This Indian Woman Defied The Caste System, Now She's Telling Her Story

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Being an "untouchable" in her native India meant a life of segregation and pain. Instead of giving in to tradition, she chose a very different life.

Indian woman preparing oysters. An Indian woman born into the “untouchable” caste is showing the world how defiance and perseverance can bring so-called destiny to its knees.

In her autobiography “Ants Among Elephants,” Sujatha Gidla gives us a firsthand account of her family life in India. And in the process, she teaches readers about the importance of never letting preconceived notions of who we are or who we're supposed to be lead the way.

In Sanskrit, the language of ancient Indian scholars, her name is derived from nobility. Still, her family and 300 million others are part of the Dalits caste, which is translated as “oppressed” in Sanskrit. For a long time, the Dalits were known as the “untouchables,” and if you're born into this caste, Gidla writes, that is a curse.

“Your life is your caste, your caste is your life,” she says.

Gidla, who's from Kazipet, Telangana, in India, is now 53. She works as a subway conductor in New York, but if she had stayed back home, she would still be subject to cruelty, only allowed to take on menial jobs, and live a life of segregation.

Long before she moved to America, her family back home was thankfully considered “middle class,” and that's due to the work and support of Canadian missionaries who showed Gidla's family a new way of looking at the world. Through education and a Christian upbringing, her family benefited greatly, and eventually, her parents were able to hold jobs as college teachers.

Still, she says, being a Christian in India could only get you so far.

“Christians, untouchables,” she says, “it came to the same thing. All Christians in India were untouchable. I knew no Christian who did not turn servile in the presence of a Hindu.”

Throughout the book, Gidla chronicles the very instances of humiliation and despair she and other Dalits suffered.

For example, she explains that she and others like her were forced to eat from separate plates and glasses at restaurants. Her family was also forbidden from using the community's main source of drinking water, and she could only wear footwear in segregated areas. These and many other rules, she writes, are all meant to remind Dalits of their status and keep them thinking they aren't as worthy.

Joining her uncle, the poet Shivasagar, a young Gidla embraced revolution, deciding to never let her caste define her.

Eventually, she went to an engineering college in India where she studied physics and later joined the country's most prestigious engineering school, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) as a researcher in applied physics. She moved to the United States when she was 26, where she experienced the same caste racism among members of the Indian community. Still, she says, life was finally much better.

Now, she works for the New York subway where she became the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor.

Whenever she hears someone speak in an Indian language she's familiar with, such as Telugu, she calls out a special greeting so she can watch people from her homeland smile.

Thanks to the education she got back home and her perseverance, she tells reporters, she's now happy in the United States. And to illustrate that fact, she tells just how freeing it is not to belong to a caste by sharing a quick anecdote:

"One time in a bar in Atlanta I told a guy I was untouchable, and he said, 'Oh, but you're so touchable.'"

Perhaps, her story will help others like her realize they have nothing to fear but fear itself, and that all it takes is a little bit of dedication and willingness to work hard for what you want to make things happen.

Banner and thumbnail image credit: Flickr user ShaluSharmaBihar

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