Reading ‘a Portrait of the writer as a young wife’ as an Indian wife
14th May, 2018
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.
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.
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
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.
Are you reading through the Women’s prize for fiction shortlist? Did you pick up When I hit you yet?