Review of Thenmozhi Soundararajan’s The Trauma of Caste: Taking on caste apartheid

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a Dalit American activist, calls for an end to discrimination in the name of caste

February 17, 2023 09:02 am | Updated 11:35 am IST

In Caste: The Lies that Divide Us, Isabel Wilkerson held the American, Indian and Nazi caste systems side by side, digging up the roots of hierarchy and the injustice they yield. Beyond the U.S., her research took her to London, Berlin, Delhi and Edinburgh, “following the historical threads of inherited human rank.” Sharing her own experience and of others she had heard, Wilkerson revealed how the world had been shaped by caste, and more scarily, how its rigid hierarchies still divide people today.

Writing about the stranglehold it had on his life while he was growing up, scholar-activist Suraj Yengde (Caste Matters) said caste played an important role in every facet and over an unthinkably large domain of public and private life. “Like all Dalit neighbourhoods in India, mine too was most neglected and placed on the fringes of power structures.” Yengde wondered if like the whites who risked their lives for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century in the U.S., progressive brahmins would take up anti-caste work.

This is a sentiment Thenmozhi Soundararajan raises in her book, The Trauma of Caste, pointing out that the world must stand with Dalit people to end the violence of caste oppression just like they did during the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

‘Soul wounds’

Soundararajan’s family was one of the first families to migrate to Los Angeles. Her parents were the first in the community to become doctors and yet crossing the oceans did not guarantee an escape from casteism. As a child, long before she learnt the word for the “anger, grief, and fear that simmered under the surface in her parents’ bodies was caste”, she noticed small things — that her father did not reveal his full name to other Indians for that would give away his caste in an instant, and the Dalit village he hailed from or that her mother taught them never to tell their Indian friends that they were Dalit Christians.

She agrees with trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem’s argument that the marginalised and oppressed have to understand systems of exclusion through the lens of trauma and in doing so recognise the resulting racial soul wound that is at the heart of ongoing racial violence and exclusion. “Soul wounds are the deep wrenching pain that results from historical trauma — often used in relation to the intergenerational experience of Native Americans.”

In 2015, Soundararajan cofounded Equality Labs with several Dalit feminists with the goal of ending caste apartheid, gender-based violence and religious intolerance. To end the cycle of trauma, Soundararajan, mirroring Buddhism, suggests four ‘Noble Truths’: first, that caste exists; the second is that caste is a “human creation set up to benefit a few at the expense of many”; the third truth is that there are paths towards freedom in each facet of caste violence; and the fourth truth is that there can be an end to caste.

Her powerful, moving manifesto explores the possible ways caste can be annihilated, through love and healing: “The responsibility to life... is everywhere. It cannot simply be on the shoulders of the oppressed. We gain so much when we return to the family of humanity.”

The Trauma of Caste; Thenmozhi Soundararajan, North Atlantic Books/PRH, ₹699.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.