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Book Review: The Trauma of Caste: A Dalit Feminist Meditation on Survivorship, Healing, and Abolition by Thenmozhi Soundararajan

December 19, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A purple background with green decoration. the title of the book and author's name are in yellow. It notes a foreword by Tarana Burke in white.

Indian people are born into a specific, unchangeable caste. People of the lowest caste – Dalits – suffer discrimination and injustice. Here a Dalit feminist Buddhist author explores how Dalits can survive and heal from this trauma and allies can work toward justice.

Summary:
“Dalit” is the name that we chose for ourselves when Brahminism declared us “untouchable.” Dalit means broken. Broken by suffering. Broken by caste: the world’s oldest, longest-running dominator system…yet although “Dalit” means broken, it also means resilient.

Despite its ban more than 70 years ago, caste is thriving. Every 15 minutes, a crime is perpetrated against a Dalit person. The average age of death for Dalit women is just 39. And the wreckages of caste are replicated here in the U.S., too—erupting online with rape and death threats, showing up at work, and forcing countless Dalits to live in fear of being outed.

Dalit American activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan puts forth a call to awaken and act, not just for readers in South Asia, but all around the world. She ties Dalit oppression to fights for liberation among Black, Indigenous, Latinx, femme, and Queer communities, examining caste from a feminist, abolitionist, and Dalit Buddhist perspective—and laying bare the grief, trauma, rage, and stolen futures enacted by Brahminical social structures on the caste-oppressed.

Review:
I read and enjoyed Radical Dharma. It is a Black Buddhist exploration of systemic racial injustice against Black folks. It also uses Buddhist thought to progress toward liberation. The publisher recommended this book to readers of Radical Dharma, and I could tell from the title alone the parallels. Indian society oppresses Dalit peoples in very similar ways to how US American society oppresses Black folks. For example, they were both the source of enslaved labor in the 1800s. The author, a Dalit American woman, offers a very personal exploration of what it is to be a part of the Dalit diaspora. She also explores how her Buddhist belief system helps her navigate her trauma and advocate for societal change.

The author divides the book into four sections she calls mediations – The Existence of Caste, The Source of Caste, From Wounds to Liberation, and The End of Caste. There are also two appendixes that I found so meaningful I think they’re better thought of as part of the main book. The first explores Dalit social justice activists throughout time like B.R. Ambedkar and Phoolan Devi. The second is healing meditations for those truamatized by caste.

If you have ever heard of an “untouchable” caste this book makes it clear that this is not the name that members of this caste chooses for themselves. Many choose the name “Dalit” instead. Some choose other names, but Dalit is the most common.

Dalit means broken. Broken by suffering. Broken by caste.

loc 268

Another way of referring to those traumatized by caste is casteoppressed.

There is some controversy on exactly where caste came from. The author makes it clear she believes it came from the traditional faith of Hinduism. Caste was then weaponized by British colonizers to further divide those they colonized and make it easier to maintain dominance over them. However, the author acknowledges some people believe otherwise. I myself am not a scholar in this area. But however it began, caste is intermingled with Hinduism and Indian society across the diaspora. A person born into a lower caste is told they deserve to be at the lowest level of society because of sins they committed in a past life. That all of their suffering is their own fault, and they don’t deserve to rise out of it. The message also is that those in higher castes deserve to be there. Any suffering they put on those of lower castes is simply what those of the lower caste “deserve.” If you are at all familiar with the history of racism in the US, then it is immediately quite clear how damaging these societal beliefs are. It is also clear why they need to be overcome.

The pain and suffering for Dalit peoples is not of the past – it is now. The author offers sobering statistics (with references). They include:

  • 54% of Dalit children are undernourished (loc 500)
  • 83 of every 1,000 Dalit children die before their first birthday (loc 500)
  • more than 67% of Dalit women have experienced sexual violence (loc 509)
  • the average age of death for a Dalit woman is 39 (loc 509)
  • 45% of Dalits do not know how to read and write (loc 3327)
  • 48% of villages deny Dalits access to water (loc 3330)

The author explores how we can all begin to fight for freedom, justice, and equality. She talks about how important it is for oppressed people to be able to begin to imagine being free as the first step. She also speaks to allies about being aware that a move toward equality might feel like discomfort to us. She also speaks about the importance of supporting the experiences of the oppressed. Being cautious and mindful in our words and deeds is a message we all can benefit from.

An area that could have been improved on is where the author speaks about other religions in India and Dalit participation in them. While the section on Islam is well-written, making it clear how caste is not a part of Islam but can end up being enacted upon Dalit Muslims anyway, the same clarity is not brought to the section on Christianity. It makes it sound like social justice is a focus of only specifically Dalit led Christian sects. The section ignores other sects that follow similar mores and even the Bible verse Galatians 3:28 “…ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Similarly, Judaism is skipped over, but Dalit Jewish people do exist. I wished these had been explored more. I appreciate that the author is careful to encourage and support Dalits in whatever faith they choose – including remaining Hindu. But I would have liked either a more even-handed representation of other faiths or a purely Buddhist perspective.

I empathize very much with the author’s concerns about modern-day genocides. It is absolutely correct that society at large is not taking these atrocities seriously the way we should. But the author mentions that we went to war in WWII over the Holocaust. That’s inaccurate. Nations went to war to protect their own nations. While the Holocaust was taken seriously after the fact, it’s not why nations went to war. Indeed, most nations turned away Jewish refugees at the time. What we are seeing with the general ignoring of current genocidal atrocities is sadly a repeat of how nations reacted in the past. We haven’t learned what we should have from the horrors of the Holocaust.

Overall, this is an eye-opening book about caste-based oppression throughout the South Asian diaspora. It offers healing for the casteoppressed and asks us all to become allies in the work to liberate these people. It is a meaningful introduction to this liberating labor for both casteoppressed people and allies.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 256 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Book Review: The Arctic Curry Club by Dani Redd

January 4, 2022 3 comments
Digital cover of The Arctic Curry Club. Features a brown skinned woman holding a dish in front of a table of three people (three white, one brown skinned) in the snow. A house and a polar bear are in the background.

Summary:
Soon after upending her life to accompany her boyfriend Ryan to the Arctic, Maya realises it’s not all Northern Lights and husky sleigh rides. Instead, she’s facing sub-zero temperatures, 24-hour darkness, crippling anxiety – and a distant boyfriend as a result.

In her loneliest moment, Maya opens her late mother’s recipe book and cooks Indian food for the first time. Through this, her confidence unexpectedly grows – she makes friends, secures a job as a chef, and life in the Arctic no longer freezes her with fear.

But there’s a cost: the aromatic cuisine rekindles memories of her enigmatic mother and her childhood in Bangalore. Can Maya face the past and forge a future for herself in this new town? After all, there’s now high demand for a Curry Club in the Arctic, and just one person with the know-how to run it…

Review:
Fun destinations, delicious descriptions of homemade Indian cuisine, and a plot that you think is going to mainly be about a boyfriend but then isn’t. This book was a real treat!

Maya starts the book out as one of those women who has lost her own identity and just kind of follows her boyfriend around in his life. Not great! But it soon becomes apparent that she’s struggling like this due to mental illness (anxiety) and childhood trauma. When challenges begin to arise, Maya surprises by rising to them, and in delightful ways. I was pleasantly surprised by the trajectory of the book. I started it out thinking I was going to be reading a romance and by the end I felt like I read a story about self-actualization. It kind of reminded me of Talia Hibbert only without the steamy scenes. Plus, Maya is biracial. She’s half Indian and half white British.

The handling of mental illness in this book is really adept. There is a perfect combination of sympathy but also the realization that, even with a mental illness, you have to self-advocate and push yourself. I especially appreciated that getting set up with a therapist on Zoom (due to being in the Arctic) was featured. But do take the trigger warning that some traumatic events are briefly described that feature some of the darker sides of mental illness. They are a necessary part of the story, but they are there.

The settings of the Arctic and India were both wonderfully written. I truly felt like I was in both places – the good and the bad! I loved the juxtaposition of the two as well. The descriptions of the food were divine, leaving me hungry. Finally, I found myself rooting for Maya as she found footing in her career.

Overall, this was a fun reading trip to two interesting locations, featuring lots of delicious sounding food, artful and realistic depictions of mental illness, and a gal who’s about herself, rather than changing for a guy.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 400 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

Buy It (Amazon)

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Book Review: The Underworld King by Ranjit More (Series, #1)

November 20, 2014 Leave a comment

A Hindu god holding a sword and staring at a lizard.Summary:
Drumila, four-armed king of the daityas, seeks to take them above ground to escape their enemy the naagas, giant flame-breathing serpents.  Meanwhile, Krishna (the highest-ranking god) sends his daughter, Nandini, to Earth in human form to weaken Drumila and keep him from crossing the barrier from Earth into the higher plains.  Unfortunately, Nandini ends up liking Drumila a bit more than they bargained for.

Review:
I was excited to have a fantasy based in a non-European mythology submitted to me, and wow is this different from the typical European-based fantasy.  In a good way.  This is a dense, different fantasy with a strong learning curve unless the reader is already very familiar with Hinduism.

The basic story reads just like mythology.  This has pros and cons.  On the plus side, it feels quite fantastical.  On the minus side, some of the plot points can be cringe-worthy (such as an unwanted kiss that could have turned into a rape if the female character hadn’t suddenly 180ed from zero interest to desire) and the characters can be a bit two-dimensional.  This will bother some readers, but those who enjoy mythology, in spite of its shortcomings, will appreciate this read.  Personally, I generally prefer if authors update and modernize their mythological rewritings a bit more, but not all readers feel that way.

The author is well-aware that Hindu mythology won’t be familiar to many Western readers, so he offers an extensive footnotes that are well hyperlinked in the ebook that explain both definitions of words and various aspects of Hindu mythology.  This means that the reader learns a lot but it does also slow down the reading of the book and breaks up the immersion in the world.  The footnotes are a good idea but perhaps if some of the words and concepts were better incorporated and explained within the writing itself then there could be fewer footnotes that offered greater explanations of more value.

The ending is a bit abrupt.  It’s clear this is intended to be the first book in a series, but an extremely abrupt ending like this one makes it difficult to feel like the reader got a full book out of the deal.  It feels more like the pilot of a tv show than the first book in a series.

I would give this book a more full review, but it has been pulled from publication since the review copy was sent to me.  I really wish when authors and/or publishers choose to do this that they would notify those of us with review copies.  While I enjoyed the read enough to not regret reading it, it feels rather silly for me to bother reviewing a book no one else can get their hands on anymore.

Overall, this is a fantasy book set firmly in the tradition of Hindu mythology that will best appeal to readers who enjoy the traditional features of mythology and don’t mind an abrupt ending.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 252 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

Buy It Currently not available for purchase.