“I will write in the same way in which I lived through all of this: carrying myself with enormous, infinite grace.”
Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is a punch to the gut. Given how prevalent domestic violence is in India – approximately 37% of married women face violence or sexual abuse – there are few works of importance dedicated to the subject. When I Hit You is destined to change that. An incredibly personal account, written from a first-person point of view, the novel begins with a feint – the story that the mother of the narrator tells of her escaping her husband and tormentor. Then the unnamed narrator claims the privilege to tell her tale for herself, and what a telling it is – full of tales of failed love, misunderstood emotions, and a woman who fights, clawing her way towards a liberation that is her triumph.
Kandasamy spoke to The Wire about her book and the writing of it.
Why choose marital violence as the centrepiece of the novel?
At the risk of sounding reductive, I did not choose that theme, it visited me, imprinted itself upon me, changed my life irrevocably – and I had to write about it. I was working on my first novel The Gypsy Goddess for a long time, beginning sometime in 2008 until it’s publication in 2014. It is a historical novel set in East Tanjore (in Tamil Nadu) in the 1960s and it outlines the story of independent India’s first caste massacre. In the middle of the writing of this novel, I had a brief but tumultuous, violent marriage in 2011. After I walked out, I put all my energies into finishing the novel I had worked on for ages – and at the same time, I knew that once that book was done, I was going to write about my own experience of marital violence. To me, writing is very closely linked to the world I want to see some day – and I was, like a lot of young people in their 20s – going after the grand, tragic themes that needed to be set right: caste atrocities, a broken justice system, the class struggle. My first novel addressed all of that. But I had witnessed something else first-hand – during the marriage – which was that pursuing an intellectual life, especially writing, is impossible to do when you are stuck in the middle of everyday abuse because you are battling for mere survival; and, secondly, no matter how much you run away from the experience of being female in order to inhabit other experiences, violence of this kind firmly pushes you in that distressing awareness that your life as an artist will continue to be dictated by your womanhood. So, in tracing the artistic journey of a woman writer, I chose to tell this story – of marital violence – that millions of women face and which breaks them down in countless ways.
Given the topic, both of the many loves and the violence, as well as the novel being in the first person, did you ever consider that people might consider this story to be about you?
In a sense, all stories are about you. I was once reading in Heidelberg, when a German woman claimed that the only reason I could write so realistically about Kilvenmani was because I was there! And I was like, no, I was born like nearly two decades later – and she was like, no, you were there, you were there. It was your previous birth. I don’t know what to say when someone throws the idea of reincarnation in my face – but it taught me something. You can write about anything, and people will assume that it is about you, and find ways to believe that it is indeed about you.
Having said that, this novel is shamelessly informed by my own experience. This is not the exact way in which things happened – my mind had blocked out a lot of the sadness and unpleasantness and trauma, possibly as coping mechanisms. But this is how I remember them, and this is how the form of a novel allows me to give memory some coherence. It was to allow any reader to imagine herself in the shoes of the narrator, I left my narrator unnamed, undescribed even. She could be any woman. The specifics, the manifestations, the exact words may vary from one abusive marriage to another – but the woman’s experience of subjugation, humiliation, obliteration and pain largely remain the same.
Despite the horrific tales of domestic violence and murder that are common fare in India, we have rarely seen much writing about it – who were you influenced by?
I think we have a very Indian knack of choosing to depict a literature slightly disengaged from our everyday. Caste is one of those examples – in society, it is all-pervading, in Anglophone literature, it is absent. About fifteen 15 years ago, as a teenager who read everything she could lay her hands on, I’d read some works of Shashi Deshpande and Anita Desai that dealt with trouble in marriages – but that was it. To write this novel – I decided to bring in all the texts that had an influence on me, texts which are central even to the conflict in the novel: whether it is the Communist Manifesto or the Little Red Book or the poetry of Kamala Das – and to create a different way of saying a story – which was at once intellectual and theoretical as well as personal and intimate. The fragmentation owes a lot to the non-fiction I love: Roland Barthes and Guy Debord, to the master of it within fiction Italo Calvino and to the poets Sandra Cisneros, Maggie Nelson and Anne Carson, among others.
In a way the violence is off-screen, we do not see the blood and broken bones, the scars and bruises that are the common marks of this horror. Was this deliberate, that you didn’t want to make it about a battered wife?
On the contrary. I have learnt that what is left unsaid speaks louder than anything that is put down into words. The texture of the novel hints and refers and theorises the violence, but never does it revel in it. I remember writing in my diary how I was going to write this novel – and I think I shared it with James, my editor once – how do I want to write rape and violence? I think part of the aim of such horror is to punish, but it is also to disgrace the woman. And I wrote down, I will write in a way in which I am not disgraced. I will write in the same way in which I lived through all of this: carrying myself with enormous, infinite grace. And that’s why the reader is spared all the horrors even though the violence remains off-screen, as you so rightly point out.
The liberation through writing, even writing that is erased, is a breathtaking innovation. It almost seems to suggest that the violence and terror makes of the woman a great writer/artist.
I do not know what to say. There is a lot of great literature about war in general, but does war make a writer/artist great? On the one hand, it kills millions of people, writers included. On the other hand, devastation on such a scale turns you inside out – and yes, produces memorable literature. So, there might be a grain of truth in what you are suggesting – but, I think that for every woman who manages to come out of violence unscathed and be able to draw, write, act, work – there are hundreds and thousands more who are broken down and have their dreams, ambitions, talents crushed.
The use of Facebook, email, cell phones, even the Macbook, are all icons of liberal capitalism, and yet they are also the window towards freedom that the abusive husband cuts off, one by one.
Even before capitalism of any kind existed, I’m sure men were abusing women. Unless we square up to patriarchy, men will abuse women even in a post-capitalist utopia. The woman in this novel is a millennial and these are her modes of communication. Set the novel in the feudal age, and a suspicious husband would have been eavesdropping on her private conversations and interfering with her handwritten correspondence. Again, the husband’s hatred of Facebook/email/cellphones/Macbook are not because they are capitalist icons, but rather because they enable her a freedom that he cannot sufficiently control – this is the sort of man who would do this if they lived in North Korea or in Stalinist Russia or alone by themselves in a fucking cave. I think we must avoid the danger of conflating a tool of communication or a product of technology as something that is intrinsically a feminist device or an emancipatory invention. Possessive idiots track their partner’s movements by installing spyware – so can we say that capitalism is responsible for stalking or control freaks?
The husband is very much a Leftist cadre type, a Maoist even, but the character goes out of her way to distinguish between him and the party’s ideals. Are you absolving the “woke” groups of the violence and misogyny that their cadre are guilty of?
No, no, no, no, no. I do not think there are Leftist organisations who encourage their cadre to beat up women and abuse them and violate them. The tragedy is that even the most progressive ideology – here Communism – can be twisted and selectively quoted and misutilised by opportunist bigots to abuse women. I have also come across Leftist men who berate women who do not indulge their sexual desires or women who are in committed relationships by saying that they are middle-class, petty bourgeois prudes who do not understand Communism. Clearly, patriarchy works either way – the aim being to control women to its ends. I personally think that violence and misogyny within progressive Left spaces is very vicious and very heart breaking. I think that more than any one else, the Leftists must not shield rapists and wife-beaters within their party ranks, that they must fight misogyny tooth and nail, and this is the only way in which we can take on oppressive structures like caste or racism or capitalism. So no, never will I dream of absolving any misogynist – Marxism is opposed to the oppression of one class of people by another class – which includes the oppression of women by men, among other things. I do however make the difference between a radical organisation on the whole and the actions of few individuals, who use the aura of sacrifice and revolution attached with such self-effacing organisations – to pursue their sexual conquests and their reprehensible misogynist violence.
The silencing of the woman’s moans, the suspicions about sexual freedom, runs like a ragged wound across the text. How much of freedom is sexual freedom?
A lot of it, I guess. I find it a load of bullshit when people on the Left start telling me that economic freedom is the first, fundamental step – and so on, and that the question of sexuality will be eventually addressed – and I loathe such an approach. Women and men have both a limited time in the world, and we cannot wait for the revolution to finally happen and then we realise that we are free to love and live with people of the same gender or another caste, religion, race, nationality, whatever. Especially when the idea of women being passive receptacles of men’s passion happens to be the normative idea of sex in our culture – it becomes important for women to claim autonomy over their bodies, to talk about their pleasure, to talk about their rights. When oppression seems to be built on the edifice of controlling women’s bodies, I think dismantling oppression has to begin there too.
Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You is available in India from Juggernaut books.