Meena Kandasamy’s latest novel When I Hit You is a wrenching story that straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction. Two reporters, Mishka Wazar and Fatima Moosa reviewed the book, which deals with the topic of marital violence and oppression.
Trigger warning: this article contains mention of rape and abuse
Reading When I Hit You, one poem kept running through my mind – Roshila Nair’s Aluta Continua:
let’s say it out loud
about the other day
how we were talking
about that Comrade X
who went home
and gave his wife
a blue eye,
and we’d all clapped
an hour before
for the liberation
speech he gave
with such conviction
Kandasamy’s book is an exceptionally tough read, covering difficult topics like marital rape, domestic abuse, India’s flawed justice system, internalised misogyny, and male privilege – among many other things.
The protagonist is a young woman who falls in love and thinks she’s met ‘the one’, yet the fairytale doesn’t last long. Her ‘comrade’ husband is an abusive and paranoid man who hits her, rapes her and completely controls her life. He makes her delete her social media and changes her email passwords because he believes there are people spying on him, since he is a professor teaching communist literature. The theme of communism reappears when the husband talks about equal ownership and breaking down the liberal capitalist system in his continuous criticism of her ‘bourgeois’ life, yet asserts ownership over the narrator through the total control of her life.
I read this book just around the time of Karabo Mokoena’s murder, allegedly at the hands of her boyfriend. The emergence of statistics about intimate partner violence and how most women are at risk of violence and death at the hands of the men they know made the book that more real.
Often, (trashy) people ask why abused women don’t just leave their abusers. This book seems to give the answers. Hoping the person will change, fear of what will happen if she does leave, fear of having a child and being unable to leave. Not to mention the curse of victimhood in the idea the abuser needs to be humanised. “Oh we know he hit you and did all these terrible things but didn’t he do those good things…”
Also notable is the particularity of Indian society – perhaps all societies – which seem to place the honour of a family in the vaginas of its women. By leaving her abuser and returning home, she would be dishonouring her family. Izzat [honour] is important in Indian society. Her family attempts to preserve their honour by discouraging her from leaving, and when she does, her mother attempts to take over her story and tell it in a way that makes her parents look like good parents.
The book demonstrates a painful truth: even when a woman leaves, she can never really leave. The narrator is forced to relive her trauma at the police station, in the courts and in the media while her abuser goes on living his life. She is forced under the microscope and accused of a number of things, while at the same time her voice is silenced.
Truth or fiction, the book is a compelling read that forces you to rethink ideas of marital rape, abuse, patriarchy within the struggle, and feminism. It is also a reclaiming of agency: a woman who has everything taken away from her, was stripped of her dignity and belief and yet reclaims her voice. While many don’t have the chance to tell their stories, this is a story for all those who are silenced.
The emotions, labour and thought of men are necessary while those of women are trivialised and held in suspicion. Intellectual and revolutionary spaces are masculine, patriarchal and often dangerous for the women within them. The woman radical thinker, who dares to demand inclusion, is simultaneously tokenised for feminist credentials and denigrated for the obvious and unavoidable defect of being a woman.
The unnamed protagonist of Meena Kandasamy’s novel, When I Hit You or Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife, is seduced by the revolutionary charm of a secretly violent and misogynistic intellectual who seeks to beat her into the image of a woman he craves. This is not uncommon. The patriarchal attitudes of the seemingly radical and subversive male left are becoming more visible as growing feminist discourse calls out this hidden danger towards women intellectuals. The protagonist’s husband hates ‘petty bourgeois woman writers’, uses Marxist discourse to degrade and manipulate her, slowly begins the obviously abusive process of separating her from her friends and family to erase her from herself, wipe out her personality and leave her malleable as per his wishes.
“I must learn that a Communist woman is treated equally and respectfully by comrades in public but can be slapped and called a whore behind closed doors. This is dialectics.”
Despite the searing, precise and composed prose, Kandasamy’s novel is an extraordinarily difficult read. She writes in a detached manner, laying out the story efficiently and reflecting on events without much emotion. Her protagonist does not mope; she enters into a mode of survival almost immediately. Self-preservation is her goal, and this transparency is what makes the novel so tough to get through. It’s a read-in-one-sitting sort of story, but the book must be put down every few lines in order to process what just happened. The novel leaves the reader with an acidic anxiety. You are listening to what she says, but you don’t want to hear it. The range of physical, sexual and psychological abuse she endures seems to take place over the course of years, and the reader is left astonished to realise all of this happened over the course of four months. Throughout the four months trapped in an increasingly life-threatening cycle of rape, beatings and threats, the protagonist holds on to her mind and her writing to survive.
Kandasamy’s experience is not rare, but it is hardly acknowledged. The trope of the battered wife rarely sees the victim complexly, as a woman of intelligence, capability and ambition. Abuse survivors are coloured in as perpetual victims, people who ‘allowed’ themselves to be abused. This victim-blaming is rooted in misogyny and patriarchal conceptions of dominance and submission. Women like Kandasamy and her protagonist are not understood as the typical targets of abuse and rape. Strong feminist warriors would never let a man lay a finger on them, right?
Except that’s not how it works. In writing and exposing a small episode in the series of exploitation that powerful, brave women experience by the same men who claim to be their allies, Kandasamy gives voice to the clever women, the ones who think they’re invincible, who should be invincible, if the men in their lives weren’t so threatened by them.