In When I Hit You: Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife, Meena Kandasamy offers something for everyone – from poets who aspire to write, to men who hit their wives.
In March 2012 I was an audience member at a seminar in Habitat, listening to a woman blame Meena Kandasamy for ‘taking’ violence from her husband. Kandasamy’s essay describing her survival of and rupture from an abusive rapist husband had been published a week earlier and though her publisher would have preferred it if the focus remained on her books of poetry, the entire discussion remained focused on her personal life – the excitement of these salacious “revelations”.
Astoundingly, it seemed many of the women in an elite feminist publisher’s seminar room had never encountered a woman who had been hit by a husband. Now that they had, some were falling over themselves to distance themselves by victim-blaming. “That would never happen to me, I wouldn’t let it,” as the anthem of the smug privileged goes.
The triumph of Kandasamy’s book is that it straps you into your seat and makes you ride the rollercoaster for yourself so that you are jolted out of any pity or derision you may feel, and shaken into a sense of genuine empathy. Every stupid, horrific question of ‘why didn’t you’ and ‘why did you’ is efficiently invoked, comprehensively slain and feminism modelled as a way to stay breathing in the face of patriarchal dehumanisation. Unlike the Tumblr posts and comic gifs you may have ignored at your peril, this book shows far more than it tells. After reading it, you really have no excuse for not getting it.
Literature professors and critics
True story: Marlon Brando raped his co-actor with his director Bernardo Bertolucci’s enthusiastic approval because they wanted her filmed reaction to be real. Women, you see, can’t be trusted to make art – to perform, write or paint informed by their life experiences but in control of their narratives. The patriarchy will tell you that F. Scott Fitzgerald made art even though the words he plagiarised from his wife’s diaries and conversations were called ‘crazy’ by the same husband who systematically plotted how to get her institutionalised. Women’s writing, they theorise, bleeds spontaneously on the page like uncontrollable menstruation, a horrific by-product of the trauma that happens to us. There is no craft to it.
When you read this book, watch the ferocity of craft at work. Not the beauty of the prose – as much an entry fee demanded of women writers as well-formed breasts on women who are actors – but the labour the structure of the book performs. Kandasamy performs no sleight-of-hand, no plot twist; she tells you unflinchingly what she is going to do to tell this story, and why, and then she does it (sometimes this order is reversed).
And so you have Kandasamy as a cinematographer, escaping to ceilings to demonstrate how detachment functions as a survival technique. Kandasamy as a humourist, with a list of parental reactions that begins as comedy in the first chapter, returns the second time as tragedy and by the end is the farce that is often the only way to forgive the sins of those who love and wound you. Kandasamy as Socratic dialogist, deftly wielding the male lovers and abusers to construct meditations on the nature of fragile, violent masculinity. Dr Kandasamy the socio-linguist, turning scholarship into a pick-axe to excavate the etymology of verbal violence. Kandasamy the dramaturgist, breaking down how the stories of marital abuse are framed and who those framings exonerate, and who they trap.
Most of all, you have Kandasamy the writer who creates male characters with the tantalising artistry of a pastry chef. One moment the husband is a buffoonish maggot, the next a mesmerising duellist, and even as she reduces him to the place that boring archetypes of bog-standard violence belong to, she never minimises the volume of the violence itself. Male writers who set out to portray the ‘Women They Have Loved and Been Hurt By’ fail at the job so consistently that there are entire libraries of women’s studies theses on the subject. But Kandasamy joins the roster of those who can provide a clear-sighted, vivid portrait of modern maleness even as they are ‘Writing While Female’. (Did you notice the epigraphs preceding each chapter are all by women who have written about violence? Please notice.)
Women who have escaped or those who need to know they have a right to
This is such a kind book to us. Kandasamy’s affectionate concern for her fellow survivors triumphs over any editorial demands of explicit sensationalism. Trigger warnings are folded in gently at the beginning; I was married to a rapist, he beat me, I left and am living still. This is not the kind of binary story that says the only acceptable survival is escape or death – every tiny rebellion, every pragmatic compromise is documented, meticulously, as the victory it is. Kandasamy understands that winning sometimes looks like just coping. There is more time devoted to internal conversations with imaginary lovers than to cataloguing for voyeurs the exact measurements and tints of bruises left. As any well-behaved monster, the husband’s violence is not antagonistic as much as an obstacle; like dragons or thunderstorms, his role is merely to forward the hero’s journey. And Kandasamy’s hero does not journey in a tidy three-act plot, at the end standing sticky with the blood of the villain spurting like triumphant semen. No, instead her journey is a gathering of selfhood, basket-weaving together memory and philosophy, strategy and sensation, to construct her body into what Ursula Le Guin describes as “the tool that brings energy home”.
To poets who aspire to write
Kandasamy is so sharp and so playful that you can watch her flip like an acrobat from satire to pathos without letting go of your hand. She has a gift for conveying theory in vivid images that make it stick. It is so much fun to understand the complex thoughts that she gift wraps in such simplicity of verbal imagery.
On classical Tamil: “Keep in mind that this is a language where the word for obstinacy is also the word for intercourse.”
On culinary choices: “Every day I serve food to him as if it were a declaration of chastity.”
On friendships: “It is the easy way women dress and undress in front of each other, our clothes made for the hands of our friends, the zip that runs along the length of the dress, the bra hook, the sari pleats at the back, as if we become complete only when we take part in dressing each other.”
On bachelor politicians: “This label conveys that he takes his semen seriously.”
On lovers (desi version): “Some men leave me even as they are with me, knowing that I will never be able to love them the way their mothers loved them and that they will never be able to love me the way they love themselves.”
On lovers (foreign version): “Here, I do not have a lover to whom I can write poems about the rain. Here, the rain itself is a nice stranger I do not want to know, not the intimate monsoon showers of home.”
Young girls contemplating love and marriage
There will probably be some stodgy serious uncles who think this book can serve as a cautionary tale on the dangers of love marriage, but if their mistake serves to get this book in the hands of young ladies who are reading romance novels for the porn, then more power to them. Because this is a book about love and sex as much as it is about how men can misuse both to perpetuate abuse and we are very lucky that it is. Because Kandasamy can write about the cunt not just as a tragic victim of vicious insult, but as the moist, eager seat of the mathanapeetam (the yonilingam, the clitoris). She can write about men’s bodies as objects of desire, not just as weapons. So much of male-written literature conceives of peace, for a woman, as freedom from sex. Kandasamy’s book knows better. Men are hindrances or helpers towards sexual play, but peace is the state of being able to choose the sexual self, again and again. She knows that the happy ending is not a lover (though if you want it, go look at the dedication) but the freedom to love. There is brutal honesty in her documentation of lovers and her own compromises and missteps in her interactions with them, but it is not truth-telling with the derision of the recently-converted towards former hedonism. In creating a space to perform fragility, Kandasamy reveals strength in choreography similar to a padam where the lover has not changed from beginning to end, but we have witnessed something unique about a woman in love.
Parents, mentors, gossip-mongers and sundry gatekeepers of morality
The feminist movements have fought for words; creating taxonomies of abuse because the act of naming and classifying leads the way to resisting. You can find succinct and revelatory blog posts and essays on the subjects within this book; gaslighting, cycles of abuse, victim-blaming, FOG and emotional blackmail, slut shaming, reproductive violence, toxic masculinity (I could go on for a while). But we invented stories for a reason, because a tale helps make education more palatable than a lecture.
“But is it fictitious?” you ask.
She tells you the reasons it must be called a novel.
Structurally it makes perfect sense to reduce a violent nuisance of a man into a story; a fiction that permits an author to trap him in the chronological metre of the poetry she chooses and so that we are all spared the nonsense of ‘but I didn’t hit her with a Mac power cord, it was a PC!’
Pragmatically, it is legally dangerous to talk publicly about cases that are sub judice.
Philosophically… “Sharing stories might be catharsis, but to her, it is the second, more sophisticated punishment. I am the woman deputed on her behalf.”
Men, who maybe hit their wives
You can give the book as a warning, I guess, to men you suspect are abusive, as an “I’ve got my eyes on you” message. It might work; fear of social censure is one known way that domestic abuse can be prevented. But the book’s job isn’t to reform abusers; anyone awful enough to be one in the first place will walk away from the book going, “Well, I don’t step on her face so I’m nothing like him” or “I never deleted all her emails so this doesn’t apply to me.”
No, the book’s job is to remind men that they should know their place, and in the fraught, perilous world of domestic abuse, theirs is tertiary. The story of marital violence belongs to the women who survive it, the families and friends who support them and the nuance and complexity of the personalities recovering in healing from its trauma. Kandasamy creates a male character who can and does claim every special snowflake backstory – abusive childhood, state persecution, military trauma, a poet’s sensitivity. And in the end, it matters not a whit because he crumbles to dust like any replaceable oppressor who made a choice to participate in dehumanising someone. It may be his words as the title of the book but it is her story and she has cut him down and out and through; appropriating his violence for her profession as a writer. The book, as they say, does what it says on the tin.
No? Not yet?
Then add one more to the list –
You (because you need to get it or because you need to know someone else gets it too)
Like climate change, domestic abuse is pervasive, inescapable and universal. Either you know what it’s like to have a home become unsafe, or you know someone who does, or you’re part of the problem with your ignorance that disinvites confidence-sharing. If the latter, this book can teach you without perpetuating the hurt you would cause if you asked a survivor in the flesh to testify in the court of your uninformed opinion.
If the former… you don’t have to read it, certainly not, and do what you need to avoid being triggered. But, I suspect, you will want to. The sorority of survivors can be a lonely one. It is good to hear from one of us whose words were strong enough to carry her out.
Deepa D. has written about books for The Caravan, Mint Lounge, Business Standard and The Pioneer.