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Reading ‘a Portrait of the writer as a young wife’ as an Indian wife

14th May, 2018

Book review: When i HIt you by Meena Kandasamy

When a writer meets a professor heavily involved in the Communist revolutionary movement, she is struck by his charisma and ideals and falls in love in love with him. She gets married (which she later admits was a hasty decision) and moves to Mangalore. Gradually he cuts her off from her friends, family, work and isolates her to the point that she sinks into an abyss of silence. When I Hit You is the story of a writer who escapes an abusive marriage. The book bagged a place in the shortlist of Women’s prize for Fiction this year.

Why tell this story now?

Meena begins her autobiographical book with the words, “My mother has not stopped talking about it.” And by ‘it’ she means the escape of the young writer from her abusive marriage. But her mother’s version has a different protagonist when she narrates it to her friends and neighbours; some days it is her daughter’s cracked feet, on other days it is her lice infested hair. Being a writer, Meena feels it is only her basic right to tell her own story without the frills.

The abuser and the victim

In this novel, an unnamed young writer narrates her story. Her husband is the kind who ‘chokes you with love’. After limiting the writer’s contact with her family and friends, he becomes the manipulating hero. He starts the blame game on her work, poems, dressing style and conduct. Later, this converts into violence and rape. The rest of the society believes the mask he adorns – the perfect son-in-law, the friend whose wife is unsatisfied with him, the neighbour whose wife broods inside the house; many faces, all more believable than a wife-beating maniac.

The victim, on the other hand, is shamed and judged. “Sometimes the shame is not the beating, not the rape. The shame is in being asked to stand to judgement.” After she fled her abusive marriage it was not words of support that waited her, rather a societal dissection of what she ‘should have done’ and ‘what she did.

Society as a judge

Our society is a cruel player. By society I mean the world as a whole, not just an Indian one.

“My father on the phone:
What is going on? Well, that is common. It is a matter of ego. I know you, you are my daughter, you do not like to lose a fight. The marriage is a give and take. Listen to him.”

The mother asks the writer to be patient. It isn’t long before ‘society’ feels once they have children, the marriage would evolve into a perfect one. When the writer complains to her parents that her internet is rationed into three hours a week, her mother is unable to understand why this is a problem for a freelancer. She says she needs only ‘ten minutes’ to check email, so half an hour every day is more than enough. Her father says internet is what causes the problems in the new generation. “It is for your own good.” Simple but powerful observations. Try explaining to the older generation the importance of internet.

Through a series of such phone conversations, Meena shows how familial and societal restrictions cage women in an abusive marriage. As a woman, these are things I have heard quite often – “Men are like that”, “Women have to adjust”, “Marriage is a compromise (usually to be done by the woman)”, “Women shouldn’t fight and raise voice so that there would be peace in family,” the list is endless. I am sure every woman has heard a variation of these phrases. It is laughable that we still stay silent to such comments instead of retorting back inspite of being educated. These unwritten rules are sculpted into the way of life of a patriarchal world.

As we have already seen in the recent cases of women calling out men in power for abusing them for sexual favours, the world does not listen to a woman’s story. It takes a man to tell a woman’s story if it has to be heard. With the #metoo campaign making waves, there could not have a better time for When I Hit you to be published. I appreciate Meena for taking the reigns in her own hands because she wants the unadulterated version of her story to the story that the world hears, not the different versions her father has for different social circles (it was wickedly funny to read how friends and relatives are divided into different groups and which story is told to each one) or her mother’s story about her lice and feet.

My initial reservations about the book

Perhaps I should’ve begun the post with this section. I have read and enjoyed Meena’s poems (Storming in tea cups is a favourite) previously; but I still had my reservations about picking this novel. Firstly, I feared this was a rant. Secondly, I wondered like every non-white woman, whether this was a book that paints a stereotypical version of an Indian marriage. This book is neither! It is brutal, raw and honest. It will make you squirm in your seat. The sheer force of emotions I experienced while reading the book is boundless – at times the unnamed writer is me, at times she is my friend, at times I become the society that is crushing her.

Art as an outlet

In one instance of abuse, the narrator thinks “I just have to wait for this to end so that I can write again.” When she writes poems to ease her trauma, her husband rebukes her saying once it is written they won’t have a chance at saving their marriage because the words would be a living reminder. I loved how the narrator slyly ends the book quoting her husband who says ‘everything is just for a book..and money.. and fame.’ The importance of art as an outlet to tell one’s story reminded me of another stellar read, One Hundred Nights of Hero where Isabel Greenberg (Five reasons why the world should read One Hundred Nights of Hero) crafts the story telling tradition of women and how they endured a world of men through a secret society of storytellers.

Why did you stay?

Our unnamed narrator makes her stand very clear – she wasn’t forced into a marriage, she fell in love and decided he was her man for life; she was an educated woman, an activist and an acclaimed writer; she wrote poems, bold and full of fire, her heroines were strong and stood up for themselves. How can a woman as that be trapped in a house in Mangalore, cut out from the world and stuck in an abusive marriage?

I love how Meena specifically points this out in her novel to break the stereotypes surrounding abuse in marriages. If you pick this novel expecting a damsel in distress in an arranged marriage that was solemnised against her wishes, you will be heavily disappointed. This novel is analytical, with generous amounts of humour and sarcasm of a woman trying to find her courage amidst hopelessness and emerging successful.

Ruminations

Equally interesting is Meena Kandasamy’s choice of  quotes before the start  of a new chapter. From Kamala Das to Margaret Atwood to Sandra Cisneros, Meena begins with a reminder of words by some strong women. She later writes her own words with such a vigour that you will find yourself asking, “how is this possible” and “why did she let this happen” just as Meena predicts when she winds up the novel.

Final Verdict :

Every woman (and I mean ‘every’ not ‘almost every’) I have met in my life experiences some form of abuse, just that the abuser adorns a different role in each case; husband or parent or sibling or colleague or friend and so on. We live in a world that normalizes such abuses, be it physical or mental. The writer in the story escapes from her abusive husband’s clutches. There are many more women in our society, some trapped forever (may they find courage), some trying to find a way out (may they break the chains holding them back) and some gasping at new found freedom (may they rebuild their lives without the past holding them back). This book is a tribute to all of them. It is also a tribute to the women who make up a society and fail to see what another woman is going through by normalizing the age-old abuses perpetuated by patriarchy and dismissed as ‘It is for your own good’ (It never is). I salute the unnamed writer in When I Hit you who tells her story for the world to hear. I am her; but also that society is me; and this is the big problem.

Highly recommended!

Trigger warning: rape, violence, domestic abuse

(Even though the incidents that happen in the book are devastating, this is more of a hopeful and empowering read than a triggering one.)

Title : When I hit you
Author : Meena Kandasamy
Publisher : Juggernaut
Publication: 2017
Language : English
Pages : 272
Rating : 5/5

PS: This post is incredibly long. So thank you for reading if you have made it this far. Sometimes, you just can’t edit into a shorter version. I had a lot to say about this wonderful book.

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Are you reading through the Women’s prize for fiction shortlist? Did you pick up When I hit you yet?

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This Post Has 24 Comments
  1. I read this book sometime back. I hadn’t heard about the author until I saw her on the long list for Women’s Prize. But what a stunning writer. her prose is scathing, and she uses poetry to adorn it. It raises many valid issues, I was particularly impressed by how she deals with the issue of “martial rape”. A lot of times in our society, it is not even termed as rape.

    I love how you segmented your thoughts in the review. I also did a brief write up on this book; if you have some spare time, you could check it out : https://kindleophile.wordpress.com/2018/03/31/when-you-hit-me-meena-kandaswamy/

  2. Saw this book at the bookstore, but wasn’t sure.. As you have mentioned I thought it would be more of a rant than a book worth reading.. Now am tempted to give it a go.. As you mentioned, I too enjoyed her book of poems & ergo liked her style of writing!

    And this post wasnt too long, mainly cos of the way you have written it.. 🙂

    1. Yes Aarti… Do pick it up. It is fabulous. Each sentence is so powerful and I loved how she wrote the whole book with humour and sarcasm. Her words are razor sharp towards the society and our normalizations. I hope this book wins the Women’s Prize. Thank you for reading

  3. So pleased to hear your thoughts about this very powerful read. In many ways, Romanian society can be quite similar to Indian society (patriarchal, women being seen as decoration and support mechanism to boost a man’s success, even when they are very well educated themselves) and so the conversations between the narrator and her parents struck such a chord with me. I love the way the narrator makes the story her own – but also universal.

    1. Yes, that’s what I adored the most in the book. It is her own story and yet it is so universal. I think every woman can relate to it. And each sentence in the book strikes a sharp note. I have my hopes high on this book for winning the Women’s prize

  4. I am waiting for my book to be delivered so that I can start reading it. But I am also afraid of what it will do to me emotionally.
    Especially since I am reading ‘Chup’ at the moment which also deals with how societal constructs inhibit women from identifying abuse and taking action against it.

  5. I wondered about your “initial reservations”. I think what makes literature what it is is its universal reach or not.
    Two examples: one, the Russians. What they write about is universal. The setting is… secondary.
    Two: García Marquez? Though set in Colombia (and it could not be anywhere else) his stories are universal.
    So this book? Unfortunately, the abuse of women is still universal. Growing up I would have thought this would soon
    disappear, but I see it’s not. A shame really. In India or anywhere. Let’s have more books to fight that.
    Thank you for your reviews. I always learn something. 🙂
    (Even if buying the book is a tad difficult)
    Take care Resh

      1. Struggling a bit with memories and anniversaries. But we shall overcome. 🙂
        I’ll see whether they have it at WH Smith in Paris this summer. 🙂
        Take good care of yourself my dear.

  6. mam really liked your detailed review. Will surely pick this one up !
    Also mam what advices will uh give to young bloggers and bookstagramers!?
    Really love your work!

    1. Thank you very much. I’d say if you have not started an account yet, do it. And if you have, keep at it. You will get better at it and also understand whether you love it or not. All the best

  7. Oh… my goodness. This sounds like a really really hard book. When I was growing up my mother was in a relationship with an emotionally abusive man, and those sentiments you’ve voiced about behaving yourself, adapting, etc, is all I heard when I was a kid. It’s very hard to deprogram yourself of that. I think as women in general, regardless of the exact circumstances we grew up in, find ourselves making ridiculous exceptions for men in our lives without even realising we’re doing it, it’s so thoroughly programmed into us.

    I really want to read this – that you’ve found it empowering intrigues me. I’m guessing she can really write!

    1. Indeed. It is really sad that we are alreadt programmed into making excuses and bending rules for others. We’ve always been taught to adjust and not to put ourselves first. But then when we get into situations as these, we have no clue what to do because if we abide by what we are taught, we would not survive.

      I hope you will love the read

  8. I told you I will read the full post. I hadn’t heard much about the book but now, I truly want to read it.

    And honestly, it didn’t seem like a long pos.

  9. Wow– this sounds like a really challenging book. I’m glad you found it thought provoking and worth reading. There are TONS of things to unpack in here. I like how you specifically called out society as a judge as well as your reservations in picking up the book. Do you think this would make a good book club read?

    1. It would make an excellent book club read because it breaks so many stereotypes in such a short novel while at the same time, each sentence is though provoking and profound. Meena uses a humorous and sarcastic tone in the book even though her anger comes out now and then. One wonders how she could pen down such horrible experiences in such a effective way sprinkled with humour

      1. Indeed– even reading your review, I’m impressed. Perhaps just time and space is enough to learn to laugh at these experiences? Otherwise it might break us…

        I’ll definitely recommend this for our next book club. Thanks for the awesome review!

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