Sujatha Gidla’s memoir, Ants Among Elephants, traces an educated family deemed untouchable (Dalit) by the caste system in India. It was one of the Wall Street Journal’s Top 10 Nonfiction Book of 2017. Gidla wrote banking software applications for almost 10 years before becoming a subway conductor with the New York City Transit Authority. Here’s how she made ends meet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Medium: As a child in rural India, what did “going to work” look like?
Sujatha Gidla: My mother and father were [college] lecturers. My father taught English, and my mother taught history. In India, if you don’t speak English, you don’t go anywhere, so people used to come to our house for private tutoring. They adored my father and dressed like he did, so we thought that was pretty cool.
Your uncle was the poet and Maoist leader K.G. Satyamurthy. Was he able to show you what the life of a writer would look like?
No. The first time I saw [my uncle], I was 23 years old. He was underground until then. It was completely unimaginable for me to be a writer. My background was such that it is an extraordinary thing for people to want to read, let alone write.
But your parents are academics. They didn’t read and write?
In small towns [in India], college lecturers study a subject in textbooks and teach the same in class. They don’t really read. My mother and father’s colleagues didn’t have books, but my father was exceptional — he had Dickens and stuff like that. I tried to read them even when I was very young. There was also a man who ran a circulating library on his bicycle. He would bike house to house with magazines and books. My mother would find something we could do without that month, then pay him.
Unless you’re upper caste, upper class, and very urban elite, you don’t pursue literature.
Was becoming a writer unimaginable to you because you grew up in rural India? Because you are a woman? Because you are Dalit [“untouchable”]?
All three. The reason India produces so many engineers is people want to study what they will definitely earn income from. Doctors first, and engineers next, and everything else is kind of trash. Unless you’re upper caste, upper class, and very urban elite, you don’t pursue literature.
You’ve said that as a child, you were attracted to jobs that men do. Can you tell me about that?
In India, women are very restricted. You can’t swing your arms. You can’t laugh. I would be sitting in a chair and somebody would say, “Oh, you’re immodest. Put your legs together.” It was very insulting. These restrictions used to make me feel very violated, almost like a rape. I hated it and wanted to be as carefree as men were. So I was the first girl in my town to learn how to ride a bicycle, because in small towns, bikes were only for boys. Then I had a Vespa. When all the girls wanted to be doctors, I said, “No, I want to be an engineer. And a mechanical engineer at that.”
When did you start to think about writing?
I can’t really say. I spent a year in Delhi. The people there studied subjects other than science and exposed me to Western music and novels. I think that’s why I started going to libraries. Later, when I was a research associate at the India Institute of Technology, I read Catch-22. I never got the deeper meaning, but I thought it was hilarious. A research scholar in my department asked, “Why did you like it? What’s in there?” I think he was asking, “How can you tell a good book from a bad book?” And I couldn’t explain. So I thought, “There must be some way of telling him why it’s a good book, a way to explain why I like this.” I asked my father, and he told me there was a field called literary criticism. The idea that one should be able to defend their feelings or reactions to a book was fascinating to me.
And then you came to Columbia University to study.
I came to study physics but wasn’t into it, so I didn’t study at all. Things had come very easily for me until my master’s degree, at which point there were subjects I didn’t understand. Then I tried to study how to use multimedia in teaching, but dropped out. I tried to study computers and got into computer work.
What sort of jobs did you do?
I really struggled. I worked in IT for almost 13 years, nine of them writing software programs for the Bank of New York. It’s on a huge floor with cubicles. All the team members were in neighboring cubicles, and I would write programs or make corrections to existing ones. We would ask some other department to test them, and they would tell us what wasn’t working. I was very unhappy. Not with the bank, but the whole industry. In the MTA [where I work now], we are a crew of two, and we have to work together. But [at the bank]… I don’t know, it seemed like the Indians suspected I was untouchable. So I didn’t have any Indian friends. And the non-Indians were Russians, who were not into non-Russians. I felt very alienated.
When did you start writing the book that would become ‘Ants Among Elephants’?
I like understanding stuff, like how does caste work? Caste is very amorphous. So I started writing what I observed about castes. And then I decided that I should find out how my family became untouchable. So I called my mother, and the stories she told me blew my mind.
She told me of how they harbored dissidents, and they didn’t know what police were. So when police came, [my family] beat them up, not knowing what the consequences would be. And then how my uncle went underground in the forest. As soon as I would hear these stories, they would make me breathless. I wanted to convey that feeling to others, make a reader become breathless. That’s what drove me to write a book. Until that point, I wasn’t planning to be a writer.
At this point, you’re still at the bank. How were you finding time to write?
By this time, I had recorded the conversations with everyone I had collected stories from. When I finished my work at the bank, around 6:00 p.m., I would stay at my cubicle and transcribe the tapes until 10:00 p.m.
Did anyone at the bank notice that you had on earphones and were transcribing?
Yes. They probably thought I was doing something else.
You left the bank and became a conductor for the MTA.
I didn’t plan to. One day, while I was still working at the bank, I got off the A train and I saw a woman train operator. I was really very in awe. The MTA had posted the examination notice [for the conductor’s position] in the train. So I took the test for fun. That was in 2005 or before. But I forgot about it. But when I was laid off from the bank in 2009, somebody said, “Didn’t you take that test?” And I said, “Oh, yeah! This is what I want to do.” In March, I was fired [from the bank], and in May, I got a call from the MTA.
I just don’t have respect for people who don’t work. I especially don’t like an unemployed artist.
Did the MTA send you to school to be a train conductor?
Yeah, six weeks.
Working as a conductor on a moving train isn’t like the bank — you can’t transcribe at your desk. How did you keep writing?
I used to take a computer and work on it in the crew room on my breaks. At the terminal, we have at least a 15-minute break. And I would write on my commute, coming and going from work. But by then I had already written several drafts of every chapter. So it was a matter of revising, putting it together. And this a very mechanical job, so your brain can do whatever it wants while working. I would do the job and let my mind figure out, “Maybe I can write the opening of the chapter in a different way?” Things like that.
Would you stay late in the crew room after your shift was done just to keep working? Or write when you get home?
No, I never did that. This is a physically taxing job. When I get home, I’m tired. I could never work on the book when I was at home. Writing is not what I do to relax. I lie down on the couch and watch TV. So, to write, there has to be no other form of entertainment available.
So this book was written entirely in the break rooms?
Yes. And also on my commute. I could hand revise on the train to and from work.
You have said that as a Marxist Communist, you have romantic feelings about being a working-class person. Tell me a little about that.
I’m not sure if I can elaborate more than that. A few months ago, I hurt my back, so I stayed home. I really hated not working, I just felt so rudderless and disoriented. Also, I just don’t have respect for people who don’t work. I especially don’t like an unemployed artist. I think that everybody should work. It gives them dignity.
I know you’re working on a sequel and a prequel. Are you going to structure your writing the same way—in the break room and on your commute?
I used to write when I felt like. But after the book got published, I don’t have much time. I’m doing interviews now for Ants Among Elephants, writing and answering emails on the commute and in the break room. Only yesterday I was thinking, “What if I find out I can’t write other than in this manner?” People tell me now that I am an established writer, I have to set up a desk, a computer, regular hours. I’m very skeptical.
Anything you wish you’d done differently?
I wish that I had started writing the book a long time ago. Because the people I was talking with were old and dying. And I still regret that I didn’t get my uncle’s story completely. He must have had tons of interesting stuff to tell us, and I feel like it’s a crime that he was left to die before he got to tell us.
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