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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.


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.


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.


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Mischka’s War by Sheila Fitzpatrick review – my husband in Nazi Germany

Mischka aged 21 in 1943.

Mischka aged 21 in 1943.Photograph: IB TaurisBiography[1]

Mischka’s War by Sheila Fitzpatrick review – my husband in Nazi Germany

The renowned historian of the Soviet Union recounts the early life of her late husband, including his unforgettable story of the bombing of Dresden

‘Show yourself as you are, make the readers like you,” Fitzpatrick pleads with Mischka, the subject of her new biographical-historical investigation. It’s an unusual situation for any writer to be in. Mischka is her dead husband, yet she’s telling his story as a historian, reconstructing his early life from largely written sources.

Theirs was a late marriage. She was successful, known for her revisionist work on the Soviet Union; he was a successful physicist. They met on a plane in 1989, when she was 48 and he 67. “Five years if you must, but please, if you possibly can, 10 years,” she pleaded at the time.

He died 10 years later. Now Fitzpatrick has decided to make the most of “the power to bring the dead back to life by writing about them”. As a historian, she isn’t interested in his recent past.

She wants to explore his life before they met, finding out about his childhood in Latvia and young adulthood in wartime Germany. Superficially, it’s a classic ?migr? tale. He had a relatively prosperous childhood and adolescence in Riga, where his mother Olga left his financially chaotic father and successfully assumed responsibility for the family finances by starting a fashion atelier.

He ended up as a displaced person in postwar Germany, and then emigrated to America. It’s a story, however, with more than the usual share of good luck. When the Russians occupied Latvia in 1940, the lives of many of Mischka’s contemporaries deteriorated rapidly, but he had experience in radio so he started a job at the State Electrotechnical Factory[2].

He gained permission to enter the University of Riga as an engineering student in 1941 and then, just as conscription was introduced by Latvia’s new German occupiers in 1944, he pulled off the unlikely feat of being transferred to Germany as an exchange student. This strange move to Nazi Germany is at the heart of Fitzpatrick’s book. Implicit is the question of how a man she loved and respected could have made a voluntary decision to move to Hitler’s Germany four years into the war, apparently unperturbed by the racial situation there.

It becomes even more odd when we learn that she discovered after his death that his Hungarian father was a Jew by bloodline, though he’d claimed throughout his adult life to be Catholic. And it takes on an eerie quality when we read that in winter 1944, Mischka took a tourist trip around his adopted homeland, which he described to his mother as “positive in the highest degree”. He visited Innsbruck, Garmisch and Munich, falling in love with the mountains.

Despite her pleas to her husband to be likable for his readers, Fitzpatrick doesn’t soften the peculiarity of all this. But she records her own realisation that “individuals are not statistical averages. Once you have real individual people in your sights, you constantly notice anomalies.” As a historian devoted to nuancing the totalitarian view of the Soviet Union, she had assumed that living under the Nazis would be worse than living under the Soviets, because they had the “nastier ideology”.

In fact, when Mischka was faced with the likely reoccupation of Latvia by the Russians, Germany called, because it offered a better chance to train as a physicist. Once there, he was too preoccupied to pay much attention to what was happening, though his mother did her best to employ Jews in the state-sponsored tailoring business she had meanwhile set up in Riga, making suspenders and straw sandals for the German army. Mischka’s self-centred oblivion seems to have been in large part the product of his youth.

On 16 June 1944, as the Germans bombarded the British with V1s and the Allies advanced into Italy, he informed his mother that he’d come to see that logic was just one of the “humanly generated systems for the consistent ordering of observed phenomena”. He paused in his musings to complain that his status as a foreigner had prevented him from participating in Dresden’s regional sports meet and that when they did finally let him join in, they’d produced an inadequate pole for his pole-vaulting. Olga, though equally bent on survival, was less forgetful. “Once I had a family.

Five people, for whom I was the fulcrum,” she wrote in her diary, worrying about her other two sons. It wasn’t until February 1945 that Mischka was forced to pay attention to the war. On the night of 13 February, he hosted a goodbye party as he was heading to Flensburg, determined to escape Soviet control of East Germany when the war ended.

He’d made Russian fruit jelly for his guests. Suddenly the door keeled into the room and they heard a distant noise of explosions. He set out to walk a girl from the party home and confronted a city on fire. “The sight is mesmerising,” he wrote afterwards; “I stand there hypnotised, a 20th-century Nero.”

The account of the Dresden bombing would alone be enough to make this fascinating book worth reading. There are few narratives published in English[3] that record the experience on the streets that night in this much detail. Mischka was one of many witnesses of bombing raids who appreciated the spectacle at the same time as confronting the horror.

He noted the “luminescent parachutes” in his diary: “They hung like grapes in the air and came down very slowly.” But, as he came upon rows of collapsed houses, he became conscious of the reality of suffering. “Then there is visible the hair, the back of a human head, then again a leg sticks out.” In the midst of this, a young giraffe approached and walked through the rubble, “without haste, her head held high”. He made it to Flensburg. He even had time to fall in love before he left, observing a month after the raid that “life is still beautiful”.

He survived life in postwar Germany with relative ease, registering as a displaced person in both the British and American zones and receiving British army rations in exchange for helping them revive the radio network. After the war, Olga wanted to go to Argentina but he was determined to go to the US. Once again, he wished to get as far away from the Russians as he could.

It’s one of the pleasurable quirks of fate recorded here that it was in America that he met the Australian historian of the Soviet Union who made it her business to document his peculiar, sometimes maddeningly triumphant life. o Lara Feigel’s The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich is published by Bloomsbury. o Mischka’s War is published by IB Tauris.

To order a copy for ?17 (RRP ?20) go to[4] or call 0330 333 6846.

Free UK p&p over ?10, online orders only.

Phone orders min p&p of ?1.99.


  1. ^ Biography (
  2. ^ State Electrotechnical Factory (
  3. ^ few narratives published in English (
  4. ^ (

This great jazz pianist fell into a coma for months. He came back better than ever.

Good Things Happen Slowly A Life In and Out of Jazz By Fred Hersch Crown Archetype.

320 pp. £28 Since its beginning more than a century ago, jazz has been considered a form of music created by social misfits and outcasts. Yet one group has been conspicuously absent from the historical picture: gay men.

Crown Archetype In a macho musical culture in which instruments are called “axes” and dueling solos are known as “cutting contests,” the traditional image of the jazz musician is that of a strong, if troubled, man leaving a string of broken (female) hearts behind. Some jazz autobiographies, such as those of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Art Pepper, seem to reveal more about their authors’ sexual exploits and drug use than their music.

With the notable exception of Billy Strayhorn, who spent his career largely out of the spotlight as a composer and arranger for Duke Ellington, virtually no jazz instrumentalist came out as an openly gay man until pianist Fred Hersch did so in the early 1990s. Now, in his new memoir, “Good Things Happen Slowly,” Hersch writes of how jazz captivated him as a teenager growing up in Cincinnati and of how he struggled for years to be honest with himself and others about his sexuality. “I had no role models for an integrated life,” he notes, “and was aware of how difficult reconciling the jazz cat Fred and the gay man Fred would be.”

Hersch brilliantly captures the spontaneity and sensitivity required to play jazz at the highest level, perhaps best expressed by one of his mentors, saxophonist Joe Henderson: “If you feel it, it’s right. If you think it, it’s probably not right.” [Review: ‘A Life of Duke Ellington,’ by Terry Teachout[1]]

Beyond the music, Hersch writes of his life as an HIV-positive man, fearful that he would not live to see 40. He sought to compose, perform and record as much music as he could and, in the process, became recognized as one of the finest pianists of his generation. Yet there were repeated setbacks along the way, including a harrowing series of health problems that led to psychotic episodes and left him in a coma for two months in 2008.

He came out of it weighing less than 100 pounds but with a renewed dedication to his music. “I think my playing is better in many ways today than it was before I got so sick,” he writes. Now 62, Hersch has thrived in the years since, with a stable relationship, multiple Grammy nominations, and, with this book, one of the most honest and moving memoirs ever written by a jazz musician.

Matt Schudel, a Washington Post staff writer, often writes about jazz.


  1. ^ Review: ‘A Life of Duke Ellington,’ by Terry Teachout (