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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 (
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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 and on Twitter at @dennisedit.