Among Elephants, a band of new Naxalites barges into a rich man’s house and asks for keys to the safe. The man absurdly claims he has forgotten where he has kept it. A child in the house begins to cry and a bandit scoops up the baby to comfort it. “Shhh, shhh. This class war is not against you.” Seeing this moment of weakness, the household raises cries for help; the neighbours arrive, but the Naxalites persuade them to go bring something to break open the safe. The neighbours then arrive with axes and spades. It has to be among the most confused burglaries of all time.
The Dalit war against India is not always about winning. Most days, India is unbeatable. So, often it is about losing gracefully.
India wins like oppressors win. Through co-option. It dug the hole, put some people there, then, many centuries later, placed a ladder. The thing about the social ladder is that it is usually placed by the same force that dug the hole.
The only liberation for the victims then is through the imitation of their oppressors in areas where the upper classes hold all the cards. Gidla herself imitated the intellectual aspirations of the upper castes and became yet another Indian who was something in “IT” in the US. But then, she told me, she did not have “the caste networks” to survive too long. “I didn’t fit into IT because it was filled with upper-caste Indians,” she said. And in the lay-offs of 2009, she lost her job. “At that point, I became a conductor (in the New York subway system).” She found the idea of a working-class job romantic and true to her Marxist ideals.
India’s Dalit anti-nationalism started the moment Indian nationalism began to form. Many intelligent Dalits did not see why they must be part of the freedom struggle, when it was from Hindus that they needed freedom. “If we drive the white devil out, the Hindu devils will massacre us,” says an ancestor of Gidla in her book. But in the end, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress co-opted them all. Eventually, when they were disappointed by free India, they were co-opted by Russia. “Because it is the country for all the poor people in the world,” a man says in the book.
Many years later, when Indian Communist intellectuals had a dispute, the two factions would go all the way to Russia to ask Joseph Stalin to resolve it (which he did, according to them). And for all their hatred of the upper castes, Gidla points out that the great romantic aspiration of Dalit men of a time was to marry the orphaned Brahmin girls who were once abandoned on the doorsteps of Christian missionaries.
But there has been no greater force of co-option than the myth of formal education. Generations of Dalits saw in it a way to escape poverty, but they were also, inescapably, toeing the line. After Gidla’s mother, Manjula, graduated, she went to the home of her teacher, a Brahmin. She did not even attempt to enter his house for he would not have let her in. She stood outside on the road and thanked him. “Sir, without you pushing me hard...” Manjula’s personality, as captured by her daughter, is the story of the brightest Dalits India has ever produced—“she coupled rebellion with obeisance”.
But the most powerful way in which India co-opted the Dalits was to make them racist themselves. There are scores of sub-castes within the Dalit community and the top castes among them treat the lowest of the low, the scavengers, for instance, the way the upper castes treat the Dalits. The movements that were meant to liberate the Dalits themselves practised caste. The Naxalites and the Maoists and other armed wings of the Communist movement did not hand over guns to “the untouchables”, but brooms. “...When members were recruited, they were assigned duties according to their caste. Barber-caste members were told to shave their comrades’s chins, and washer-caste members to wash their comrades’ clothes. Untouchables, of course, were made to sweep and mop the floors and clean the lavatories.”
What patriots do not realize is that it is easier to be a nationalist than an anti-national, even for a Dalit. It is very confusing to fight India. India is at once kind and cruel, its politics is at once the revenge of the poor and the oligarchy of the rich.
Even so, Gidla shows no affection for India. “This is the place that shaped my personality but...that’s about it,” she told me. But then she did manage to educate herself and escape. India must have done something right.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets at @manujosephsan