Sujatha Gidla was only 2 years old when she first realized she’s different.
One day, her parents had a fight. Her mother stormed out of the house and headed for the railway station. There, she bumped into a colleague, who was also with her daughter.
“My mother was carrying me and she was carrying her [daughter] … My mother was talking to her with deference and she was talking nicely, but condescendingly,” Gidla recalls. “And even though I was young I could realize that she was wearing nicer clothes than my mother and all the concentration of all these people around was on her kid and nothing on me. So, I thought that these people are some people special.”
According to Indian society, they were special because of the family they were born in to. They belonged to an upper caste.
But Gidla and her mother were born Dalits and were considered impure or untouchable. In other words: social outcasts.
Gidla says the best way to explain castes is to relate it to racism, “because racism is also based on birth. So caste is like racism except that we’re not differentiated by skin color.”
One way untouchables are differentiated is through the jobs they hold. Historically, they worked in the fields, cleaned human waste and did the work nobody else wanted.
This discrimination was outlawed in India in 1955. But the prejudice continues today. And Gidla’s life story is full of memories of bigotry and shame.
Each caste in India is divided into various sub-castes and the one Gidla comes from is called Mala.
“For us, our caste name itself [Mala] is the N-word. You can’t say it in a good way,” she explains. “When people ask us [what caste we are] we won’t say because it’s too shameful.”
But Gidla was one of the luckier untouchables. Her parents were middle class, educated in schools set up by Canadian missionaries. She also went to one of these schools and saw the divisions between students at a young age.
“That school had untouchables from the villages. They were made to sit on the floor. They were made to not interact with anybody. They were made to sweep the grounds and clean the dishes in the compound.”
Gidla was lucky, and as a result of her parent’s education, was sheltered from mistreatment. But when she left her small town to study physics at college, her parent’s education no longer protected her.
After all, she says, “In India, your life is your caste. Your caste is your life.”
“There was one girl in my class and she just hated me. She said, ‘You’re sneezing on me. You’re sitting next to me. Just keep yourself away from me.’ And the woman said finally that ‘I can’t sit with that untouchable in the same class.’ So she quit and left.”
One in six Indians is a Dalit or untouchable. And sometimes, Gidla says, the mistreatment and discrimination gets so bad, some of them resort to suicide.
Last year, a Ph.D student hanged himself in his dorm room. He left a note that read, “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness.”
In the past decade, at least 22 other Dalit students from top universities have reportedly committed suicide.
Gidla’s break from life as an untouchable came in the 1990s, when she moved to New York City.
At first, it took some adjusting to life in the US. Gidla says years of humiliation and discrimination has left its mark on her. She had to get used to the idea that, in the US, her caste doesn’t define her.
She says that sometimes, she found herself unconsciously turning to old, submissive habits.
“I came here, I had white boyfriends and you know, I was intimate with them and yet when he wanted to share my food I was very uncomfortable because I’m going to contaminate him. I said ‘No. No. No. Don’t eat this food because I touched it.’ And he was very sad and horrified.”
When she told her American friends that she wasn’t allowed to drink from the same water fountain as her upper-caste classmates, they were shocked.
“Not just Americans, all non-Indians in America treat me as an Indian. Just plain Indian,” she says. “I mean it doesn’t mean that America is a great place that is free of prejudices, bigotry and hate. But they don’t have caste prejudice so I am subjected to one less prejudice.”
One less prejudice meant she could thrive — and she has. Besides helping New Yorkers move through the city every day, Gidla is now an author.
Her memoir, “Ants Among Elephants,” was published last month, to strong reviews.
It took Gidla 15 years to gather the material for it — to verify family stories with her mom and uncle, both in India.
For now, she says she’s excited to see her book come to life, but doesn’t expect it to put an end to the plight of untouchables in India.
“People will read about it. ‘Oh there’s such a bad thing in India,’ they will realize. Maybe one or two of them possibly [will think] ‘Oh what should I do? Who should I join to fight this kind of injustice?’ But in general this whole thing is not going to help change the condition of untouchables.”
Nor, she says, will the election of an untouchable president in July.
Still, that doesn’t stop her from sharing her story with the world. Because in the US, Gidla is not ashamed of who she is.
She’s no longer untouchable.