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Book Review: Ants among Elephants

Ants among Elephants is an absorbing and moving history of modern India from the perspective of a family of Christian “untouchables.” Author Sujatha Gidla, now a New York City subway conductor and member of Transport Workers Local 100, traces three generations of her family to describe life at the bottom rungs of caste society, the changes that came about–or didn’t–following Indian independence from Great Britain, and the country’s development in the second half of the 20th century. Gidla has written a moving and powerful book about oppression, struggle, and social change–or the lack thereof.

This is not an academic book. She writes in a straightforward, almost conversational style. It’s easy to picture her swapping stories about families in the crew room between subway runs.

FAMILY HISTORY

Her mother’s generation dominates the narrative.

Gidla shows us the staggering poverty of untouchables in the Indian countryside, the absolute subjection of women in traditional society, and the political and social struggles that sought to change conditions for workers and peasants (if not for women). Gidla’s Christian family was outside of Hindu caste society. Where she grew up, that meant they were untouchables–although she came to learn that in other parts of India, there were high-caste Christians.

Unlike most other untouchables in rural India, they were able to receive educations at missionary schools. Her grandfather became a teacher. However, because of their caste status, this did not provide his family with a path out of extreme poverty.

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The person who figures largest in this story is the author’s uncle Satyam. He became politically active at an early age, organizing students, workers, and poor farmers in the 1950s and early 1960s. He eventually became a leader of a Maoist-inspired guerilla army.

He was a forceful organizer and talented political strategist. And as Gidla tells it, he was totally incapable of taking care of himself–to the point where others washed his clothes and trimmed his toenails! Satyam’s younger sister Manjula, Gidla’s mother, also figures prominently.

She was probably as politically committed as her brother, though she was limited by her status as a woman in a deeply conservative and traditional society. She received an education and became a teacher, but could not find secure employment. She was married off to someone she didn’t know (also a teacher) and continued to live a hand-to-mouth existence.

As the mother of three children and often the primary breadwinner for an extended family, she had no time or energy for the political engagement that shaped the life of her brother, who simply left his children with his wife when he decided to join a guerilla force.

UNION JOB

We meet the author first as a young child; late in the book she reappears as an adult. She receives an education through college in India and comes to the U.S. in her mid-20s for graduate school. She doesn’t tell us much about her years here or the transition that was required of her, but when the financial sector collapsed in 2008, she lost her job.

After passing a civil service exam she became a subway conductor. With the publication of Ants among Elephants, she may no longer need the security provided by a union job. But for me as a retired subway train operator and former union officer, it’s nice to think that her job played a small part in helping her to produce this book.

Steve Downs was a member of Transport Workers Union Local 100 for 35 years.

References

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Book review: 'The Year of the Pitcher' looks at 1968 America

Dennis Anderson More Content Now

In 1968, as America struggled with racial unrest and the Vietnam War, Jackie Robinson was trying to capture what was happening and its effect on youth. “Young people nowadays are learning to hate,” he said. ” … They’re looking for achievements.

The kids aren’t like we were. They’re not fearful. They’re not afraid of dying.”

Robinson was 49 in 1968, 21 years removed from his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers and four years away from his premature death. Robinson’s challenges never ended. Robinson is one of four main characters in Sridhar Pappu’s “The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 374 pages; £28).

Besides Robinson, Pappu features the self-promoting McLain, the last pitcher to win 30 games in one season; the stoic yet imposing Gibson, who finished 1968 with a miniscule 1.12 earned run average; and pitching coach Johnny Sain, who made journeymen pitchers into superstars and insecure managers jittery. Pappu’s stories of Gibson and Robinson are the richest. Gibson took time to mature into the intimidating pitcher who led the St.

Louis Cardinals to three World Series, winning two of them. A product of Omaha’s projects, Gibson was a multi-sport athlete, who played for the Harlem Globetrotters. He started his big-league career 12 years after Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, yet he and other black players continued to experience the same bigotry.

Gibson, whose 1968 season was spectacular, was a complex man who remained in the shadow of white pitchers who were on covers of national magazines and TV commercials, such as Don Drysdale, who pitched 58 2/3rd consecutive shutout innings in 1968 and the Pepsi-swigging McLain, who flew his own jet and performed concerts on the organ and sold his albums. McLain was formidable, but Sain made him great by working with him on an over-the-top curve. Soon the wins piled up as they never had since Dizzy Dean last won 30 games in 1934.

McLain was chasing fame and found it. What he did with it was something else. Sain, a Robinson contemporary, was a late-blooming pitcher in the 1940s and 1950s.

He and Hall-of-Famer Warren Spahn were the best of a Boston Braves rotation of Spahn and Sain and “pray for two days of rain.” Former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, who won 21 games (one-third of his career total) in 1963, called Sain “The greatest pitching coach who ever lived.” Many other pitchers said the same about Sain. But his success didn’t sit well with some of his managers, who thought Sain was out for their job.

He wasn’t. Sain was an innovator and a motivator whose methods changed the game. One of his disciples was Leo Mazzone, pitching coach for Atlanta during the years of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who won a combined five National League Cy Young Awards from 1993-1998.

Through Robinson’s story, Pappu examines the strife America faced in 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Robinson was in demand from baseball people and politicians wanting to use his name to bring credibility to their mission. Robinson was a World War II veteran before he was a Dodger, with conservative values.

He was also a man struggling to help his son, who returned from fighting in Vietnam a drug addict and a lawbreaker. The war and race were an unsettling part of baseball during much of the 1960s. Many players were in the National Guard, serving weekends and often called to duty to respond to emergencies in the cities in which they played.

Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich spent 15 days in his Michigan Air National Guard uniform during the 1967 Detroit race riots. Pappu illustrates seminal moments of 1968, such as Jose Feliciano’s “soft, personalized” version of the National Anthem before Game 5 of the World Series between the Tigers and Cardinals. The unorthodox version inflamed many.

A Puerto Rican native who made it in America, he had arrived, but “now Feliciano would feel the wrath of the nation he loved,” Pappu writes. Pappu spends the first third of the book bringing the reader up to the events in 1968. He doesn’t replay the season or explain in-depth why pitching so dominated the game like never before or since.

He does, however, focus on how baseball got to where it was in 1968, and how it would evolve. “The Year of the Pitcher” is about a difficult time in American history that continues to resonate. It comes at the right time for today’s America.

— Peoria Journal Star Executive Editor Dennis Anderson can be reached at danderson@pjstar.com and on Twitter at @dennisedit.

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