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Ants Among Elephants

Satyam was all alone in a strange town with no one to ask for help. His family had made a mistake. They had been greedy. They wanted too much for their own good.

By Sujatha Gidla

The following is an excerpt from Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants, a personal history of untouchability and caste oppression in modern India told through the lens of those at the very bottom of India’s caste system. Come hear Sujatha Gidla in conversation with Neel Mukherjee and Gaiutra Bahadur this Friday, March 9 at AAWW or tune in from our Facebook livestream.

“Matter can neither be created nor destroyed,” the lecturer told the junior Intermediate students.

Satyam, sitting in the last bench, muttered, “What does it matter to me?” He used to be fascinated by all the new things he learned in the physics class. But he hadn’t eaten in a long time.

His father had stopped sending money. It seemed that Satyam was expected not merely to survive without food, but to study and get his degree in this condition.

The problem of how to support Satyam while he was in college was one Prasanna Rao had spent years planning with care. In the military, Prasanna Rao stinted on everything and each month put away a large share of his salary. By the time he left his job there, he had saved up a solid five thousand rupees—an unimaginable sum in his community.

He knew exactly what he wanted to do with that money. He was going to buy some land and use the money he raised from the sale of its produce on his son’s education. That way, in a few years not only would he be the father of a college graduate but also the owner of a piece of land.

Prasanna Rao had been raised in a village. And in villages, a man may be educated, he may wear a shirt and pants, he may even have a job with a good salary, but the real prestige lay in owning land. Among untouchables, owning even a small piece of land is rare.

So with his savings Prasanna Rao bought two and a half acres of land. He borrowed and bought two acres more. The rate of interest on the loan was high, but the land he had bought was so fertile he expected to be able to pay off the debt in no time.

Prasanna Rao also found a job teaching in a government school. With his salary and what his land would produce, he would surely have more than enough money to put his son through college. And that son would surely become a doctor.

Man makes his plans. God has his own.

Season after season, Prasanna Rao would see his land turn green with beautiful, tender plants that bent and swayed under the weight of golden rice. But just when the crop was ready to be reaped, the stream that nourished his land—the Budameru—would flood and wash away his hopes.

Prasanna Rao’s debts, like water-soaked logs, got heavier and heavier, sinking his family deeper and deeper into poverty. Soon they could not afford two meals a day. Carey and Papa were too young to endure starvation, and Prasanna Rao, as the sole breadwinner, needed to preserve his own strength to provide for the family. So the brunt of their sudden poverty was borne by the son who was away at college. Unable to spare anything for him, Prasanna Rao sent Satyam neither money nor explanation.

Satyam was in a painful predicament. He knew no one at A.C. College, no one in the entire city of Guntur, whom he could turn to for help. He did not pay the mess bill for July. He was given a month’s time, but when he failed to pay the following month, the administration added his name to the list of delinquent students posted at the entrance of the mess hall for all the world to see. To avoid running into his classmates he started going to the mess just before it closed, after everyone else had left. Even then, every time he walked in, the manager would look at him as though to say, “You don’t pay bills and you show up to eat?” Satyam skipped meals as often as he could.

Poverty was nothing new to him. All his life he had been poor. In Slatter Peta the difference between his family and the rest of the malas was small. They were all ants. It mattered little if one was a bit bigger than the others. But here at A.C. College, Satyam was an ant among elephants. No other student was in his situation. He suffered from hunger, but even more from loneliness and shame.

At home, as poor as they were, the Kambham family lived within the limits of what they had. They never thought to want more. They simply lived the way they had always lived. When they made egg curry, a man was served half an egg. In their family, that’s what a man ate. They never thought of fruits unless they saw some on a tree, or unless someone was sick. When Satyam’s mother was sick and dying, every so often Prasanna Rao would buy her a grapefruit. Their idea was that nature designed grapefruits for the sick. When the children asked to share it, the grown-ups told them, “There is medicine for your mother inside that grapefruit, and all of the medicine is in one single section of the fruit. From the outside we can’t tell which one has the medicine in it, so we have to let your mother eat the whole thing.”

But now Satyam was all alone in a strange town with no one to ask for help. His family had made a mistake in sending him to A.C. College. They had been greedy. They wanted too much for their own good.


Satyam was ashamed that his classmates might have seen his name posted at the entrance of the mess hall. He had no money for books or lab records or term fees or exam fees. He couldn’t afford to dress the way students were supposed to, in shirt and pants. The strap of his thongs was broken and secured by a safety pin that kept coming undone. So he stopped going to classes.

With nothing better to do, he started reading newspapers at the college library. After finishing the papers, he would wander into the stacks.

The A.C. College library, located above the lecture hall, had a large collection of Telugu literature. Satyam had never been particularly interested in Telugu literature. What he had seen of it in his high school textbooks had bored him. Classical Telugu poetry was of two kinds: puranas (mythological poems in praise of the gods) and prabandhas (courtly poems in praise of the rulers). They were written in a highly formal dialect that borrowed heavily from Sanskrit. To most Telugu speakers, including Satyam, it was all but unintelligible.

While looking through the stacks in A.C. College library, Satyam discovered a new kind of poetry that took as its subject matter neither gods nor rulers. It was about ordinary people and contemporary life. The verse, Satyam found, was free of the strict and complicated metrical rules that marked the older forms. The language was modern colloquial Telugu, easy to understand and yet beautiful. Satyam read the Navayuga Vythalikulu (Harbingers of the New Era) anthology of Muddu Krishnudu. It was the first anthology he had ever seen, a selection of modern Telugu verse. Much of it was love poetry. Reading it, Satyam felt new sensations stir inside him.

Like a canoe,
the moon drifts
across the sky.
In it is my beloved.

Why that tender smile?
What for that white sari,
those white jasmines in her hair?

And for whom,
those beckoning hands?
They beckon me to join her.

Satyam looked up at the moon. He saw riding in it a girl in a shimmering white sari, beckoning to him. He wished he could make out her face. Was it his cousin Kamili? Or Suryakantham, his childhood friend?

He went on to read every modern poem in the library. Poems by Joshua, Devulapalli, Nandoori, Duvvoori, Thripuraneni, Karunasree, Gurajada. These were pioneers of navya sahityam, “new literature,” as the movement he had chanced upon was called. While on the floor beneath him lecturers lectured and students studied, Satyam read. He read eda-peda (left and right). He learned to hide in the library when it closed at night and even slept there sometimes.

The father of navya sahityam was Gurajada. His most famous poem was one he wrote in 1910 called “Love Thy Country.” Two lines in this poem had a great impact on the political consciousness of Telugu speakers:

A nation is not the soil.
A nation is the people.

Two simple lines and yet so powerful. It was as though Gurajada was explaining what a nation was to the many for whom this was a modern and abstract notion. These two lines followed Satyam wherever he went.


Excerpted from Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Sujatha Gidla. All rights reserved.