This is a family biography that encompasses a history rarely told: despite its longevity, caste, and caste oppression, is not a popular theme in India. Sujatha Gidla writes of poisoned lives, of disillusionment, betrayed hopes, unrequited loves, attempted escapes through alcohol and sex. What distinguishes her book is its rich mix of sociology, anthropology, history, literature and politics.
Gidla’s great-grandparents were born in the late 19th century in the Khammam district of what is now Andhra Pradesh. They belonged to a clan of pre-agricultural, forest-based tribal nomads. Hunting and gathering supplied basic necessities; they worshipped their own forest gods. When the occupying British cut down forests and replaced them with teak plantations, the clan was forced out. They found a large lake with no villages nearby and settled on its shores. The soil was rich. They took to agriculture and produced much more rice than they needed. They found a market for the surplus, which meant that they caught the attention of local landlords and their agents: they were forced to pay taxes and dragged into the caste-based Hindu world. As landless agricultural labourers they were the lowest of the low, classed as untouchables, ‘outcastes’. They carried on as normal, until one day they provided shelter, as was their custom, to a fugitive from the Yanadi clan who was on the run from the police. (He was a burglar: the Yanadis rejected all private property rights and it was their ‘sacred duty’ to violate them.) When a few policemen arrived the villagers drove them away. But then Gidla’s clan encountered modernity in the shape of a hundred baton-carrying colonial policemen, who destroyed their goods and food, harassed the women and took every male into custody. ‘The villagers did not know what to do,’ Gidla writes.