Colombo Telegraph

The Curse Of Caste

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

No, I shall weave no tracery of pen-ornament […]

But let the wrong cry out as raw as wounds 

This time forgets and never heals, far less transcends. ~ (Stephen Spender. 1909 – 1995)

The curse of caste: Sujatha Gidla, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, London, 2018

A euphemism is defined as “as a noun or phrase substituted for one considered offensive or hurtful, especially one concerned with religion, sex, death or excreta.” In certain circumstances, to try to avoid causing embarrassment or pain is laudable but the other side of euphemism is that it can help minimise; distort and even hide reality: see Spender’s refusal above. To substitute the word “worker” or “helper” for “servant” might ease the employing-class but not necessarily the life of the employed. The word “untouchable” is thought to be insulting and cruel (see also “coolie” etc.) and the term “Dalit” is substituted but Gidla herself uses “untouchable”. An ant (see title), however intelligent, principled and hard-working remains an ant, and is heedlessly crushed. See the novel, Untouchable, by Mulk Raj Anand, and Arundhati Roy’s justly famous The God of Small Things. Taking creative liberties with the English language, Roy refers to the upper castes with the opposite of “untouchable”: “touchable”. I may add that untouchable women become touchable when they are raped or gang-raped by those of the upper castes. (The Buddha preached that nobility is not by birth, be it into a family, class, ethnic group or religion, but is individually achieved through character, conduct and contribution: something as much piously proclaimed in Sri Lanka as it’s violated in practice.)

Every human life is a potential story. However, a life becomes a story only when it’s narrated, as in this record. Ants Among Elephants is a family chronicle but since that family consisted of untouchables, it is inescapably an indictment of caste: “Because your life is your caste, your caste is your life.” However, Gidla’s life is not typical of untouchables. Her parents were educated, and she herself obtained the M.Sc. in Physics from Warangal. Having worked on a project funded by the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, she moved to the USA at the age of twenty-six. Her sister, also in the United States, is a medical doctor, and her brother in Canada is an engineer. Biographical information tells us that during her second year at Warangal, Gidla participated in a strike (the only female to do so) against an upper-caste professor in the Engineering department who was deliberately failing students from the lower castes. She was detained for three months; tortured and contracted tuberculosis. Gidla researched this book for over fifteen years, making three trips to India. Writing on her family, Gidla reaches back into the past and records how things were: I give some examples below, without arranging them for importance. Hopefully, conditions are much better now.

The untouchables are associated with two creatures: the crow for its blackness (see the relation between skin-colour, strict endogamy and caste) and the pig for its “foulness”: Gidla, page 165. The untouchable is like the pig which sees the sky for the first time only at the end of life when it is spread-eagled for the knife (page 167). The buffaloes of untouchables were (are?) not allowed to graze on the same meadows as the buffaloes of the “touchables” (page 23). “Under the vetti system, every untouchable family in every village had to give up their first male child” to the “dora” to work as a slave until death. “O brother and sister, mother and father, this is no folktale set in a distant past. It was real life in Telangana in 1947” (page 45). “The impoverishment of his subjects was the source of the Nizam’s riches…The gardens and monuments, the learning and the fine arts, the banquets and moonlit dances – all that delighted the senses and elevated the spirits… required the suffering and degradation of millions” (page 47). His paramilitary subjected “whole villages to orgies of murder, torture, looting, arson and rape. They especially liked to stab a man in the rectum with a long sword, twist it around inside him, and pull it out with such force that his guts fell out in a heap” (page 54): I apologise for these deeply distressing details. To secure that essential, water, the untouchables had to walk several miles to sources permitted to them: compare Thomas Laqueur’s article, ‘Lynched for drinking from a white man’s well’ in the London Review of Books, 11 October 2018, pages 11-15. Their huts, made of mud, are pitifully vulnerable to the monsoon rains. It’s the women who do the work of removing excreta from latrines. “Their tools are nothing but a small broom and a tin plate. With these, they fill their palm-leaf baskets with excrement and carry it off on their heads… Some modernised areas have replaced these baskets with pushcarts (this being what’s thought of as progress in India), but even today the traditional ‘head-loading’ method prevails across the country… As their brooms wear down, they have to bend their backs lower and lower to sweep. Then their baskets start to leak, the shit drips down their faces… Tuberculosis and other infectious diseases are endemic among them” (page 122). “I grew up in the untouchable slum of Elwin Peta in Kakinda. All around me was abject poverty. When you are surrounded by so much misery, you don’t see it as anything extraordinary” (Gidla, page 327). Indeed, one wouldn’t be able to survive, day after day, if one did. Ground into abject poverty, despairing and desperate, the men turn brutally violent on their women, even on their children. Conversion to Christianity or joining the Left parties does not help: caste pursues the untouchable even there. Gidla’s book records and bears testimony, and the latter is done through detail, factually, and all the more moving and convincing for it.


For caste in Sri Lanka see, among others, Udeshika Jayasekara’s study of six villages in the Matara District, Colombo Telegraph, 11 January 2019 and my comment on K. Daniel’s Caste in Jaffna: Mirage, Colombo Telegraph, 14 July 2017. I quote from the latter:

“There’s no doubt that those Sinhalese incurably infected with ugly racism will gleefully grab this novel as a bludgeon with which to beat the Tamils, pretending to a moral outrage and a compassion of which they are completely devoid. To change the metaphor, casteism among Tamils can be used as a red herring to divert attention away from their racist acts.” Of the thousands of innocent civilians who died at the end of the Eelam War, surely there were also those of the so-called low castes? On the other hand, I also wrote: Tamils who don’t protest Tamil casteism in Sri Lanka lose the moral right to protest Sinhalese racism. (Italics in the original.)

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