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

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  1,958 ratings  ·  323 reviews
The stunning true story of an untouchable family who become teachers, and one, a poet and revolutionary

Like one in six people in India, Sujatha Gidla was born an untouchable. While most untouchables are illiterate, her family was educated by Canadian missionaries in the 1930s, making it possible for Gidla to attend elite schools and move to America at the age of twenty-six
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published July 18th 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Greg Watson
Jul 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ants Among Elephants provides a window into Indian village life and the history of modern India. In part, Sujatha Gidla's account belongs to history. Other aspects of the book are part of the India of today.

In rural India depicted in the book, protecting the family honor is a priority. The family arranges marriages. Marrying against the wishes of the family is taboo. In public, young women avoid smiling or noticeably looking at men who aren't family members. Brothers will violently respond to a
Nandakishore Mridula
This is not a five-star book by my usual standards. Yet I am giving it the full rating... because it opened a window to a life which I can never imagine living.

Sujatha Gidla is my age. While I was living my pampered life as the young member of an upper-caste, upper class family in Kerala (my only worry being whether I would be able to buy all the books I wanted with my pocket money) she was living in a Dalit colony in nearby Andhra, malnourished, surrounded by filth, her body racked with disease
I wavered between 3 and 4 stars, so went with 3.5 stars rounded up. But what the hell do stars matter, in the end. I would recommend this book to anyone, and especially so if you want to learn about the ingrained brutality and injustice of the caste system in India. It's also a great look at radical politics and the social values that continue to trip up revolutionary movements (casteism, patriarchy, bourgeois leaders). I found it incredibly illuminating, and the sections about what women in par ...more
As an American English reader with an admittedly limited background in Indian history and culture, I found this book hard to read. That said, I learned a lot from it and would recommend it to people who are interested in learning about the ways that caste continues to operate in Indian society, and the history of the development of Marxist/Communist politics in India in the 1950's and 60's. This book is pretty imperfect from the perspective of both family memoir and political history, but what i ...more
Pond skater
Aug 08, 2017 rated it really liked it

This is a stunning biography of an untouchable family involved in the Naxalite insurgency in 1940-70's India. The author's uncle was a leader in this revolutionary movement and the author herself, now working as a subway conductor in New York City, was a student agitator in her youth, who was imprisoned and tortured at the age of nineteen. After interviewing her family members, she's written a portrait of their lives, their harrowing poverty and their decision to join the commun
Arthi Jayaraman
Sep 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book is a difficult read for a practicing Hindu. I felt guilty all through its 300 odd pages. But the story is not about that guilt. It's far far more important. What it means to be an untouchable in India. Sujata Gidla writes factual prose. The emotions are there, layered throughout. The passion for the communist cause that runs through the family and their differing perspectives on caste & class are educational. Please do read this book. I can't say I completely understand what it meant a ...more
Aug 20, 2017 rated it it was ok
Perhaps I had the wrong impression of what this book was about, I had thought it was about how an untouchable family rose above odds and stigma to 'rise like elephants' and achieve success in life despite obstacles; but found instead a very boring political book about family joining in, and rise of the communist party in India and all the things wrong with congress party. 300+ pages of this. Gidla could really had written a more inspiring book, maybe even about herself and how she pulled out of ...more
Aug 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
A better formatted of this review is available at
"Your life is your caste, your caste is your life."
Sujatha Gidla was born a Dalit-Christian - an untouchable. She had to move to a different country, the USA, to realize the unfairness of her life in India. Her opening lines in Ants Among Elephants are "My stories, my family's stories, were not stories in India. They were just life". I can relate to this; moving to Qatar taught me that I had been on the nic
Sep 03, 2017 rated it it was ok
The word that kept coming to mind while reading this book was chaos--unbelievable chaos in the lives of those depicted, but also in the writing. Fascinating subject bogged down by style. Glossary and family tree would have been helpful.
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
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 ...more
Jul 02, 2020 rated it did not like it
Aamil Syed
Sujatha Gidla has written a stellar account of the life of her mother and 2 uncles. I can't imagine the work she must have done to compile these extraordinary stories into such a readable and coherent format. The exploits of her mother and uncles are so fantastic that for a good while in the book, I felt as if I was reading a fictional account!

I never expected when picking up this book, that I was also going to read about the communist party of India, it's various flavours and certainly not abou
Sep 09, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
I read the preview on google books and was very interested. However, I realized it is not exactly what I expected from the preview and also not what I expected from the title.

I was hoping to see more about the family's struggle through generations, getting educated, what happened to the group of relatives who remained on the other side without education or christianity, how their lives changed with "modern India" etc. I did not find any of that. Most of the second half of the book felt extremel
“Ants among Elephants’ is an account of the travails of Gidla’s family (her uncles and mother being the principal characters) during the early 50s and 60s in India. The hardships of growing up as Dalits, the ostracization, love affairs and their involvement with the radical Communist movement get covered here. It was interesting to see the perspective of the Communist movement vis-à-vis the Congress’ during the 60s especially when the language movement was at its heights. It was also interesting ...more
Sanjay Varma
Aug 30, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
I'm gonna have to stop without finishing. The lack of context and historical research makes it feel almost damaging to read this book.

The narrative voice reminded me of "The Warmth of Other Suns." It presents a person's life in a simple childlike tone, with no subtlety or complexity. The life events are quite melodramatic. It started off interesting as a history of Telangana, Hyderabad, and Andra Pradesh. Then the book devolved into badly told biographical anecdotes. The author claims that Comm
Sarah Afraz
Sep 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
After two months, I did put it down. This isn't a book, as much as a lived account of a Dalit. While it's naked prose is beautiful, it needn't have to be. Nor did it have to be tightly edited or contextualise (well, maybe a little). It's ending, in fact, just tapers off. It needs to be more widely read in India because it is so easy to forget what we allow to fester. I understand that this book may not raise the passions of everyone who reads it. To me, though, this is the most scorching book I' ...more
Nallasivan V.
Jun 30, 2020 rated it really liked it
Compelling read. Though it is just a memoir of a family, concentrating mostly on five or six people, it covers a long narrative of multiple strands of history: untouchability and caste in independent India, peasant struggle and communist/Maoist history in South India.
Oct 04, 2017 rated it did not like it
Disjointed. Gave up. Rarely happens to me.
Jan 23, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, nonfiction
The realities of life were eye-opening and interesting but overall the telling was somewhat disjointed.
Morgan Cannon
Feb 26, 2019 rated it it was ok
A little politically dense and hard to follow as a pleasure read, but very insightful to the caste system and life as a lower caste in India
Dec 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was widely featured in a number of articles about upcoming Indian authors and books that one should read. The premise and the description made me curious and the rave reviews that it has received in India and abroad convinced me to give it a go.

In this book, the author compiles and presents the events and circumstances surrounding her family and the individuals in it. The stories are painstakingly gathered by her over a course of extensive talks that she has with the surviving members
Jun 09, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the most important books on caste anyone can read. Gidla writes to know her family's history and to also offer an alternative history of India, one where the glorious achievements that history textbooks celebrate is seen as being built on violence on its own citizens, one where Nehru, Gandhi, are shown to be violent oppressors, to liberators of a nation, one where the reader is made to question what democracy truly means if we can't even consider all people equal. To all those who say tha ...more
Jan 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: btb
My book group's February selection was Sujatha Gidla's novel Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India. I was excited to read this book because it was outside my typical "Anglo/Euro/western history realm". This was "new" history for me despite my own "Eastern" background to Tamil Nadu. Disclaimer: I am one of many first generation Americans with little historical background of their parents home country. When I asked my parents why they never talk about such thi ...more
Jul 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and netgalley for an ARC.
I've just started reading this and honestly thought the caste system in India didn't exist anymore.
This memoir is captivating and engaging.
description A moving portrait of love, hardship, and struggle, Ants Among Elephants is also that rare thing: a personal history of modern India told from the bottom up.
"The sheer immensity of India―its history, geography, politics and peoples―would be hard to condense under any circumstances . . . [but Gidl
Robert Monk
Jul 31, 2017 rated it liked it
Glad I read this one, because it showed me a lot about a world that I knew only a bit about. I had friends from India, and they'd talk a wee bit about the lingering effects of caste prejudice if prompted, but mostly they steered very clear of the subject (for understandable reasons). This book dived right into it, putting this particular reader in the thick of complicated modern India. I often found myself burning with indignation, both for terrible caste prejudice and for equally terrible gende ...more
Sep 28, 2017 rated it did not like it
I'm not gonna lie, I didn't actually finish this book. I read it for book club, and I couldn't quite get myself to the end, but I was close enough in my opinion and gleaned details about the end from good reads and my book club friends. While I think the caste system is an interesting story, and Americans should strive to learn more about other countries and their systems of government, this story just couldn't do that for me. I went in thinking I was going to walk away with this vast knowledge ...more
Brittany Bennett
Oct 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
This is a hard review to write. I really think Gidla's intended topic, i.e. the structure and effects of the caste system and the implications for untouchable castes in India, is important and worthy of both study and memoir. That said, I don't think she accomplished her goal here. Instead of an exploration of how wealth, religion, ethnicity, language, gender, and family help determine a person's course in life, what we are presented with is a series of loosely tied, roughly chronological anecdo ...more
Jul 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book opens the reader's eyes to a way of life that is hard to see. Generations of suffering were depicted on these pages. Family members braving circumstances no one should be subjected to. I believe this is an important read. It contains essential information for anyone who does not want to turn a blind eye to discrimination happening in this world. To poverty and abuse.

Having said that, I wish the book had been written differently. It begdan with the author talking about how difficult it
Nov 07, 2017 rated it it was ok
After reading the first few pages of this book I thought I would really learn a lot, but found the writing choppy, all over the place, and was discouraged. Too many names to remember and the relationships, both familial and political. But I persisted to the end. Essentially this is a book about those who are at the lowest level of the caste system and about the communist movement in post India independence centering on then Andhra Pradesh and within that, Telegana. Now those two parts are separa ...more
Keerthi Kiran
This book narrates a rare non-fictional personal story. This is an important book that adds to the understanding of the world around us. This world painted by Sujatha is removed from my reality and jolts me into the privilege I was born in to and still enjoy. The book also underlines small and big ways in which caste makes it harder for someone who is trying to break away from it. It is a book I highly recommend to all Indians.

The book could have been edited more tightly to drive home the centr
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Monroe Public Lib...: Ants Among Elephants 2 5 Dec 18, 2019 03:59PM  

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Sujatha Gidla is an Indian-American author. Gidla is known for her book Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

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