Sujatha Gidla on being an Ant amongst the Elephants (Ep. 30 — Live)
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Sujatha Gidla was an untouchable in India, but moved to the United States at the age of 26 and is now the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on the New York City Subway. In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, she explores the antiquities of her mother, her uncles, and other members of her family against modern India’s landscape. Through this book she redeemed the value of her family’s memories, understanding her family’s stories were not those of shame, but did reveal to the world the truth of India and its caste system.
During her conversation with Tyler, they discuss the nature and persistence of caste, gender issues in India, her New York City lifestyle, religion, living in America versus living in India, Bob Dylan and Dalit music, American identity politics, the nature of Marxism, and why she left her job at the Bank of New York to become a New York City Subway conductor.
Listen to the full conversation
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: I’m honored here to be chatting with Sujatha. In my view, her book, Ants Among Elephants, is one of the most important of this year.
Let me start with a simple question of definition. Define for us all just very quickly, Dalits, untouchables, and Scheduled Caste.
SUJATHA GIDLA: And Harijan. All these words are words for untouchable, depending on the political era. Dalit is the latest politically correct term for untouchable, which is also accepted by untouchables.
COWEN: Is it correct to say that about one-sixth of India is Dalit?
COWEN: Give us an example of segregation to the caste system as it would affect Dalits.
GIDLA: The word is untouchables. That is the neutral, matter-of-fact, politically neutral word. It is all in the word. They’re not to be touched. If you touch them, you’re polluted, and you have to cleanse yourself.
Segregation is the most prominent issue for untouchables. They’re not allowed to live inside the village. Actually all castes, they have their own colonies. They don’t mingle, but all of these colonies are inside the village whereas untouchables are outside of the village. They come into the village only to work.
COWEN: In terms of marrying or what job you might have or what job you might be allowed to have, those would all be cases where there’s significant segregation in Indian society today.
GIDLA: Yeah. Untouchables are . . . the main features are segregation and the inheritance of caste. Caste is by birth. You cannot acquire caste. You’re untouchable if you’re born to untouchable family.
This is maintained by endogamy, that is, marriage within one’s own caste. Marriage outside of the caste is very, very stigmatized and not allowed. It’s not allowed to the extent that parents themselves can kill the girl for marrying outside of the caste.
On outsider views of Indian castes
COWEN: If I think back in time a bit, people in the United States, they’re very familiar with the apartheid system of South Africa. There was here a very strong protest movement against that. There were boycotts. People talked about it quite frequently.
With respect to the caste system in India, you have many millions of people existing in a segregated existence, segregated setup, and hardly anyone here talks about it at all. Hardly anyone complains. Why is there this difference? Why do we as outsiders have such an apparently indifferent attitude toward Indian caste?
GIDLA: First of all, America is a big country, the most influential country in the world, militarily and industrially, the most advanced country. Whatever happens here, it’s telecast and broadcast everywhere in the world. So we come to know what happens in America, not so much the other way around. What happens in India doesn’t get necessarily around.
“America is a big country, the most influential country in the world, militarily and industrially, the most advanced country. Whatever happens here, it’s telecast and broadcast everywhere in the world. So we come to know what happens in America, not so much the other way around. What happens in India doesn’t get necessarily around.”
The second thing is, while practicing caste, Indian castes and rulers are very secretive, very, very secretive about caste. They’d like to tell people that there is no such thing as caste. One of the reactions to my book is “Why is she washing the dirty linen in the public? Why is she telling everybody there is caste system?”
COWEN: What would the Dalit critique of Gandhi be? Often westerners think of Gandhi who was someone almost saintly, yet a lot of the Dalits—Dr. Ambedkar would be the most obvious example—had a very strong debate with Gandhi. Over what?
GIDLA: Ambedkar was the leader of the untouchables. He devoted his life for the untouchables. The people, and he himself, saw him as the Moses of the untouchables. That he was going to lead them out of . . . emancipate them.
Gandhi wanted to encroach on this leadership. He wanted to claim leadership of all of the people in India, including untouchables and Muslims. So there’s a tussle between Ambedkar and Gandhi. Who is the real representative of untouchables?
On the problems of caste and the segregated Indian system
COWEN: In your view, to what extent are the sexual harassment and rape problems in India in some way actually problems of caste?
GIDLA: Caste, as I said, endogamy, marrying within one’s own caste, and not allowed to marry outside the caste is really one of the features that you can say is the crux of caste system. Because of this, there is a lot of restrictions on women’s freedom because they don’t want her to marry someone outside of the caste.
Although women’s suppression is everywhere in the world, even in America as you know, but the particular intensity of women’s oppression stems out of caste restrictions, they are not allowed to marry from outside.
Because of how much value you put on the girl’s chastity, that becomes a very valuable thing for them. Women’s chastity’s a valuable thing for their community and for the family. So if you want to insult someone and if you want to hurt someone, the cruelest way is to rape somebody.
It’s the other side of the coin that you put so much stress on the chastity of the woman. I think it is the worst hurt you can inflict on somebody.
It all comes from caste, if you want to insult somebody. For example, in partition of India into Pakistan, the rape of women is a major, major feature.
COWEN: Now I came at this very much as an outsider, but I tend to think of Indian caste as intersecting with at least a few different things. Let me mention them, and maybe you can give us a framework for thinking about it.
Caste and vegetarianism: so Dalits are less likely to be vegetarian. Caste and one’s philosophy of interaction with dead bodies, and also caste and notions of defecation—open defecation, and cleaning up of open defecation. What’s your take on how all of that intersects with caste and the segregated Indian system?
GIDLA: Actually, as people might mistakenly think, not all Indians are vegetarians. It’s only the Brahmins who are not allowed to eat meat or fish. Even that is not true of all the places in India. For Bihar, they eat beef (Brahmins). In Kolkata, they eat fish.
In our areas, they don’t eat meat or eggs or anything like that. Beef is taboo for all of Hindus except Dalits. Dalits survived on carcass, the dead animals. What else did you want . . . ?
COWEN: Handling of dead bodies and handling of defecation and sanitary issues. How does that intersect with caste and jobs of different caste members?
GIDLA: Caste is also about occupation. It’s an imposed occupation. Each caste has its own occupation. The occupations that are given or forced on untouchables are what Hindu society deems unclean and menial.
All of these things—handling of the dead bodies, tannery, removing dead animals, and cleaning latrines—of course, nobody else wants to do; so it’s occupations imposed on untouchables.
COWEN: You’re a critic of this form of segregation, but let’s say you had a very intelligent Indian here who is in some way a defender or apologist for the system, or a critic of you. What is it they would say in response to you?
GIDLA: First of all, somewhat timid people will say there is no such thing as caste. Some people will say caste is by your merit. It’s not discriminatory based on your caste. Whoever is intelligent can become Brahmins. That is pure nonsense because caste is by birth.
Some people—actually, like the person in your blog—says that “Caste gives color to society. Different castes make it interesting.” So why doesn’t he want to be an untouchable for a change, if that’s what he wants?
COWEN: One person said to me—tell me if you agree or not—“Caste mostly disappears when you move to an Indian city.”
GIDLA: That is not true. Caste is basically a village-based institution. That’s where it is most rigorously practiced. But even when you come to towns, like my family did, we lived in a segregated area. We were not allowed to rent houses in other areas.
At one time, my father’s friend agreed to take us in, but when we went there with all our things, the wife said, “No, you can’t have them here.”
COWEN: Let’s say you belong to one of the lower castes, and you and/or your family, you decided to convert to Christianity, to Buddhism—as Dr. Ambedkar did—to Islam, to Sikhism. What then happens? Does caste go away?
GIDLA: No, it doesn’t. There is confusion introduced in the caste system because people think Hinduism is casteism.
It’s in a way right because Hinduism is a tailor-made religion. As one anthropologist said, it’s mysticism, but basically it’s a system to prop up caste system. It tells you the rules for untouchables and for women. That is all Hinduism is about. Shorn of mysticism, it’s a prop for caste system.
Caste system is a social issue, but the religion coincides with the social. That’s why it looks like it’s a religious issue. It’s not actually a religious issue. Therefore, when people convert to other religions, hoping that they will not be untouchables anymore, they will be disappointed because there is casteism in Christians and Dalits and Sikhs and any other religion in India. It’s a social issue.
COWEN: Does Facebook make the caste system worse because, maybe, it’s harder to move to another village and pretend you don’t know anyone from your old caste?
GIDLA: I can’t comment on that very much, but I don’t think it makes it any more difficult. It’s already difficult enough, you know.
COWEN: How would you think, analytically, about the forces that keep the caste system in place? As you know, Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, it at least nominally outlaws caste. The Indian president—not the most important office, as here—but there’s been a Dalit as president.
Legally, there’s a system of reservations that’s in some ways similar to our affirmative action to give Dalits preferential treatment for some kinds of government jobs or posts in schools. Given those forces pushing against caste, what is keeping caste segregation in place?
GIDLA: Caste is basically . . . it stems out of economic system. It stems out of occupation. It stems out of what job you do in the society.
As long as the production is organized in such a way that you want a certain group of people always be available to do menial work and do the hard work if the economic system requires that, then the forces will try to keep untouchables in their place so that they can be used as laborers. It does not go away unless the economic system and system of production are radically changed.
On caste and identity politics in the US
COWEN: Let’s say you come to the United States, as you did at age 26, and there are a large number of Indians in the United States, including of course in New York, New Jersey. How much does the caste system persist here in this country amongst Indians?
GIDLA: Very much. I had bad experiences when I first came here because I knew nobody else but Indians. Once I was able to make friends with Americans, I never, never went back to Indian networks, it’s a very rabid system.
All these immigrant associations—ostensibly, they are there to celebrate Indian culture and festivals, but they’re actually the caste groups. Some hide behind culture, but some others openly say that this is Brahmin American Association, and if you want to join the Facebook page, you have to tell their shibboleths like what’s your gotra, what’s your this, what’s your horoscope, this, that. We’re not able to tell them because we don’t know what . . .
COWEN: Those are indicators of caste?
COWEN: In your view, should caste-based discrimination amongst Indians be recognized as a form of discrimination in American law?
GIDLA: With regard to race, what’s going to happen if you recognize this as a legally objectionable thing? Nothing happens. I don’t think any such thing can happen with caste. These people, the Brahmins, are formally entrenched in all high places in America.
If you look at TV anchors, they’re all Brahmins. If you look at people who work in New York Times, they’re all Brahmins. If you look at people who are in Trump’s administration, they’re all upper caste. And they’re never, ever going to allow this thing to be recognized as a discrimination.
COWEN: Here in America, we have this thing—people call it identity politics. They mean many different things with that term. I would say it’s more prominent in the Democratic Party than Republican, though the Republican Party has its own unnamed brand of white identity politics often.
When you see the ways in which people are informally grouped into different categories here, whether it be ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation, coming at this from Andhra Pradesh as a Dalit, how do you perceive this institution of ours?
GIDLA: Institution of?
COWEN: Our identity politics. Do you think all the Americans have done it right? Do you think the Americans are crazy? How do you feel about how we do identity politics?
GIDLA: I’m against identity politics.
GIDLA: For sure, yeah. I have seen bad things happen with identity politics, with untouchables as well. All they fight for is reservations. Reservations is based on your suffering, or suffering of untouchables in the villages. If you want reservations, then you’re indirectly asking for discrimination to be continued, on the basis of which you can gain a few seats in universities and political places.
COWEN: The system of reservation in India, which is a form of affirmative action for lower castes, you think that’s a bad idea?
GIDLA: If I were there in the circumstances where that’s being implemented or written into constitution, I wouldn’t have been fighting actively for reservations because reservations is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. So I would not be fighting for that. What I would be fighting for is equal access in all spheres of life.
“I wouldn’t have been fighting actively for reservations because reservations is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. So I would not be fighting for that. What I would be fighting for is equal access in all spheres of life.”
Reservations are here whether I fought for it or not, and attack on them is definitely a reactionary thing to do. I would defend reservations from being attacked by upper-caste people. But reservations have done nothing much at all for untouchables, and there are a lot of downsides for reservations.
COWEN: I had some Indians write me emails—I found this somewhat unusual—and they asked, “You need to find out about how she got a master’s from a very good school starting off as a Dalit from a village.” And they were very intent on knowing to what extent you had used reservations. You don’t have to tell us. Feel free to tell us what you want, but how should we even frame this question?
GIDLA: I will say this: Everybody is dying to know whether I got into university because of reservations. My answer to them is, “Go ahead and die.”
GIDLA: Because this is going to be out in the public, I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of knowing whether I got in because of reservations or not, but I can tell you in private how I got into engineering and big institutes.
On her life in India and moving to America
COWEN: Now, I’d like to ask you some questions about your life, but I would just stress, please, if you don’t want to answer anything, feel free to just leave it aside, and we’ll move on. In India, how and why were you arrested and at what age?
GIDLA: I was 19 years old. I lived in a very poor neighborhood, and it affected me a lot. Also, I must say that Christianity had an effect on us in our family.
COWEN: Your family is Christian.
GIDLA: Yeah, we view Christianity as a religion of kindness and compassion. That is how we started. Then we moved into communism.
I thought Christian brotherly love is the way to emancipation of all oppression in the world. But when I grew up and I saw in churches people being discriminated—rich people and poor people in church—I thought, I don’t know what Jesus is going to do in the other world, but nothing is happening now.
To me, what my uncle was doing seemed appealing at that time. It was very highly romantic movement. Young people from high caste and very wealthy young people, people who had great futures sacrificed that, and they were fed into the mouth of state repression, and I was one of them. I wanted to do something for the people.
COWEN: What was it like being in prison after you were arrested?
GIDLA: I really went blank. After I got arrested, I really went blank. Things were happening to me. Things were being done to me, but I really, really went blank.
I accepted torture also in the same manner. I was in the jail for three months, and then I was released. My fervor had certainly calmed down in the sense that I don’t want to be romantic by getting arrested and killed or something like that. But I still held the views of equality and justice, social justice.
COWEN: This experience made you more of a Christian, less of a Christian?
GIDLA: No, I ditched Christianity when I was 12 years old. I never went back to it.
COWEN: Your views evolved into . . . ?
GIDLA: I consider still myself a Marxist.
COWEN: Do you think of yourself as a Marxist in the sense of being a radical egalitarian or a Marxist in the sense of wanting the government to own all of the means of production?
GIDLA: No, it’s a worldview. I would say Marxism is a worldview, and Marxism looks at the world in terms of class, like feminists looks at the world as men and women, and religious people look at the world as Christians and non-Christians, and Marxists look at people as workers and capitalists.
That is the worldview I hold, and I look at problems arising out of class difference, and I look at solutions that could arise out of class action.
COWEN: At age 26, you left India, you come to the United States. How was it that happened? Obviously, there may have been things you wanted to leave, but we all know migration is often shaped by social networks.
There were, especially at that time, a relatively small number of Dalits here in the United States. So you didn’t have that network so much to connect to. You’re from a village in India. What mentally, emotionally brought you to coming to this country?
GIDLA: Everybody loves to be in America. There are people who go—
COWEN: Do they? [laughs]
GIDLA: —like mental about wanting to go to America, so I’m not an exception. My idea of coming here is to be more free. Women are very, very, very repressed in India compared to here.
People call me the first woman to be riding a bicycle in my town, but I’m really not the first one. There are two other girls, but they closed their legs like this, and pedal like that. I used to pedal like a man.
There is not much scope for people like me to be in India. If you want to be free and nonchalant and carefree like guys, there is no scope there. My main thing is to be free and intellectually free and free to pursue culture. Even reading books is like, “Why is a woman reading books?” So for me, coming to America means a lot of social freedom.
COWEN: When you came here expecting some kind of freedom, what was your biggest surprise?
GIDLA: Biggest surprise?
COWEN: You hadn’t visited before, right? You just came. It was a huge decision with your life. You’re just taking this huge move on a notion of freedom. You come here. This is, of course, not in every way a free country—it’s far from perfect. I fear we may have disappointed you in some ways. What was your biggest surprise?
GIDLA: I can’t think of anything, but I used to think all old people that are by themselves, going around by themselves, are like beggars because old women don’t go out by themselves. So I used to give money to these rich old women.
GIDLA: Despite their brooches.
COWEN: You mentioned a moment ago you had, broadly speaking, a Marxist view. As I’m sure you know, there’s a whole intellectual movement of pro-capitalist Dalits. Chandra Bhan Prasad would be one of them.
GIDLA: Ahhh, God! [snorts]
COWEN: What do you think of them and where do you differ?
GIDLA: That particular person, Chandra Bhan Prasad, he makes me puke.
COWEN: Tell us why.
GIDLA: He was in the same Radical Students Union as I was, even though much older than me. He went to JNU , which is the highest university in India for humanities. He studied something or other, sociology or something. The knowledge that he gained from being in RSU, Radical Students Union, and what he studied made him a good person to defect and become a mouthpiece for Dalit entrepreneurship and Dalit capitalism.
Dalit capitalists, yeah, there are a few. There were none before. There are a few. I think that they were given some kind of, I don’t know, perk to become capitalists so that people won’t say, “Oh, how come you’re so casteist? You don’t have any Dalit capitalists?” But Dalit capitalists are very, very much lower compared to other capitalists from other castes.
COWEN: If you think of yourself as a Marxist, and you came to one of the most capitalist societies for freedom, is that in some way a contradiction in your worldview or you think it all makes sense?
GIDLA: No, it’s not. As I said, Marxism means class versus class, not nation versus nation. In India, there are poor people and rich people. And in America, there are poor people and rich people. Why is it some sort of defection if I came here? I came here not to become a capitalist.
On writing and not writing
COWEN: You’ve had two jobs here, at least two jobs. One, you worked in the financial sector for the Bank of New York for a while, I believe until 2009. Now you’re a conductor of subway trains for the MTA in New York City. Which of those two jobs have you enjoyed more?
GIDLA: I would say MTA job. In Bank of New York, I was making much more money. Even in 2009, I was making almost three times what I make in MTA. Then I have unlimited sick leave and personal days and five weeks’ vacation and stock options and things like that.
But the people are really so boring and uncosmopolitan. They are such narrow-minded people. I had this figurine of Darwin on my desk, and this guy was glaring at me because he’s a Catholic.
COWEN: Charles Darwin?
GIDLA: Yeah. We’re not like that in MTA. We are very open and very passionate. We are much more cosmopolitan. We discuss things openly and uninhibitedly, and yet at the same time, we don’t hurt each other.
COWEN: You wrote your book, Ants among Elephants, while you had this full-time job as a subway conductor for the MTA. You wrote it during the evening? Or what kind of hours did you have? When did you write?
How did you do it?
GIDLA: Actually, I didn’t do it; that’s why it took 10 years. Then, I grew up in a family where there are always 25 people milling around in the house. We were like sitting on the steps of the house trying to concentrate. I never sat at a desk.
Now, it is how I work. I cannot work at a desk in silence and in my privacy. I work while commuting on the train, and I used to work during breaks at work, like that.
COWEN: And the break, you’re literally on the train, right? You’re not in an office.
GIDLA: No, no, no. In the beginning . . . the beginners are called extra-extra, meaning that they’re sitting there, and if somebody got sick or they have to go home, they will jump in and take their job.
So half the time, we’re just sitting around for eight hours and going home, and half the time, we’re taking over for somebody else. I always used to carry a computer with me, and one of the names I have is Computer Girl, apart from Hindu Conductor.
COWEN: What is it about the MTA that attracts so many interesting people?
GIDLA: It’s very multiracial workforce. Not so much from Western Europe, but all the other colored countries and Eastern Europe people, they are there. They bring in their own experience, and they talk about it in crew rooms. It’s just more entertaining.
For me, the thing is that I was working in Bank of New York writing programs, and I had no idea what it was I was writing programs for. I should have known, but I didn’t really care.
Now, I know what I’m doing is how it’s affecting. We’re taking people from point A to point B, where they want to go. I know for sure that what I’m doing is very useful, and that makes me feel self-confident.
COWEN: What are the personal qualities you feel you have that make you a good MTA conductor?
GIDLA: It’s a very strict job. It’s run on military kind of lines. If you have to be there at 20:32, then you have to be there at 20:32. It’s all very difficult for me, but I really like the . . . I don’t know. I’m pleasant when I’m helping people. I’m conscientious to help people that say “Get away from me.” I don’t know. I like to be a good coworker rather than a good conductor.
On things under- and overrated
Now, in these interviews, there’s always a segment in the middle called “Overrated versus Underrated.”
GIDLA: Oh, yeah, I know. [laughs]
COWEN: I’m going to toss out some mentions. Again, you’re free to pass if you don’t want to comment on them. I’ll say a few things, and you tell us if it’s overrated or underrated.
In Manhattan, the cluster of Indian restaurants at about Lexington and 28th Street—overrated or underrated?
GIDLA: Normally rated.
COWEN: Normally rated.
GIDLA: I would say that all the restaurants on Sixth Avenue, like at St. Mark’s, they are all trash.
COWEN: I agree. There’s not one I would want to eat at.
GIDLA: Yeah, I know.
COWEN: In Jackson Heights, in Queens, for Indian food, overrated or underrated?
COWEN: Still, you think?
COWEN: Bob Dylan?
GIDLA: No, underrated.
GIDLA: I like Bob Dylan. I like him a lot.
COWEN: Why do you like him?
GIDLA: I don’t know. That’s what I grew up with. We got all the music and movies 10 years after you have them. Even though I wasn’t from the Beatles and Bob Dylan times, that’s what we got when I was growing up. It really fascinated me that someone who’s singing nasally can be a popular singer-writer.
“We got all the music and movies 10 years after you have them. Even though I wasn’t from the Beatles and Bob Dylan times, that’s what we got when I was growing up. It really fascinated me that someone who’s singing nasally can be a popular singer-writer.”
COWEN: What is it from Bob Dylan, what song, what album, what something had the most impact on you?
COWEN: Now, in Dalit music, there’s something called Dappu music. Some of it uses leather; it has a lot of percussion. Overrated or underrated?
COWEN: What’s special about it?
GIDLA: The drum is used for calling people to a village meeting. It’s the job of a particular untouchable caste, and they play very well. It’s amazing. I don’t know.
COWEN: You did, of course, leave India, but what, for you, about India is most underrated?
GIDLA: Organic vegetables grown naturally and fruits grown naturally. They’re all disappearing now.
COWEN: The A Train—I don’t mean the song “Take the ‘A’ Train”—I mean the A Train. It cuts through such an amazing swath of history of New York: Manhattan, Brooklyn, different social classes, different economic classes.
The A Train: overrated or underrated?
COWEN: Underrated, I agree.
The Indian scheme of biometric identification?
GIDLA: That is a totally antipeople measure.
COWEN: Tell us why.
GIDLA: Because it’s like if somebody says, “Oh, this chair I’m sitting in is uncomfortable.” It’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’ll solve the problem and kick this chair out from under the person who’s sitting and complaining.”
People have very low literacy rates, and how are they able to do these things? People are just dying because they have to have minimum balance in the bank, and they don’t know how to open bank accounts, and their money is taken away. I’m sorry, I think I’m digressing, but this whole technology—
COWEN: No, digressing is fine.
GIDLA: This whole technology thing is under the thing of, ostensibly, it’s to streamline the system and to curb corruption and to bring everybody into the mainstream. That is nonsense. Exploitation used to be giving people low wages, but now the exploitation is taking back what they already have.
COWEN: Let’s say I’m a technocrat. I look at Indian aid to the poor. A lot of it is in kind, in the form of food. A high percentage of the food rots. And I say, “We’re going to scan everyone’s identity biometrically and just send them cash.” What will go wrong from doing that?
GIDLA: Give cash to people instead of—
COWEN: To their bank accounts, electronically, rather than giving them in-kind food aid. Is that more efficient, or are you worried about the loss of privacy? Are you worried about some kind of autocratic control from having information, very exact, about everyone’s identity?
GIDLA: Privacy and all this thing is a big concern, but the concern really is that all these measures are now . . .
There was one measure, I think it’s called demonetization. They scrapped 500 rupee bills and 1,000 bills. So all these small-time business people, tea vendors—just overnight, they lost all their money. They keep their money in their houses.
There’s a woman in our neighborhood. She sold her house and she’s going to live on her money, and she kept all the money in $500 bills in the house. As soon as this thing was announced and she was told that “Your money is nothing but paper,” she died of heart attack. It’s not an isolated incident. Hundreds of people died of this demonetization.
COWEN: So you’re critical of the current regime in India.
GIDLA: Yes. They stripped the farmers of their lands and let them die. So far, 450,000 farmers killed themselves, suicides. Now, they turn their focus on small-business people, and now they’re pauperized.
COWEN: Williamsburg, Brooklyn: overrated or underrated?
GIDLA: Because I don’t really identify with the crowd there. I think hipsters is just in clothes and stuff, but not in attitude.
COWEN: So they’re conformists, ultimately.
GIDLA: Yeah, yeah.
COWEN: What’s a special cherished, treasured part of New York for you that maybe not everyone knows about?
GIDLA: Where I live, Bay Ridge.
COWEN: Bay Ridge?
COWEN: What makes that special?
GIDLA: There are different kinds of immigrant groups, Arabs and Bangladeshis and Spanish people. It used to be Greek and Irish, and now Indians. It’s very safe place. We have restaurants from different parts of the world. Everything is close by, things like that.
COWEN: What is the hardest part about your job as an MTA conductor?
GIDLA: The hardest part is you cannot take days off. You have to apply 20 days before to get a day off.
COWEN: There’s limited sick leave, presumably?
GIDLA: Yes, yeah.
COWEN: What’s the strangest use you’ve ever heard of or seen for a New York subway car?
GIDLA: Strangest use? [laughs] No, I can’t think of anything right now.
COWEN: Is the L Line the best subway for getting to Brooklyn from Midtown?
GIDLA: Uh-huh, yes. From where to Midtown?
COWEN: The L Line, say Canarsie to 8th Avenue, would you take the L Line?
GIDLA: Yes, definitely.
COWEN: Absolutely. It used to be called the LL Line when I was a kid. I was shocked to learn it’s now the L Line. I don’t know why they did that. For me, that’s very confusing.
COWEN: But I don’t actually take the subway much at all.
On Modi and reforms in India
If you were to describe to us your take, what’s going on in India now?
If I were to ask a neoliberal, they would say something like, “Well, Modi, he’s trying to be a reformer. Maybe he doesn’t have the will. Maybe the special interest groups are interfering. He’s not getting much reform done. Things are progressing in fits and starts. There’s no great wonderful turnaround, but India’s still growing. This is a country we should be positive about.”
That would be a normal neoliberal take I would hear from a lot of people, say in the investment community. But your overall take on where India is now and where it’s headed, how would you put your alternate version of what’s going on?
GIDLA: India, it’s not under Modi that these bad things are happening. They have been started by Congress, the so-called liberal party, which I would compare to probably the Democratic Party here. They have started all these measures themselves in 1991 after the market liberalization. And Modi is shoving them down our throats. Congress probably had some kind of hesitation in imposing these measures, but that’s why India, I guess, needed somebody like Modi, who can just terrorize people into accepting these things.
In India, I don’t know for whom it’s developing, but for the majority of people, it’s going down. I can say, from my point of view, there may be some Ambanis and Adanis that are profiting from it, but everybody else is losing.
COWEN: If you think of the Bengali intellectual class from India, do you think of that itself as yet another caste creation, like a caste club?
GIDLA: Yeah. Bengali is like the renaissance of India. They consider themselves culturally superior, like the French think of themselves in Europe, and they’re very proud about that.
By the way, I think that the French are still lying on the laurels of French Revolution. It’s long gone and they have nothing else to show for it now.
COWEN: [laughs] If you think of the Indian Communist Party, would you consider that to also be, in some sense, fundamentally a caste creation?
GIDLA: Yeah. It’s not in the program of Communist Party to be casteist, but all these leaders, they came from Gandhi’s party, and all they wanted is for the nationalism to be militant. Gandhi says, “Don’t be violent,” and yet his idea is that we should get independence.
Whereas Communists are like, “We want independence, but we’ll be breaking chairs and benches for getting it.” That’s the only difference. There’s no programmatic difference. These are the people who came from nationalist Indian Congress and joined the Communists. They bring along with them their caste attitudes.
COWEN: Why do you think the caste system has been and remains so strong in India compared to other countries? What accounts for that?
COWEN: But groups that are a much smaller percentage of the population. If Dalits were about a sixth of India, even though there’s no census, it’s going to be a very large number of people. As a country, it would be one of the larger countries in the world. To have untouchability on such a scale persisting for so long—what is it about India that you think has led to that?
GIDLA: I’m not a social scientist, but I can only guess from what I read. I think that there’s some special geological, geographical, climatic conditions that necessitated for some caste system to be there, to division of labor because if land is . . .
Actually, there’s an example in Australia, when people went from England to colonize. People went there, and some people were taken as the servants there. Servants soon found land of their own, and they were no longer servants. That’s the case in India. People had to be forced into a caste system.
COWEN: Some Indians have claimed to me that very often, the intermediate classes oppress the lower classes more than the Brahmins do. Would you agree?
GIDLA: Yeah, I do.
COWEN: There’s also a series of claims made, even within untouchability, that there are significant distinctions. Many Indians will say, “Well, the Malas oppress the Madigas” and that’s as bad an oppression problem as the problems across caste. Would you agree with that?
GIDLA: No, I don’t, because these divisions were created, but we were not aware. There are caste divisions, but we all consider ourselves as untouchables. We didn’t think that we have to steal from them or deprive from them.
Reservations is there to give chances for untouchables, but there’s so many things that undermine this. One of the things that they do is divide untouchables and make them fight over the common reserve seats.
On her family stories
COWEN: Now, we’ve been talking a lot about some fairly general issues, but most of your book, actually, is a very particular tale, tale of your family, tale of your uncle, tale of your mother, tale of other relatives. You appear in the story toward the end, as a young girl.
Let me just ask you a few questions about that story. It’s not possible to recount the entire story here, but if you think back on your uncle, who’s a famous and very influential revolutionary, what is your most touching memory of your uncle that you have?
GIDLA: Actually, I didn’t see my uncle until just before I came here. I never saw him before. Touching moment, I can’t say that but . . .
COWEN: Because he was in hiding, right?
GIDLA: Yeah, he was in hiding.
COWEN: So you were uncovering, ex post, this long history of his, and you barely knew him.
COWEN: Your most touching memory of your mother?
GIDLA: I don’t know. When I was arrested, she was very worried. She said, “I wish I could take you back into my womb.”
COWEN: You have siblings, right?
COWEN: Are they in India? Do they live here?
GIDLA: My sister lives here in Long Island. She is a physician. My brother is in Canada. He’s a chemical engineer. He works as a technology consultant for oil companies.
COWEN: The children in your family, they’ve been very successful. What is it in your upbringing that you would attribute that to, that there’s three of you doing great in different ways? What’s the ultimate source of that success?
GIDLA: I think that India provided narrow windows of opportunity for untouchables. It’s like we were driving in a car and all the lights were turning green just in time.
The missionaries were one such opportunities. They came in my great grandmother’s time, so she was able to get educated because of missionaries.
My parents’ generation, they got educated because it’s the whole fervor of just got independence; people are more liberal towards others. In my generation, I had the benefit of two generations behind me in the tradition of education.
COWEN: I like the story very much in the book where your mother is trying to feed you cornflakes and you’re rebelling. How did she bring you all up? What was her philosophy of parenting?
GIDLA: I don’t know. She wanted us to go to school and get educated. They’re against humanities. They think that, if one day there will be a revolution, you are required to teach something else other than what is a fact, like in history. But if it’s science, it’s going to stay irrespective of what society you’re in.
COWEN: As the years pass, do you view your own thought as becoming more radical or more conservative, and why?
GIDLA: More radical, but I refrain from talking about Obama or feminism, Black Lives Matter. There are certain things that I don’t want to talk about because they sound like conservative views, but I am radical.
COWEN: You think that what we here consider radical is actually conservative, and this is like a grand American illusion of some kind?
GIDLA: I’m sorry, what was that?
COWEN: You said there were things you don’t want to talk about because you . . .
GIDLA: Yeah, because I will alienate people. People read this book and they think that “Oh, she’s automatically going to be a feminist. She’s automatically going to be a supporter of Democratic Party, she’s automatically an admirer of Obama,” which I’m not.
COWEN: What is that . . . ?
GIDLA: And this will alienate people. That’s why I’m afraid of saying these things outside.
On current American politics
COWEN: If you think about these aspects in American society that you’re unhappy about, what would your critique consist of? If you don’t like Obama or you’re unhappy with some parts of feminism or Black Lives Matter, how would you articulate your critique?
GIDLA: The Democrats and the Republicans, by and large, they have the same interests. The Democrats act like they’re liberal. They act like they are for women’s rights, they’re for gay rights and things like that, but on the whole, they are the same. Obama here comes and he’s pretending to be such a great guy.
This guy [Ta-Nehisi Coates] wrote a book called We Were Eight Years in Power. Who is in power for eight years? I don’t understand that. All these policies that the Democrats have, those are the same things that Trump is doing. Obamacare is his biggest thing. What is it? Without preexisting condition insurance, apart from that, I don’t see any benefit from it.
COWEN: Final question before I let all of you ask questions. After all the years now you’ve lived here, are you optimistic about this country? If so, why or why not?
GIDLA: When Trump came to power, people were all saying that, “Oh, my God, we are doomed,” and stuff like that. I thought maybe it’s a chance for people to really see what’s going on here and no longer be silent about things. I was optimistic about that in that sense. I think that, yeah, things can happen to make this country better.
COWEN: Sujatha, thank you very much. I’m a huge fan of you and your book. Thank you.
GIDLA: Thank you.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: If you, as a thought experiment, were the prime minister of India or had a large political influence all over India, what is it that you would do to fight the caste system or to fight against segregation?
GIDLA: Governments, they preside over certain society. Even if I become the prime minister of India, I can’t do anything about caste system, being in a government that rules the same kind of society. The society has to be changed, not the government.
COWEN: Yes, Kate?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Have you been to Washington, DC?
GIDLA: No, not really.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Would you like to go to Washington, DC?
GIDLA: Yeah, I suppose, yeah.
COWEN: We’d be happy to host you if you ever come down.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I suppose just as a follow-up to the question of if it isn’t a government that can change the society, what would you do if you had a societal influence? Do you think it’s through charitable organizations or education or . . .
GIDLA: Charitable organization and education, they’re all within the same framework. I would have to say things that I may be hesitant to say, but the social structure has to be basically smashed and rebuilt on a collectivized basis.
Everything should be run on . . . Agriculture should be collectivized. Industry should be under the state. Foreign policy should be a monopoly of the state.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: When people ask you where you’re from, how do you respond to that question?
GIDLA: If foreigners ask me, I will say I’m from India. But if Indians ask me, I have to say which state and what caste.
COWEN: Would an Indian you would meet, say, in Manhattan, would that person know right away that you’re an untouchable?
GIDLA: One thing is that most of the Christians except Syrian Christians and some Catholic Christians in Goa, Christians are untouchables, so immediately, the lack of forehead dot tells them that I’m an untouchable.
Also, there’s a study. Indians are genetically same, but apparently, you could tell when the endogamy began. It’s 1,500 years ago people are different. There is some extra genetic thing that we inherit from castes. I think that people’s body language can easily tell which caste you are.
When I came here, people would always constantly ask me, if I’m walking on the street like, “Why are you sad? Smile. Life is not that bad.” Things like that. I didn’t think that I was sad, but everybody was saying that, and other people used to say, “Why are you so anxious? Just calm down.”
As far as untouchables are concerned and Brahmins are concerned, you can tell from the body language itself who you are.
COWEN: There’s a Russian philosophy that if you walk around smiling, you must be a fool.
COWEN: Next question. Yes?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m wondering if you think that your perception of caste system might be affected by which cast you’re from. Like, if you’re Brahmin, maybe you don’t feel the effects of the system that much and would not be . . .
GIDLA: Yeah, that’s true. Brahmins like the caste system. This guy on your blog was saying casteism is very good and probably they should adopt it for American society. Wasn’t he saying that?
COWEN: I think he was implying it at least.
Next question. Yes?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: So you don’t think very highly of Obama. Are there any American politicians who you admire or at least think are doing something useful?
COWEN: If you had in the room an American who had never been to India, but was planning a trip to India just to learn, discover, also enjoy, what advice would you give them for how they should do that trip?
GIDLA: I can go with the mundane things . . . don’t eat anything that’s not cooked. Don’t drink—
COWEN: Intellectual advice for understanding it or what they should try to experience or where they should go or what they should see.
GIDLA: Depends on the person’s interest, right? People who really want to see what 80 percent of India is like, they should go to the villages. If people want to see the beauty of India and nature and all that kind of stuff, they should go to Kerala. If people want to see the splendor of the rajas, they should go to Jaipur. If they want to see the squalor and all that stuff, they should go to Kolkata to see.
Banaras is like the Mecca of India because it’s on the banks of Ganges. You can look at it in two different ways. Brahmins will have such ecstatic experience when they go there, but at the same time, other people go there, they will see the filth and how polluted the river is. That’s there.
And Goa is a place for beaches and fun and drugs and things like that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What country do you think is doing things to your most ideal state right now?
GIDLA: I’m not a supporter of the regime in China or in Cuba, but from all developmental indexes, they’re doing well. There is more literacy in China and more literacy in Cuba and less infant mortalities, better. Even women’s equality’s better. I know it’s not perfect, but they’re better in these two countries. I don’t know much about North Korea.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You mentioned that you are not a feminist. What are your differences . . .
GIDLA: I mean feminists basically look at the world as divided between men and women, and I don’t think that. Feminists lately have become such a force for backwardness in a sense.
Like, for example, the burka and the Muslim women in Europe, they want to rip the burka off because burka is a symbol of men’s oppression. But they don’t see you can’t just do like that. The point is you give the choice to the people to wear the burka or not wear the burka, but not like you forcibly take the burka off. That’s one of the feminist things that I don’t like.
And then this Nordic model that they have in Sweden and they’re appropriating it in Germany.
COWEN: When you say Nordic model, what do you mean?
GIDLA: The prostitution—they are now arresting the people who seek prostitutes.
COWEN: The male customers.
GIDLA: That I think is draconian. Not all prostitutes are forced into it. What do men do if they don’t have any partner? It’s livelihood for many women. I think that in the guise of feminism, people are really putting restrictions on individual liberty.
COWEN: Yes, in the back.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What can America learn from India in terms of how some of these social problems India has dealt with that you mentioned and problems that we’re dealing with now in America?
GIDLA: Not much. I think India is one of the countries where communism is still a popular thing, not something that people will shirk from, but Indian communism is not that great. So from that point of view, there is nothing to learn from. Modi and Trump are seen as birds of the same feather. If they want to learn how to do bad things, they can learn from each other.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What is your opinion of Mother Teresa?
GIDLA: The whole Christian missionary thing, it is part of white man’s burden, a prop for colonization.
The white people who join those missionaries—not all of them are aware that we’re going there to get people’s support for our colonizers. There are people who are sincerely there to help people. Mother Teresa—I don’t know what her grand scheme was, but she really did a lot of good things in India.
She’s now a big target for Hindutva people. They say that she’s an agent of imperialism, agent of colonialism. She’s someone who’s spoiling Indian culture, trying to convert people into Christianity. She’s a devil, and she doesn’t deserve to be canonized and things like that. Mother Teresa is a big target for Hindutva people.
She did good things for us. She may have some other ideas, but they are not perceived by us. What we perceived is, she did a lot of good things.
COWEN: Next question, yes.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You mentioned that one of the things that led you and your family to successfully move out of where your caste was trying to place you was education. What role do you think education has in refiguring the social system, the caste system, on a larger scale? Or is it a thing that could only be possible for a few people?
GIDLA: Ambedkar’s slogan is “Educate, organize, and agitate.” This is a big thing for untouchables. They think that their emancipation lies in getting educated. It may be true, but after education, they’re not getting jobs. What can they do with education if there are no jobs?
COWEN: A question over here.
On caste in the Indian film industry
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Do you see caste in the Indian film industry at all? Do you see any films being made that talk about these issues?
GIDLA: In the beginning—when we were all filled with the fervor of Indians are all equal brothers, sisters—at that time, there were a lot of movies talking about caste system, where the hero who’s a Brahmin marries an untouchable woman, and things like that.
The politics and society has changed now. They no longer talk about social issues anymore. There used to be films about dowry system. There used to be films about laborers. There used to be films about untouchability. Now, it’s not that.
Actually, the film Bahubali, which probably you heard of, it’s like highest-grossing Indian film. It’s through and through caste film. It talks as if, like they say that there are certain people born to rule and certain people who are born to be ruled. It’s just outright casteist film.
COWEN: Are there major Bollywood actors and actresses who are Dalits?
COWEN: Next question. Yes.
On her family’s political views
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have a question. Do your family members share your political views at this point, your family who are in the United States and Canada?
GIDLA: Actually, the only relation I have with my family members is political views.
GIDLA: If we have to connect on familial links, we will always be fighting and killing each other. All that we talk about with my mother is politics and untouchability and caste and Modi and things like that.
It’s the same thing with my sister also. This is where we connect. Otherwise, we are like enemies. My brother, we’re completely alienated from each other, firstly because he goes to church now. We never used to go to church before. He’s into this Iacocca. Is there a name . . . ?
COWEN: Lee Iacocca?
COWEN: The former Chrysler chairman?
GIDLA: Yeah. He reads that kind of books.
COWEN: Management books.
GIDLA: He’s into that kind of stuff.
COWEN: You don’t?
GIDLA: He read Freakonomics and he liked it. I don’t relate to that stuff.
On influential books and what she’s planning to write next
COWEN: What would you say is the book in fiction that’s influenced you most?
GIDLA: I liked certain books like Independent People by Halldor Laxness. He’s an Icelandic writer. I liked that book a lot. It’s a really huge book. I think that they categorize it as social realism. I liked it a lot.
Then, as for nonfiction, I read this book, Hindoo Holiday by J. R. Ackerley. He went to India in 1920s and spent some time there. That’s really hilarious and well-written book. I liked that.
As for comedy, there is Amanda Filipacchi. She wrote a book called Love Creeps. It’s really, really hilarious book where the protagonist, a woman. She has everything that she wants, and now she desires desiring. Because there’s nothing else to desire for her, she’s depressed now. She goes around looking for things that she can desire and not get. That was a funny book. I liked it.
Then, what else did I like? Chester Himes is a black writer.
COWEN: Oh sure, yes.
GIDLA: He wrote black detectives, and that stuff is funny. Actually, I’m reading one right now, Blind Man with a Pistol.
I don’t know, a lot of books I like. Ferrante, I couldn’t finish that book.
COWEN: Elena Ferrante, yeah.
GIDLA: Somebody else’s, like her book is supposed to be fictional realism. I don’t really know what magical realism, social realism, fictional realism is. If everything has to be categorized in this sense, I’ll call my book “real realism.”
COWEN: For the future, is there anything you could tell us about what you’re thinking or what you’re planning in terms of further writing or expressing your ideas more?
GIDLA: People with my kind of views, they don’t get published in New York Times and things like that. That’s out for me. I don’t like writing fiction.
I like writing nonfiction but only the kind of issues that I have, which involves enthusiastic storytellers like my family and centered around an issue—for example, the farmers’ suicide in India. If we get some storytellers like that who are involved with that issue, then I’d like to write. Otherwise, I don’t see any point to write.
COWEN: Do you think there’ll ever be a time where you write about life in the United States?
GIDLA: Maybe, yeah. Possible.
COWEN: Time for one more question. Yes?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Have you traveled much in other countries and do you have thoughts about life there?
GIDLA: I went to Mexico, to a place called Puerto Vallarta. Actually, a friend had a medical conference; I tagged along and they were having this huge conference. I was sitting in the middle and typing away, writing my book. I went to Mexico; I didn’t see much of it. It’s a beach place.
Recently, I went to Czech Republic. People are really not that very interesting to talk to and interact with. For them, Americans are really a huge deal. It’s like some movie stars.
People are still missing things from the socialist days, how things were better. I think that beggars there, it’s a new thing for people to beg, so they don’t really know how to beg. They just supplicate entirely on the ground. They don’t look up. They just do like this. I found it very strange.
I went to Barcelona also.
COWEN: What did you think of that?
GIDLA: It’s good.
COWEN: It’s good, yeah.
COWEN: On that note, Sujatha Gidla, thank you very much.