‘When I Hit You’: An Account of an Artist as a Victim of Marital Abuse
By Anindita Mitra
The book under consideration is curiously entitled When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. The first part of the title gives us a hint about what the crux of the story is going to be but then the second part hinges on the profession and maturity of the individual as if to distill the bestiality of marital abuse and dish out reasons that gave the perpetrator the opportunity to inflict pain. The Pandemic has brought to the forefront myriad facets of domestic abuse, sometimes unique, but even if we think that such events are unprecedented, it’s not so in reality. While reading the ‘story’ (yes, it is claimed to be a fictional work by the author herself), the first detail that strikes the reader is that the writer is an educated individual. The primary reason for unchecked domestic violence in India cited in most reports is illiteracy: women being unaware of their rights, fall prey to the violence perpetrated by their husbands and in-laws and as such are unable to seek legal intervention. Being illiterate, they do not have any source of income and are considered a burden in their fathers’ household as well as their husbands’, only fit to be a slave to their husband’s desires, a carrier of his children and a menial slave of the family. But that is not the case of the unnamed protagonist in Meena Kandasamy’s book and yet she suffers for a time being the same fate as her illiterate compatriots. The story could have been any woman’s story, but one is forced to label it as autobiographical as Kandasamy had to course through a failed marriage in 2011 for about four months. Even after the traumatic period was apparently over, her immediate social connections and interactions kept scouring the wound and kept it bleeding. She claims, “It’s not what happened to me. It’s a representation of what happened to me.” She tries to shift the focus from culling out autobiographical details to the artistry of her pen. It is not a memoir but, according to her, there is “not a line of falsehood in the book.” So Kandasamy writes a story which is inspired by her short yet disastrous marriage to the person she loved. The anonymous protagonist is the universal representation of every young woman, educated in the language of freedom and feminism, in search of one true love of her life, seeking every opportunity to break away from the stranglehold of familial pressure but these societal encumbrances continue to choke her even after she has apparently escaped her abusive husband.
The story begins rather interestingly, in a way in which not many other stories of abuse begin. It is long after the incident and yet at every moment the writer-protagonist’s mother, a teacher by profession, tries to justify her daughter’s failed marriage to the diverse members of the Tamil society. The method is indirect; she does not mention the obvious for the predictable rambling about the perpetrator sounds rather stupid. It is a continuous detailed, and sometimes exaggerated, jabbering about her daughter’s health conditions that variously deteriorate during her stay at her husband’s and how she has been nursed back to health by the manifestation of unconditional love and care. Her journey of marriage is remembered by the listeners almost “as a fable about one mother’s unending, unconditional, over-conditioned love” and sadly the crucial details are gradually forgotten. But our protagonist is determined to write her own story for plagiarism is the worst that can happen to any writer, worse than death itself is losing the words of one’s own to the interpretation of another.
The story is a gripping synthesis of the political and the domestic – the political flamboyantly manipulates the domestic and the domestic is forced to employ politics to safeguard her existence, even though, in the final analysis, it becomes a story of survival and preserving the authenticity of the narrative. Raised in an educated household of South India in the 1980s, our female writer-protagonist, like most artist of the times, thinks herself as belonging to the broad Left, lapping up Marley, Guevara, Castro along the way. After a few heartaches and a serious heartbreak, she finds her one true love in the outlawed charm of a self-declared Communist, a Maoist in his opinion, a Naxalite guerrilla, an underground revolutionary in hers. To him, MLM does not stand for the standard Google answer ‘Multi-level Marketing’ but ma-le-ma or Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. He interprets their ideas and ideals according to his own situation and necessity to make his partner look up to him in the beginning and later wriggle under his feet in an attempt to free herself from his contraption of politics. Love to him is Communism but Communism is not love: “it is a hammer we use to correct ourselves and to crush our enemies.” And he did crush his own partner because in the female form of his wife he forces the impression of a bourgeoisie pseudo-intellectual in the garb of an ordinary middle-class woman, continuing her reluctant resistance against consumerism only to safeguard her position in the eyes of her Communist husband. First, he encroaches upon all her personal belongings and identification details; social media handles are deactivated and passwords extracted. In an alien place with unknown people and a little-known language, our protagonist is entrapped within the four walls of a house, Primrose Villa, cut off from the rest of the world. The most significant problem of such kind of domestic violence is the invisibility of it, for even when it comes to the forefront, the society turns a blind eye to it as it is considered to be a private matter. No one wants to get entangled in the intricacies of bedroom politics. The death of the writer in the daughter does not concern even her parents for a woman must sacrifice to be a good wife in this patriarchal society. Or else, she is termed a slut.
In India, at least, educated women face greater discrimination when it comes to divorce because education which empowers men to find better jobs, disadvantages women as they become aware of their position, and attain a voice. It becomes difficult for the upholders of patriarchy to subdue and control them with their dictates. Education offers very little help in the face of violence. In an interview, Kandasamy agrees to this when she says that being “feminist, outspoken, successful, loud” is no protection against violence. From the psychological abuse, from isolating the wife from the world outside, from almost erasing her virtual footprints, the politics that seeped into the bedroom could not restrain from unmasking itself and it moved to physical abuse gradually. The cord of the Mac Book, the back of the broomstick, the writing pad, the brown leather belt, the ceramic plates, and the drain hose of the washing machine infuse docility in the educated wife who is rewarded with an invite to deliver special lectures at the husband’s college. Her unrelenting attempt to survive as a writer is, to him, a “pandering to vulgar imperialist culture.” In an attempt to ‘declass’ his petit bourgeois wife, what the perpetrator does is destroy the writer’s self-respect and the writer, alone and battered, assumes the mode of silence psychologically and physically. Her only escape is through poetry, for writing a novel needs space and deliberation which she cannot spare but then, her poetry, to him, is lending permanence to a temporary emotion. According to the husband, this ‘wife-beating’, which is a passing phase, is given a permanent status through the lines of her poetry and that’s why our poet-protagonist is left to breathe without a pen. Words form and unform in her mind, waiting to be born. The behaviour of the husband may have been born out of jealousy driven by certain insecurities about oneself or others leading to an irresistible urge to possess for the fear of losing his possession. That his wife is a much sought-after writer and content with her profession, that she has an identity as a writer stupefies his self-worth and tugs at his self-imposed insufficiency, making him angry and disgusted at his own inadequacy. He resents himself at times when reminded of past events, gut-wrenching accounts of betrayal from his Maoist life and at other times, he vents out his resentment by torturing and raping his own wife so that she is unable to make it out of this legal wedlock in a presentable physical and mental condition.
What appals to the readers is that these tales of torture are narrated by the abused woman to her parents at every opportunity, but they continuously urge their daughter to hold on and even bear a child of the abuser as that child is sure to soften the father’s heart. Naturally, not unlike other Indian parents, they blame their daughter’s education as a hindrance to the couple’s marital happiness, her analytical bent of mind working as a barrier to accept her husband’s ‘normal’ sexual behaviour in the initial phase of marriage. When informed of the gruesome death threat that their daughter receives from her husband, they are finally ready to accept their daughter only if such a situation ever actually arises. Education only helps her to analyse each and every action and reaction of her husband to scheme a plan for such a situation to arise, but it does at a time when she is least prepared, eventually enabling her escape from Primrose Villa, bruised and battered, though alive.
Kandasamy says that in reality when she went to the police in India, she did submit a nine page complaint with a detailed description of everything that had happened to her and it looked like a novel to the officer. Her protagonist is continuously accused of making a story out of their marriage because the economically independent woman writer has the moral freedom to transform everything into writing material, to share with the public and ruin everything that is personal. This free woman makes a business out of everything because she claims that her body is not fettered by social bounds and lives a psychedelic sexual life; she does not save her virginity for the marital bed and as such her emotions are transactable: “This woman, she is a slut./ And that girl over there, she is the glutton./ And I am a bitch with tattoos on my lusty thighs” (Backstreet Girls). The moral police turn the maniac into the legal husband to crush her as a woman; as a writer her words are gagged and he tries to erase her identity as a human being. The tortured woman is still in a dilemma about whether to call this entity a monster for the society raises and feeds him, helps him escape punishment and he ends up interfering in other women’s lives, moves to South Africa, champions myriad causes of the Zulu and Indian people: “the necessity for safe, violence-free homes in Durban and community support for affected women.” The tortured is the victim but the victim remains the sinner; the sinner is the loose woman who has left the husband’s abode; the sinner is the used woman who is nothing anymore but a devise to offer sexual pleasure, flaunting herself to capture male attention; the ‘used’ woman is one whom other women envy and are also afraid of her ‘fearless’ (read ‘shameless’) approach to life. “She is the sinner and the saint, the beloved and the betrayed.” She is the dark lady with “storm in her speech” but then she is the one who “becomes that moon-gazing bird on new moon nights” and sings “the saddest songs of all time” and turns “insane to stay alive”.
Bhattacharya, Rinki ed. Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Violence in India. New Delhi: Sage Publications. 2004.
Gangoli, Geetanjali. Indian Feminisms: Law, Patriarchies and Violence in India. New York: Routledge. 2016.
Kandasamy, Meena. Ms Militancy. New Delhi: Navayana Publications. 2010.
—. When I Hit You or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. London: Atlantic Books.
Self, John. Meena Kandasamy: ‘If I was going to write my life story, I would condense that marriage to a footnote’. 25 Nov. 2019,
Anindita Mitra is a SACT-1 category English Lecturer in a State-Aided College in Kolkata and is pursuing research simultaneously.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.