Book review

This novel shows a writer reclaiming herself from a violent, abusive husband (it’s not a memoir)

Or, how difficult it is to escape even though you know you must.

At twenty-six, the unnamed narrator in Meena Kandasamy’s new novel is young. When she returns home after four months of a violent marriage, her father scrubs her blackened feet clean and seals them in baby oil. Her mother describes the feet of her runaway daughter upon arriving home:

“Were they the feet of my daughter? No! Her heels were cracked and her soles were twenty-five shades darker than the rest of her, and with one look at the state of her slippers you could tell that she did nothing but housework all the time. They were the feet of a slave.”

In 2012, Meena Kandasamy wrote a personal essay in Outlook titled I Singe the Body Electric which chronicled harrowing months in an abusive marriage. She wrote: “…my skin has seen enough hurt to tell its own story.” I remember fear forming a ball in my chest. I shared it with friends, some of whom asked why she didn’t leave the first time he hit her. Because, I wanted to say. Because.

When I Hit You or, The Portrait of The Writer as a Young Wife is based on Kandasamy’s experience. In an interview with The Wire she says she left her narrator unnamed so “she could be any woman.” How close to reality is this fiction? Do we “believe” the fiction because the narrator is based on the writer? Yes. And no.

As a reader I see shades of myself in Kandasamy – young, educated, idealistic. Could it have happened to me? There was a time when I would have said no, absolutely not. Now I hesitate. But my connection with the prose does not end at its link to reality. Kandasamy’s skills as a writer elevate the novel from mere documentation to harrowing and engrossing truths.

The reader who picks up the book for its subject will stay to the end for the quality of Kandasamy’s writing. Take for instance these lines from a chapter where the abusive husband is trying to force his wife to have a child:

“The man’s fluids form the bones. The woman’s fluids form the flesh. This is the belief of elders in my ancestral village. This is how they think life begins. I do not think they have got it wrong at all. They just do not know that when a child forms inside the womb of a sad, broken woman, its little heart will be made up of her tears.”

Manoeuvring through violence

The novel shows us how domestic violence isolates a person. It does not embolden most victims. It shows how leaving takes time, cunning and opportunity. It shows how staying takes obedience, fear and self-preservation. The novel begins with the narrator’s stated desire to reclaim her story from her mother, who relates the story through the symbolism of her daughter’s feet and hair. In the coming chapters, the narrator will show there is more, so much more, to the abuse than meets the eye.

The abuse and terrorising start out relatively small. The husband puts out burning matchsticks on his skin till his wife acquiesces to his will. He wants her off Facebook. He wants her passwords. He doesn’t want her to write. But he is allowed to write. The narrator says:

“In this marriage in which I’m beaten, he is the poet. And one of his opening lines of verse reads:
When I hit you,
Comrade Lenin weeps

I cry, he chronicles. The institution of marriage creates its own division of labour.”

The narrator and her husband meet when she is organising a campaign against the death penalty. She says she belongs to the Left. The man she will marry believes that only Marxism-Leninism-Maoism can liberate people. She is drawn to his commitment to the cause, to his adventurousness, to his claim that he can make a true revolutionary out of her.

But in the months of her marriage, his political ideology is weaponised against her. Every perceived affront to the movement is an affront to him. He systematically cowers her into rote answers to his questions on communism. His violence is provoked by anything ranging from the level of salt in the food to a single word in the narrator’s writing that he finds distasteful.

Like many stories of domestic violence, this one highlights the isolation the perpetrator cultivates. After they are married, she must leave her hometown of Chennai and move to rainy Mangalore. She does not know anyone in the place. They don’t have many neighbours. She is a housewife. She spends her days indoors. He reads her messages. He will not allow her to speak too much on the phone. Her friends don’t hear from her. The narrator’s anguish isn’t visible to the world because she isn’t visible to the world.

Meena Kandasamy
Meena Kandasamy

Survival strategies

The novel is more than just a narration of abuses. Kandasamy’s visceral, precise storytelling takes us deep inside her narrator’s strategies of survival. In her attempt to stall pregnancy, she slips secret ingredients like white sesame seeds into the food she cooks. She writes letters to imaginary lovers and then deletes them before her husband is home. She remembers past dalliances and her one serious relationship before marriage. She holds on to the memories of the person she used to be. She reads, writes and plots a way out. Her phone conversations with her parents chart a familiar response which is to try harder and harder at her marriage till they become afraid for her.

The book doesn’t demand sympathy. The narrator stays. The narrator forgives. The narrator compromises. She also defies, seethes and escapes. The book minutely maps the non-linear route to leaving an abusive marriage. It brings to mind Kelly Sundberg’s famous Guernica essay on her experience with a violent marriage, titled It Will Look Like a Sunset, where we are confronted with a woman who is victimised, but is also so much more.

When I Hit You is a book for our times where doubt is often cast on the woman’s word, where questions are raised if an educated woman accuses someone of control and violation (How could it happen to you? How could you let it happen to you?), where abusive husbands aren’t convicted by courts, where the violent relations between a man and his wife are considered personal business that shouldn’t be aired in public, where divorce is still a failing.

In Kandasamy’s unfailing, fearless prose, the story of violence finds an unapologetic voice.

When I Hit You, or, The Portrait of The Writer as a Young Wife, Meena Kandasamy, Juggernaut.

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