Book 19: When I Hit You or A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. Meena Kandasamy

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Real life incident 1:

A 34 year old female enviably lucky enough to have got married to the love of her life, whom she adored as a resolute Marxist intellectual, came home feeling rejuvenated  with her shopping bag loaded with perfumes she loved. These fragrances did not tantalise her husband but on the contrary made him incapable of restraining his anger which was generally directed against the state,government, capitalism or America.  He threw all the perfumes into the dustbin proclaiming  that as a Marxist, he could not tolerate the ‘petty bourgeois behaviour’  of his wife and insisted that she should use only ‘odourless deodorant’ (Doesn’t it sound like an oxymoron?) from that day!

Real life incident 2 :

A 30 year old woman doctor expressed her wish to study after MD before taking up a job because she could not erase her own image from her head, as a faculty speaker in a various conferences. Her doctor husband retorted that he could not wait any longer for her to finish studies because he felt that it was high time she gave birth to his baby. This doctor already had achieved everything possible in his life and now cared only about fulfilling his next highly anticipated role as a father. He did not give any recognition to his wife who was in every sense much more intelligent and considerate than him but could consider her only as another cunt or uterus for sowing his seed.

Real life incident 3:

A 37 year old post PhD research doctor, mother of two girls, who was being forced by her mother in law to drink cow’s urine after every intercourse so as to give birth to a baby boy, was grinning at her phone when her female colleague at work sent some joke on whats app. Her husband  who was sitting across, grabbed her iphone6 and threw it on the floor and angrily stamped on it, because he could not accommodate her happiness which was independent of him at that time!

If you still have not lost the ability to draw a parallel between all these events and concur that the well educated women in all these seemingly different situations are abused inspite of the fact that they belong to the privileged class and if you are not someone who berates the suffering of the women irrespective of class, then you would be able to empathise with the protagonist in ‘When I hit you’, the latest novel by Meena Kandasamy. But if you are somebody who is blessed enough so as to have escaped till date with zero exposure to any form of abuse, if you have  lost the sensitivity and clarity of your thoughts somewhere along the way and if your mind is full of nothing but questions as to why these women ‘allow’ themselves to be abused and stay in their marriages, then sorry; this book is not for you! Please do not waste your precious time reading the review or the book.

Though this book is tagged as fiction, the author herself reveals that the ‘novel is shamelessly informed by my own experience’. Most of us would not have forgotten, ‘My Story’ by Kamala Das, which was initially treated as an autobiographical novel and still remains one of the best selling woman’s autobiography in India. But the book evoked enough criticism and unrest that at a later date Kamala Das had to admit there was plenty of fiction in it!  But Meena Kandasamy , being a rebellious and courageous millennial, did not find it difficult to proclaim that it was her own experience as an abused wife, which lead her to write this novel. She has not named the narrator because it could be the name of any woman anywhere. Though the setting of the story is mentioned as the city of Mangalore,  the phenomenon is a universal one, which could happen in  any city in the world, where a married woman is suddenly uprooted from her home town leaving behind everything that defined her till date and is expected to live in the city where her husband works. This story cannot be limited by time, place or person.

The narration begins on a lighter vein depicting the various  seemingly hilarious alternatives of the story, her parents are forced to provide to the society.  The narrator decides that she should not forgo her freedom to tell her story and narrates it in first person in a linear fashion.  As the novel progresses, the pace picks up and  makes us turn the page faster and faster unlike the previous novel by Meena Kandasamy. (I was not able to finish reading The Gypsy Goddess).  I read this novel in one go as the words and images flowed effortlessly one after the other preventing me from putting the book down till I read the last sentence.

The narrator unassumingly takes us through her daily routine as the wife of  a college lecturer, who was a proud Marxist and never abandoned a chance to ‘educate’ his writer wife about the disciplined life a true Communist should live. It is perturbing to see how efficiently her husband used Marx, who believed that oppression of one class by another should not be allowed (men  and women are, of course classes), to oppress his wife. The narrator remarks ,’The institution of marriage itself creates it’s own division of labour’. Even though she had academic qualification, her husband wanted her to do menial jobs like candle making, cashew nut packing or a job at the printing press to ‘declass’ her thoroughly, so that the writer in her will write out of experience and she  ‘will not capitalise on her cunt’, she ‘will be labouring with her hands’.  The protagonist reflects that ‘the job of a wife(that she was doing) is somewhere in the middle: labouring with her cunt, labouring with her hand!’. I have till date, not found any better and realistic description of a wife’s job adorned perfectly by some women!

Meena writes about an incident where the students of the narrator ridiculed her for her ‘untamed’ hair. She gives a plausible historical explanation as to why women with short hair were considered equivalent to having untamed desires and how having short hair  became synonymous with ‘prostitution’. The British Army in colonial India had their own stock of registered women who lived near to the army to ‘serve’ the army men  ‘appropriately’. During those times,  these women were not allowed to sleep with any local because of fear of syphilis and the the British cut the hair of these women short so that they could be easily caught if they were ‘soliciting locals’. Thus women with short hair became synonymous with promiscuity and prostitution.

A genuine and original observation made by Meena in this book about language and its effect on your life intrigued me. She postulates that ‘what you know in a language shows who you are in relation to that language.’ She writes, ‘English makes me a lover, a beloved, a poet. Tamil makes me a word huntress, it makes me a love goddess’. She further elaborates where she says that the only Kananda words she knew at that time were, ‘haalu’-‘milk’, ‘anda-eggs’, ‘saaku-enough’ , ‘illa-no’ etc which were the words typically used by a house wife. She continues, ‘In this language, I am nothing except a house wife’. I applied this theory to my current situation ,where I know these Telugu words, ‘ jana paranga  jabbulu- genetic diseases’, ‘pelli’-‘ marriage’, ‘entha mandi pillelu -how many children’ ; in this language,I am nothing except a Geneticist!

As the narration progresses, we see the wife who tried different methods(Saamam, Daanam, Bhedham, Dandam) to appease her husband who was not ready to change because his perception and thoughts were altered and resembled that of a criminal.

Saamam (Friendship) : She wore dresses that he liked. She cooked food that he loved. She deleted her Facebook account as per his wish and promised him that she would not  do anything to irritate him.

Danam(Aid/bribe): She did the dishes, cleaned the house, washed and ironed his clothes and waited faithfully for him every evening. She even attempted preemptive sex so as to avoid marital rape later.

Bhedham( threatening/brainwashing): She said she would walk out and inform others about his sadistic behaviour. This did not bring any positive change in him because he adamantly believed that nobody would give any value to what she said.

Dandam (punishment): She stopped responding to him completely.  He  inflicted burns on  himself and physically abused  her forcing her to speak.

All these exemplify the simple fact that however you try to ‘adjust’ or ‘appease’ somebody who abuses you habitually, little is going to change.  It is wise to chose ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ in such scenarios. Sadly, hope is the culprit in such situations preventing you from ‘flight’!

The rebel inside the narrator is exposed when she passionately and venomously  wrote love letters to her lovers who never existed and deleted it by evening before her husband came. This reminds me of Virginia Wolfe’s words, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Her husband took away all her freedom to connect to the outside world by cutting Facebook (but arguing intellectually claiming it to be ‘narcissism ‘ and exhibitionism’), rationing internet, confiscating her email password and deleting messages from Gmail account but he could do nothing to put a lock to her creativity and imagination which in turn helped her to survive and rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

Meena Kandasamy’s clarity and truthfulness in narration do not fail to make an impact on you.  She is confident in describing her relationship with various types and kinds of men, including a politician from Kerala. In the West, ‘self analytical confessional writing’ has gained much popularity, but in India, to do something similar to what Meena Kandasamy has done, requires conviction and courage.  I really wonder why everyone is in search of the percentage of contribution of fiction and facts in such a narrative. It is believable and quite scary that such women exist amongst us, unseen and unheard. With the existing statistics of domestic violence prevailing in India, (One in five minutes) there is ample chance that this story can happen to you, me or any woman irrespective of her education, class or colour just because she has a female genitalia.

Even with multiple heart wrenching experiences and imageries, the book concludes on a positive note where the author describes her evolution to a woman who was unknown to herself. Meena concludes,’ I am the woman who still believes, broken heartedly, in love.’ I wish more people read this book and participate in discussion on various issues raised in this book (violence, marital rape, physical abuse, mental torture). I yearn for that world where all  abused women are able to find solace  and  love inspite of  a broken and bleeding heart.

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