Firsthand account of the lives of people categorized as the lowest of the low in India’s caste system.
Trained as a physicist, the daughter of teachers, Gidla is nonetheless an untouchable, which she describes as something like the racism African-Americans are forced to endure; though it is not built on identifiable markers such as skin color, it is nonetheless a pervasive indignity. “Because your life is your caste,” she writes, “your caste is your life.” Yet, as her narrative demonstrates, it is possible to slip around the caste system by becoming something even more untouchable than an untouchable: namely, an outlaw, and in the case of Gidla’s uncle Satyamurthy, the founder of “a Maoist guerrilla group recently declared by the government to be the single greatest threat to India’s security.” Charming and clever, SM, as he is known, is still committed to revolution even in old age, given to disappearing in the jungle to fight and organize. Another uncle, who also figures in the author’s account, escaped from the weight of untouchability with the help of alcohol, which felled him before he could fully contribute his memories to her narrative. That searching family history reaches back into a past in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, where, even in the 1800s, her ancestors were living as nomads who “worshipped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.” When enfolded by caste society, though without caste themselves, they became untouchable, meaning, literally, that any contact would defile even the lowest-caste Hindu. That system of belief, writes Gidla, affected every aspect of their lives, determining where they could live and how they could work, so much so that even in his revolutionary movement, SM had to field questions of caste at every turn.
Students of civil rights activism and South Asian societies will find much of value in Gidla’s far-ranging narrative, dense with detail and anecdote.