Reclamation of rights and agency in Meena Kandasamy’s ‘When I Hit You’
By Vipasha Bhardwaj
After eye-rolling the first few pages of Meena Kandasamy’s explosive and nerve-racking book, When I Hit You, my compulsive reaction was to gently put it back in the shelf and continue to believe that such gory acts of domestic violence do not exist, not at least to those whom I know. To have lived through such a tempestuous journey of spousal abuse for almost a year, the wife has to have a nerve of steel. My next reaction was to have the audacity to ask myself: why does the victim have to stay? But once I decided against my own judgement and pulled the book out of the shelf. I could discern that the unnamed narrator in Kandasamy’s novel has been reeling under the vicious entrapment of an abusive marriage and desperately seeking an escape route. Her woes and cries for help fell into her parent’s deaf ears who passively suggested her to have a child since “A child is not a bad idea. He will become more gentle when he is a father. I’m a mother. Babies have that effect, they can tame brutes” (Kandasamy 198). Her mother seems oblivious to the pain and suffering caused by the abusive husband and instead advices the daughter to put up a stoic attitude and birth a child. Parents can sometimes act in a very toxic manner and jeopardize the lives of their children only to maintain and uplift the values of the patriarchal Indian family. Within the social purview of the novel, ‘Your own good’ is one of the commonly cited aphorisms of the narrator’s mother who uses it as a pretext to make sure that the status quo is maintained, even at the cost of her daughter’s physical and mental health.
According to author and journalist Rachel Louise Synder, “Our homes and families are supposed to be sacred territory, the haven in a heartless world.” But whom should a woman turn to when the supposed ‘safe space’ turns into a site of perpetual terror, a shared conjugal space of constant torture and trauma? Ironically enough, when the protagonist of the novel decided to get married, it was not out of love or any dull ache of desire but rather safety and some sort of consistency and stability that marriage seemingly offers. But little did she know that the camel’s nose was now under the tent and catastrophe lurks on the horizon. Kandasamy has deftly used epigraphs to set the tone and content of her novel. These epigraphs have been taken from writers and activists across the world, the likes of which include Kamala Das, Wislawa Szymborska, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Anne Sexton, Zora Neale Hurston, Frida Kahlo, amongst others.
Seduced by love and politics, the marriage seemed innocuous at first but soon the husband began his toxic manipulation and gas-lighting by coercing her to delete her Facebook account. Being a writer and having relocated to a new town with no professional connections, Facebook was the protagonist’s only means to the literary world where she could get some freelance work. It was a career suicide to come off Facebook but nonetheless, she obliged. According to the protagonist, “To reason with him will lead to a long, interminable fight, a war of attrition that would exhaust me into defeat” (Kandasamy 51). Such meek surrender also stems from love or being under the spell of love so much so that the victim feels powerless in the face of it. Intellectual coercion in an abusive marriage is much worse as it leaves no visible marks on the body but rather on the psyche of the victim. Such cases of intellectual coercion happen when there is a high incidence of narcissism in the perpetrator. The perpetrator or the husband in Kandasamy’s novel is a university professor and a self-righteous Communist who tries to reduce his wife to his idealized version of an obedient comrade-like wife. Being a self-proclaimed but duplicitous Marxist, he was constantly paranoid about the state, about security and about being monitored. His paranoia soon became impossible to fathom when he procured a SIM card in the name of one of his students’ extended friendship circles so as not to be on the police radar.
Long before the physical assault began, the protagonist tried informing her parents about the insanity of her husband’s acts of prohibition: she was allowed only three hours a week of internet accessibility, phone calls or email messages from strangers would be thoroughly scrutinised, travelling alone for conferences was out of the question, the list is inane and uncanny. The protagonist bemoans her traumatic experience of being hit by her husband:
On a dull afternoon, I can catalogue the weapons of abuse that have gathered around the house. The cord of my MacBook which left thin, red welts on my arms. The back of the broomstick that pounded me across the length of my back. The writing pad whose edges found my knuckles. His brown leather belt. Broken ceramic plates after a brief journey as flying saucers. The drain hose of the washing machine. I did not know that this was the exemplary life awaiting a newly married woman. (70)
It looks as if the assaults were random and performed at will with whatever objects were found within the arm’s length. In all of human history, domestic violence against wives has never been a cause of concern and it’s not surprising. The reason being, religion and religious scriptures have always advocated the rights and supremacy of men over other beings. According to Synder, “Jewish, Islamic, Christian, and Catholic religions all traditionally believed it was within a husband’s purview to discipline his wife in more or less the same manner as he might discipline and control any other of his properties, including servants, slaves, and animals” (26). These interpretations of the religious texts, interestingly, were made by men of the time. A few of these interpretations, according to Synder, “even gave instruction on the manner of wife beating, such as avoiding direct blows to the face, or making sure not to cause lasting injury” (28). In the United States, the Puritans had laws against wife beating, though they were largely symbolic rarely, if ever, enforced. The case of battered women has recently been brought to the forefront when the idea of equality started gaining momentum in international geopolitics.
Through her novel, Kandasamy has shone a flashlight in the darkest corners, to show the brutal and horrendous reality of domestic violence and how it seemingly looks normal to the outsiders. The protagonist’s husband made sure that she never ventures out of the house unsupervised lest she gave him the slip, and filed a lawsuit against domestic violence. Apart from being an abuser, her husband was also a toxic manipulator who would constantly nag her and bully her for making independent career choices. Once when she was approached by the Outlook magazine to write an essay for their annual issue on sex surveys, he insinuated that she has been sleeping with the entire editorial team of the magazine to gain favour. She narrates,
‘Why did you agree,’ he asks? ‘You are a slave of this corporate media. You are selling your body. This is elite prostitution, where men do not get to touch you, but they masturbate to the image of the woman you represent. This is not freedom. This is sexual anarchy. This is not revolutionary. This is pandering to vulgar imperialist culture.’ And within the next hour, there are suggestions that I have slept with the entire editorial team at Outlook. (Kandasamy 76)
Such outrageous and nonsensical accusations stemming from his paranoia and suspicious nature have left a scarring wound on the protagonist’s psyche. These accusations are merely a cover for his own sadism. In the climate of toxic masculinity, with no means to connect with the outside world, the victim’s life depends on the mercy of her perpetrator, with her head constantly on the swivel. There is no safe space where the magnitude of her lived reality could be testified, heard and acknowledged. The most common aphorism in the world of domestic violence is “hurt people hurt people.” So is it possible that the hurt person turns his pain inward and grapples with it rather than turning it outward towards the people in his life? Why does the spouse have to become a punching bag, a disposable object that can be hit and discarded at will?
How long will the abuser go on with his savagery until the victim decides to push back? Throughout this article, I have used the pronoun “she” for the victim and “he” for the perpetrator because the text in discussion has been narrated as such and also because men remain the overwhelming majority of perpetrators, and women are on the receiving end by every measure. When the protagonist in Kandasamy’s novel began to reason and call out such acts of savagery, he tried to break her resistance with violence and rape. He wanted to punish her by labelling her a whore and a wanton woman. To prove that his masculinity is the cure-all method, he tried to mutilate her body by coercing her into sexual intercourse. Traditional wedlock systems as well as the judiciary in modern India are still under denial when it comes to marital rape. Intimate partner violence is seen as a private family matter, “a problem for women rather than the criminal justice system” (Synder 32) by the lawmakers and hence criminalisation of rape within marriage is an unreasonable demand for them. Rape, in the novel, is a symbol of control and a weapon to tame the ‘brute wife’. In order for the husband to justify the rape, he must first caricature her as the ‘bad woman’ and “this male psychosexual logic looks at penetration as punishment. This is the rape that disciplines…” (Kandasamy 174). But for the one who is being supposedly ‘disciplined’, it is a slow death of bodily integration, a body that turns into a rag-doll meant for nights after nights of atrocity. According to the narrator,
As much as it resists rape, my body has also learnt how to surrender. It learns to shut its eyes, it learns to look away. It knows to kneel on all fours and await its own humiliation. The shame of rape is the shame of the unspeakable. Women have found it easier to jump into fire, consume poison, blow themselves up as suicide bombers than tell another soul about what happened. A rape is a fight you did not win. You could not win. ( Kandasamy 169)
But as Frida Kahlo has rightly and justifiably said , “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” The protagonist decides to walk out of the marriage but with a definitive retribution in her mind. Nothing is more precious to a man than his own fragile ego and to have the ego stoked by a victimized spouse is to put the knife gently through the ribs. He had been waxing eloquent about his past life as a revolutionary, a guerilla fighter, ‘a rebel with a cause’ but the duplicitous nature of these claims was not so difficult to fathom. He had also been lying about his past life as it was soon discovered by the protagonist that he had had a previously failed marriage and this was his second one. A narrative climax is reached when the protagonist confronts her husband, challenging his pseudo-masculinity and delusional ideals.
When the novel opens, the unnamed protagonist had already escaped her abusive marriage five years ago and she decides to bring to the forefront her traumatic experiences triggered by an abusive marriage. This act of writing about one’s personal experiences of trauma is also a means of working through the trauma and has been termed as “scriptotherapy” by author Suzette A. Henke in Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Life-Writing. The novel is a poignant re-telling of one woman’s battle and survival in a climate of extreme domestic hostility and abuse. The issues dealt with in the novel are universal and deserve a sympathetic understanding and audience. It can be very well classified as a life testimony where “…the authorial effort to reconstruct a story of psychological debilitation could offer potential for mental healing…” (Henke xii). Authorial choices seem absent in When I Hit You as the protagonist is given a free hand in narrating her lived reality. The novel becomes a site of protest and regeneration thereby transforming itself into a counter-narrative where the victim is free to rebel against the values and practices of a dominant culture and to assume an empowered position of political agency in the world.
Henke, Suzette A. Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Life-Writing. Macmillan, New York, 1998.
Kandasamy, Meena. When I Hit You. Juggernaut Books, 2017.
Synder, Rachel Louise. No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us. Bloomsbury, New York, 2019.
Vipasha Bharadwaj is an Assistant Professor of English, who is an enthusiastic researcher and a compassionate teacher working at Pub Kamrup College which is located in Baihata Charali in Assam.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.