“I write so that we can begin to heal,” declares Thenmozhi Soundararajan at the outset of her book, The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition. Soundararajan’s narrative is crafted from the pain, suffering and relentless wounds inflicted by the caste system, and yet she implores us to unite, heal one another, and cultivate love, emphasising the interconnectedness of our liberation. In the face of brutality, exploitation, oppression, and exclusionary systems, she encourages us to dream collectively and act towards creating a liveable and compassionate world.
The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition
North Atlantic Books
Price: Rs. 1,459
Soundararajan uncovers the historical roots of caste from the margins and also reveals its devastating consequences within the South Asian diaspora, both in the US and worldwide. In doing so, she effectively dispels the misconception that geographical relocation alone can offer respite from caste apartheid because the horrors of caste transcend boundaries.
The Trauma of Caste stands as a compelling fusion of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s teachings and the vision of Buddhism, providing an unwavering response to the onslaught of caste violence.
How many times have we truly found healing within our discussions of justice? Can justice be confined to court cases alone? What about those cases that were never reported, or those that ended on the streets, fields, or abandoned bodies? Can justice be limited to mere punishment? And can freedom be reduced to simply existing without dying?
Soundararajan urges us to contemplate these questions. She encourages us to breathe, to feel, and to confront the uneasiness we have become accustomed to. For it is only through this process that we can embark on our journeys of healing.
The Trauma of Caste delves into the intricate web of hegemonic systems such as patriarchy, Brahminism, and racism, and follows it up with a resounding call for their denunciation. It offers the comforting embrace of love to each one of us who have concealed our wounds and been conditioned to numb ourselves to our own agony, never having been introduced to the concept of healing. As Soundararajan puts it, “the recognition of the wound is how you move beyond it”.
The persistence of caste
“A whirlpool of a wound that has no name but was everywhere.” With these words, Soundararajan captures the essence of her childhood memories, reflecting on how caste cast a dark shadow over her upbringing. Her younger self had to grapple with the realisation that her worth and destiny was predetermined from the moment of her birth, burdened with the consequences she had no control over. This narrative resonates with countless children who never receive an answer to what they have done wrong. She says that one can simply substitute the word “caste” with “suffering”.
To substantiate her arguments, she presents disturbing yet critical findings from the National Human Rights Commission Report on the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes. The report reveals that every hour, two Dalits are assaulted; every day at least three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched. Thirty-seven per cent of Dalits live below the poverty line, and over 54 per cent of Dalit children suffer from malnutrition. Consequently, 83 out of every 1,000 Dalit children die before their first birthday. Furthermore, 45 per cent of Dalits are illiterate, and one-third of Dalit households lack basic amenities. In 48 per cent of villages, Dalits are denied access to water sources.
Soundararajan highlights the compounded challenges faced by Dalit women, who are victims of caste-based sexual violence. This violence serves as a means to instil fear and shame, perpetuating a climate of terror that prevents Dalits from challenging the system. She also critically re-examines the notion of South Asian identity in other parts of the world, asserting that the British implementation of their version of a racial caste system in South Africa can be seen as a direct homage to Brahminism.
This book offers a haunting account of the persistence of caste apartheid which continues to inflict fear and leave lasting scars on its victims. We inherit a society where a select few inherit land, resources, and pride at the expense of others who suffer untold abuse and hardship. How can we break this cycle that perpetuates inequality and injustice?
“The annihilation of caste is not solely the burden of Dalits; it must be a collective endeavour and a unified outcry for a world where violence finds no refuge, where life is not a burden, and where hatred does not reign.”
According to Soundararajan, the solution is to primarily acknowledge the existence of caste and its horrors. She advocates the development of “radical empathy” and fostering an atmosphere of love and solidarity, for the annihilation of caste is not solely the burden of Dalits; it must be a collective endeavour and a unified outcry for a world where violence finds no refuge, where life is not a burden, and where hatred does not reign.
In our fast-paced lives dictated by interlocking systems of oppression and capital, how often do we pause to reflect and catch our breaths? How frequently do we look back and make sense of the world we have inherited? And how attentively do we listen to and empathise with our friends, colleagues, and partners? Through this extraordinary book, Soundararajan guides us to embrace those moments of pause, reflection, and much-needed contemplation.
In a time when everything seems to be tearing us apart, this book calls for radical empathy, allowing us to truly feel and reconnect with our own humanity, thereby healing our wounds and those of others. It serves as an elaborate manifesto for a world built on the visions of Ambedkar, Phule, Ravidas, and others—a world founded on mutual trust, respect, love, and solidarity. It stands as a testament to the existence of possibilities even in the most unfortunate times, promising a better world in the face of oppression, and echoing a collective call to strive for a world where peace can truly find its place.
Anjali Chauhan is a doctoral researcher at Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.