The Shakti Bhatt Foundation on Friday announced author Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India the winner of the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, 2018. The literary award celebrates debut writers and is curated by writers Jeet Thayil and Arshia Sattar.
Fifty-five-year-old Sujatha Gidla’s electrifying debut, published by HarperCollins India, beat five other titles in the shortlist to claim the prestigious award. Instituted in memory of editor Shakti Bhatt, the prize honours first-time writers for an outstanding work of fiction or non-fiction.
“It is a marvel how, with so little friction or strain, Ants [Among Elephants] absorbs readers into undramatised lives of poverty, patriarchy, and rebellion, and the encounter with subaltern Communism,” the panel of judges said. “But quite apart from the rarity and necessity of the subject –Dalit lives – the book is admirable for its clean skill and technical execution. With no authorial flourishes, it allows the story’s innate passion and gravitas to display themselves.”
This year’s judges – Sampurna Chattarji, Raghu Karnad and Githa Hariharan – chose Ants Among Elephants from a shortlist of six titles – four works of non-fiction and two novels.
The shortlist included We That Are Young by Preti Taneja, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra, The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher, and How to Travel Light by Shreevatsa Nevatia. “Ants is a book that teaches, reveals, reminds and remembers. It bears witness, it listens and asks to be listened to; with all these qualities in mind, we’d like to recommend it for this year’s Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize”, said the judges.
While announcing the shortlist in August, co-curator Arshia Sattar wrote: “Sujatha Gidla’s searing memoir Ants Among Elephants blows the lid off any illusions we might have had about the diminishing importance of caste in the 21st century, even in such aspirationally egalitarian spaces as the movements of the political and social Left. Gidla’s freedom lies in her escape from the existential destitution that such systemic discrimination can induce for Dalit castes in India.”
Gidla’s widely acclaimed memoir, which The New York Times praised as “unsentimental and deeply poignant”, describes her life in a Dalit community in Kazipet, a small town in Telangana. Born in 1963 into a family that converted to Christianity through the influence of Canadian missionaries, Gidla studied physics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. At the age of 26, she moved to the US, where she worked in the IT industry for several years, before taking up her current job. She is currently employed as a conductor on the New York City subway system.
In Ants Among Elephants, Gidla tells the story of her uncle K.G. Satyamurthy, a Maoist leader who founded a Left-wing guerrilla movement called the People’s War Group to overthrow the Indian state. In her youth, Gidla joined his fight briefly, before she was arrested and tortured in police custody. Her uncle’s doomed struggle, her mother’s trials as a lower caste woman, and her own deepening awareness of discrimination informs the emotional core of Gidla’s intensely affecting book.
“Ants Among Elephants pushes the grand historic events to the backdrop, and shows the lives and minds of the wretched,” wrote journalist and writer Manu Joseph in a column for Mint Lounge earlier this year.
In an earlier interview with Lounge, Diya Kar, Gidla’s publisher in India, said her book was “a reminder that caste is a reality, even today; that segregation, discrimination, oppression form the fabric of the world’s largest democracy”. An exceptional first book, it deserves to be read widely indeed. Writes Livemint,
Gidla’s curiosities about caste began when she was 15, when she was taken to watch a film. It was a love story about a couple who couldn’t marry because of caste differences. “My blood froze,” says Gidla when she realised that the rich girl was Christian and the poor boy was Hindu.
“This movie, in sheer defiance of the laws of nature, portrayed Christians as rich and powerful, and most amazing of all — scornful of Brahmins, the highest caste of all,” she writes.
The award is currently in its 11th year and comes with a cash prize of Rs 2 lakh. Entries across poetry, fiction, graphic novels, creative non-fiction (travel writing, autobiography, biography and narrative journalism), and drama are accepted.