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Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India - Sujatha Gidla

This is a fascinating family history: the author, who was born an untouchable in India, writes primarily a biography of her uncle and her mother, focusing on their young lives. This family had hard lives, despite being better-educated than most people of their caste; even while working as college lecturers, they barely made enough to live on, lived in poor housing and dealt with a lot of family strife. Satyam, the oldest son, who gets most of the page time here, became a communist and spent most of his life fighting for that cause, while Manjula, the daughter of the family, collected several degrees before entering into an arranged marriage. They face a lot of struggles in their lives but never become the simple victims common in fiction; they are always moving forward, making their own decisions in life.

I’m a little surprised to see that many reviewers have struggled with this book; to me it seemed written in the standard style of popular nonfiction, straightforward but vivid. The story is presented from the perspectives of Satyam and Manjula, without spending much time filling readers in on the historical background or questioning the reliability of their memories (though interviews with others allow Gidla to fill in information they didn’t know at the time), but that’s standard for family memoirs. My biggest criticism is that it wraps up very abruptly at the end, briefly summarizing the next several decades; it was unclear to me why the author stopped where she did. The book is a good length overall, but I would have loved to read more about the author herself, especially after the glimpses of her life at the beginning and end. Definitely a book I would recommend to those interested in India, and in what life at the bottom is like from a firsthand perspective.