A memoir of the lowest caste

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Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India. By Sujatha Gidla. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 320 pages; $28.

ONE in six Indians is a Dalit, which means “oppressed” in Sanskrit. That is to say, 200m Indians belong to a community deemed so impure by the scriptures that they are placed outside the hierarchical Hindu caste system and are commonly called “untouchable”. Upper-caste Hindus traditionally treated untouchables as agents of pollution. To come into contact with them was to be defiled, they believed. Indian villages depended on untouchables to provide field labour and clear away human waste. Yet untouchables were excluded from village life. They could not—and often still cannot—enter Hindu temples, draw water from common wells, touch caste Hindus or even live inside the village. Punishments for breaching caste boundaries are severe.

Many untouchables, lured by Western…Continue reading

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