Book Name: When I Hit You
Author: Meena Kandasamy
Book Blurb: Seduced by politics, poetry and an enduring dream of building a better world together, the unnamed narrator falls in love with a university professor. Moving with him to a rain-washed coastal town, she swiftly learns that what for her is a bond of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about reducing her to his idealized version of an obedient wife, bullying her and devouring her ambition of being a writer in the process, she attempts to push back – a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape. At once the chronicle of an abusive marriage and a celebration of the invincible power of art, When I Hit You is a smart, fierce and courageous take on traditional wedlock in modern India.
Review: Meena Kandasamy shines in this brilliant account of an abusive marriage which given the way its written can be the story of any average girl in India. The tale is pretty simple and ordinary but it’s a story that deserves to be told.
The narrator recounts her experience of falling in love with an older professor who at first is the stuff dreams are made of. Who cannot help falling in love with a lecturer who is smarter than they are? The intelligent man manages to convince a girl who is hopelessly in love with him, his communist leanings and marries him in the end. However, the honeymoon period doesn’t last very long and the transformation into a possessive husband who must dictate each and every aspect of his younger wife is very sudden and borders on some psychological problem. But it would be easy to blame it on some psychological problem but there is a problem here- because there isn’t any mental illness here.
There are many such stories out there in the world but Meena has had the courage to pen it down. There is no playing to the gallery here, no sugar coating, no effort to seek sympathy from the reader. It is narrated as it is. Served as it were like a raw dish which makes it a brilliant read. I managed to read it in one sitting because it’s unputdownable.
“I fell in love with the man I married because when he spoke about the revolution it seemed more intense than any poetry, more moving that any beauty. I’m no longer convinced. For every genuine revolutionary in the ranks, there is a careerist, a wife-beater, an opportunist, a manipulator, an infiltrator, a go-getter, an ass licker, an alcoholic, and a dopehead.”
Meena must have done a lot of reading before becoming a writer and it reflects in her writing. Her struggles to make a living out of writing while struggling as a freelance writer are honest and any freelance writer in the subcontinent knows how difficult it is. And even while caught up in the middle of an abusive marriage, she does not give up and manages to escape. I know many a woman who chooses to remain in abusive marriages even when financially self-reliant. To shrug off this badge of a male companion who must complete you is unheard of in conservative societies.
As usually happens, the split personality here is a warning sign but an intelligent man is cunning enough to mask him during the courtship and I am guessing that is what would have happened.
“…But he plays the role of dutiful son-in-law to my parents. He weeps over the phone to my father. He begs my mother to tell me to be more obedient. He tells his relatives that I do not feed him properly. He hints to the only neighbours around that I’m anti-social, that I’m one of the intellectual types who prefers her own company.”
This is a very morbid tale, told with brutal honesty and even though the structure is disjointed, it is okay because it is the text here that is important. Take for instance- the husband’s hypocrisy when he chides his wife for penning an essay on sex surveys. Some of it, of course, has to do with gender roles in society where while a wife is expected to babysit and cook food, while a man is allowed to run after success. She is not permitted to build a career of her own and if she does, it should never overshadow her husband’s. There are some women who challenge this stigma and they are the ones who must become role models for young girls.
It was quite surprising to read that the parents refuse to come out in support of their child. the tacit support is there but they never come out in the open. And who can blame them? The nightmarish questions asked by society when such a marriage takes place would repeat all over again at its unravel and anybody would want to avoid that. While the choices of a young girl may be debatable, aren’t parents supposed to offer us unconditional support? But this is how weird society is and a woman is expected to suffer in silence in order to preserve the marriage. How can an institution be holy if the man who should make you feel protected is the one who hits you? This book also raises important questions such as that of marital rape which the Indian state continues to deny.
Perhaps a lot of women not just in India but elsewhere will find this book relatable, it is every woman’s story and it is nobody’s story.
When I penned my first story, about a Parsi girl, I was told by my editor that I hadn’t named the characters and it would confuse the reader so I added names at the end after googling some Parsi names. It was my first story and I had to go with the editor’s decision but ever since, I have always felt that the hallmark of a great writer is that he/she should be able to hook you with the tale itself; characters are meaningless, names aren’t really needed if the tale and writing is powerful enough. The author has managed to prove me right in this book. I don’t think I can name many writers who can manage to do this. Obviously, the pre-requisite is that you should have a great story to tell and the courage to recount it, unfortunately very few can muster such courage.
Writing a book is a tough act in itself as it gives the reader a peek into your life even if the work is fiction, so writing such a book is a brave step in itself and deserves respect. Its a heart wrenching read at times and you can sense that finally, you have stumbled upon a writer who manages to defy conventions- doesn’t write for the public and pursues art for art’s sake!
Here is a writer who should be read. I don’t really like offering too much praise, it almost seems am fawning on the writer or have been paid to do this review but I cannot help it. The writing here should please any other critic equally if not more.