STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
In the caste system of India, the family you're born into can determine a lot - where you live, who you marry, the jobs you'll have. Sujatha Gidla was born in untouchable - the lowest caste in Indian society.
SUJATHA GIDLA: The untouchables, whose special role, whose hereditary duty is to labor in the fields of others, to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all. They are not allowed to enter temples, not allowed to come near sources of drinking water used by the other castes, not allowed to eat sitting next to a caste Hindu or to use the same utensils.
SMITH: In her new book. "Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making Of Modern India," Gidla takes us through four generations of her family. Many of them were educated, but the untouchable label always followed their lives. And that was despite the fact they worked as teachers, poets, revolutionaries. And Gidla herself graduated from one of the top engineering schools in India and worked in banking in New York City. Gidla has since changed careers and works for the New York City subway. Still, she says she could never escape her caste, even in America. She says when she meets a fellow Indian, it's often one of the first questions they ask.
GIDLA: What caste are you? You cannot avoid this question. And you cannot refuse to answer. By tradition, everyone has the right to know.
SMITH: India's caste system is more than 3,000 years old. It's one of the oldest social hierarchies in the world. The system was officially banned in 1950. It's illegal to discriminate based on caste, but Gidla says the caste system is still very real. As a young girl, nobody told her she was untouchable, but she says she felt it.
GIDLA: Caste names are also disparaging names, like a negro and the N-word are blended into one. So saying the caste name is very difficult for families like mine after they came to the cities and became educated. So now we're told is that this is what we are. But from their behavior, I could know that we're inferior.
SMITH: Things crystallized for Gidla when she was 9 years old and saw a Bollywood movie, where a poor man from a high caste marries a rich woman from a lower caste. Their relationship shocked her.
GIDLA: That's when I started thinking about relation between caste and route and social status.
SMITH: When I spoke with Sujatha Gidla about her life as an untouchable, she described how the caste system in India compares to the social structures in this country.
GIDLA: For some reason, untouchables, they instinctively know that their situation and the situation of blacks in America is very similar, blacks probably because they don't know about untouchability. But we do know about racism because we watch American news and read American news, so we instinctively relate to black people in America. But I have to think about it. Why do we identify with them? I think it's because both are dependent on their birth status. Caste is hereditary. I am the same cast as my forefathers.
And in a way, racism is a caste system in the sense that there is this one drop rule that however light skin you are, you're still considered black. And so the kind of discrimination they are subjected to has similar kind of things. For example, a black man, if he married or fell in love with a white woman, it was a very dangerous situation in the South in Jim Crow. Only recently, a upper-caste girl fell in love with this untouchable boy. The boy was tortured and killed.
SMITH: Do you feel more liberated from your caste here in the U.S.?
GIDLA: When I'm not interacting with Indians, yes, I feel completely liberated. But once you meet an Indian person, even in America, the caste comes into picture immediately. People who are here, who went to school here and came as professionals, if we go to parties in their homes, they won't ask you what caste you are. But if their parents or their grandparents are there, they will simply accost you and demand to know your caste. It was only in 2005 I was able to say, I am an untouchable to somebody who asked me that question.
SMITH: Why was it difficult?
GIDLA: Because it's simply how their attitude changes. For example, my sister - one time, she needed somebody to help her with cooking. And this woman responded to the ad. And she came by train. My brother-in-law picked her up in the car. And she immediately asked him, what caste are you? And he avoided saying this, but she continually, continually asked him. And when she came to the house, she did the same thing with my sister. And when they refused to say, she even said that I will give you multiple choice. You can say yes to one of those answers.
SMITH: She really wanted to know.
SMITH: You live in New York, and you work as a subway conductor. And I feel like the subway's often talked about in New York as this great equalizer of rich people, poor people ride the subway. I wonder if that is why you chose that job?
GIDLA: I was always drawn to things that are supposed to be only men's territory. All the girls who were studying medicine are trying to get into medical school. I wanted to be an engineer. And then when I came here, I was riding subway. I saw a female driver. I wanted to be like that. Also, railways was one of the venues through which untouchables escape their caste occupation.
When the British were laying railroads, it was a very hard job because they were clearing forests. And there were animals that could attack you and snakes. And only untouchables came forward to do that stuff because their condition was so bad that this is an escape for them. And in my grandfather's generation, there were track workers and people who clean the trains and stations. So I kind of felt like, you know, it's my family. This is in my blood.
SMITH: That was Sujatha Gidla. Her book, "Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making Of Modern India," is out now. Sujatha, this was such a pleasure. Thank you.
GIDLA: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANT REVIVAL'S "THE PASTURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.