Raw – is the only word I can think of as the blinking cursor dares me to begin a review of Meena Kandasamy’s book When I Hit You. In it, the unnamed narrator falls in love with a maoist-rebel-guerilla militant turned / currently living as a university professor in a small village in Kerala. It is only after marriage does she begin to see his true colours – those of a psychopath – when he goes from being man with a bad temperament to an abusive control-freak with murder on his mind, very quickly.
— meena kandasamy (@meenakandasamy) May 13, 2017
He spirals into monstrosity, first, by constantly berating and mansplaining her about her petit-bourgeoise-prostitute-female-writer mindset thereby changing her marriage into a “re-education camp on Communism”; then by beating her up with laptop cables and belts, pulling her by her hair and dragging her through the “three rooms and a veranda” she is trapped in.
He makes her delete her Facebook account by threatening to burn himself, knowing well that it is her only means to market herself as a writer from her suffocating “jail”. Then, he outdoes himself. “My husband decides to set me free…. He deletes the 25,600-odd emails from my inbox. All at one go… everything about my life as a writer is gone.”
At one of the lowest points of her story, the narrator resorts to silence. Silence as a way to deter punishment and also as indignant defiance. When he can’t take her silence anymore…he rapes her. “Screams help me transition from silence to begging him to stop. His reply is like water bursting a dam. ‘Why do you talk to me now? Why? How did you find all your words all of a sudden? So, this is the miracle to cure your silence, is it? […] Next time you taunt me with your silence, I will tear your f***ing c**t apart. Now say sorry, b***h.’”
It’s when he threatens her that she decides she must leave. She is more “useful alive than dead.” This, despite her parents constantly trying to convince her to stay after she rings them up with complaints of bruises and scars. The narrator’s mother and father and her conversations with them offer a no-bullshit lens to view society from, if you’re willing.
By juxtaposing crude, dry scenes of a violent marriage with routine, overprotective and forgiving conversations on the phone, Kandasamy holds up a mirror to a society that lives by one question and one question alone, come what may: Log Kya Kahenge?
She plots and stages her escape with silent fury, setting the context for her parents, buttering him up at first like the “ceremonial bathing and garlanding of the sacrificial goat, a token display of affection before the axe falls”. Then when the time is right, she incites him by attacking his masculinity and his dedication to The Cause of Communism. Livid, he threatens to kill her. That’s all and how much she needed to be able to walk out: a threat to her life.
The nefarious questions don’t leave her even after she runs away to Chennai and then “as far as her talents could take her”– via people, the police, the internet: “Why did you stay? What sort of feminist allows herself to be beaten? Was it really non-consensual sex? Why don’t you go to the police?”
But by now, we know Kandasamy’s main modus operandi for this book. She sits you down, brings up all the uneasy and messy bits of being in an abusive relationship, subtly preempts these questions, and then confidently slays them by reclaiming the authorial voice of her life’s story.
Before you can ask “why won’t she just leave”, you’re sucker punched into shutting up and letting a woman tell her own story the way she sees – for once.
The craft of the book not only highlights its substance, but also stands out on its own for art’s sake. There’s Kandasamy as the poet when the leaves of a coconut tree play “air-piano in the rain” and when clothes pins in the rain become “earlobes of water”; Kandasamy as the cinematographer working on her life’s screenplay, explaining detachment from a unfolding event as a survival technique for her; Kandasamy as a pro dialogist, constructing pithy but deep dialogues between the husband and wife to comment on the nature of love, marriages and violence.
There’s also Kandasamy, the sociologist and etymologist, taking the time and care to dig deep into the history of Tamil to bring out beautiful as well as problematic words as again, a comment on how women’s bodies and sex are viewed. The epigraphs to each chapter are excerpts from poems, books and essays by other women who have written on the topic of abuse.
Violence is dealt with carefully, yet confidently in the book. Visceral words seething with rage describe the before and after of each escalating violent act by the husband, but never the brutal blood and gore of the action itself. Silence is louder, in this case, as Kandasamy skilfully weaves together a devastatingly beautiful book you won’t be able to shake off once the last line spills into an empty page.
Book: When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife
Author: Meena Kandasamy
Price: Rs 499