CultureBooks Book Review: When I Hit You, Or, A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Wife By Meena Kandasamy

Book Review: When I Hit You, Or, A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Wife By Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy’s book 'When I Hit You' is a powerful analysis of ‘modern’ marriage and debunks popular myths surrounding love marriages.

“And the more familiar the strange becomes, the more and more strange the familiar appears. That’s how the once-upon-a-time fiery feminist becomes a battered wife. By observing, but not doing anything. By experiencing, but not understanding. By recording but not judging.”

Kandasamy’s When I Hit You is a powerful analysis of ‘modern’ marriage through the art of fiction. An unnamed narrator takes us into her world of a misogynist husband; a father embarrassed by the shame that a possible divorce would bring, and a mother who tells her this is how things are, to be silent and to accept the situation because the first year of marriage is always hard; a mother who makes a “spectacle” of the narrator’s embarrassment and advises her that time will pass and all her troubles will be forgotten. 

A crucial aspect this book brings out is the way violence perpetuates in a seemingly “modern”, “love” marriage. We are always told when we question the patriarchy of traditional marriages that “modern marriages are not like that”, “love marriages are not like that”. Kandasamy breaks this myth. The book reveals a lot on the matters of love. The narrator tells us “love is not blind; it just looks in the wrong places.” The narrator escapes the brutality and the curfews imposed on her by writing letters to imaginary lovers. The book is a meditation on love, marriage, violence and how someone who is a feminist gets trapped in an abusive marriage.

When I Hit You brings out the way violence perpetuates in a seemingly “modern”, “love” marriage.

As a reader, this book is a treat with all the poetry the author includes as epigraphs: an exploration of art, love and female desire (which is almost non-existent in our cultural discourse). A woman’s sexuality is for her husband to possess. If not wanted by her husband, the woman is supposed to have no wants and sexual desires of her own. The narrator’s brutally honest account of marital rape and the way penetration is used as a weapon against women is numbing. It makes me, as a reader, wonder how we managed to normalise this violence on a woman’s body.

The question “What prevents a woman from walking out of an abusive relationship?” is one the author deals with, through a deeply personal narration, urgent and yet poetic. She invokes Elfriede Jelinek, Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton and many more on various pages. This is not just a story of the abuse that the unnamed narrator faces at the hands of her misogynist husband, but also an account of the struggle a young writer faces in absolute isolation. The book also exemplifies her struggles where she has to remind herself that you are more useful alive than dead, over and over again.

“I learn to criticize myself. […] I concede that my feminism, with its obsession about sexuality, is a middle-class project that forgets the lived realities of millions of working-class women. In the same breath I also say that I continue to think that working-class women also have sexual desires and need equal rights, and that they need feminism too.”

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The narrative style subtly brings out the Brahmanical and patriarchal values inherent in the institution of marriage; the blame that is always placed on women, the need to be submissive for the marriage to ‘work’. When the narrator recounts her conversations with her parents, it is nothing new to us, we have heard this time and again. The author explores various ways of dealing with issues of violence, and how society normalises abuse a woman faces at the hands of her husband. Kandasamy invokes lot of literary and philosophical inferences from Althusser strangling his wife to Beauvoir and Sartre’s relationship.

What Kandasamy writes about in this book is the stuff my nightmares are made of. It is not just the possibility of violence but the inability to get out of it in spite of knowing all well what is happening to me. This book takes us on a journey through structures of toxic masculinity and patriarchy, which allow such violence to be perpetuated. “Avoid confrontation,” her father tells her while her mother tells her that “Marriage is a give and take”. These token bits of ‘wisdom’ are nothing new to anyone who has contested marriage and its parochial ways of subordinating women.

This, as mentioned earlier, is the survival story of a writer in isolation. Our narrator uses her words fiercely, sometimes to play along with the abusive husband in order to avoid possible violence, other times to provoke him. Her words are her only shield weapons. “I slip words between his ribs like a stiletto knife”.

This book takes us through structures of toxic masculinity and patriarchy which allow violence to be perpetuated.

This is a piece of work which illustrates how gender-oppressive ideology and behaviour can be perpetuated, irrespective of your education, class, political leanings. It warns us how a seemingly “successful” marriage could be violent, oppressive and abusive without anyone around being aware of its brutality.

As a reader, When I Hit You seems like advice to our future selves that we are on our own. It is a warning: that it is easy for a once upon a time a feminist to get trapped in an abusive marriage. It is also possible for her to rationalise and try make sense of her abusive partner’s violence like our narrator here says, “He can be kind, I know he can, I’ve seen how tender he is with the homeless boys in town, but with me I know he will always choose to be cruel.” She is told time and again by her husband that it is her feminism that is the problem and not his abusive behaviour.

While you read this phenomenal work by Kandasamy you will keep wondering, “What prevents a woman from walking out of an abusive relationship?” and probably find some leads towards unpacking this question. This unpacking will happen by invoking several writers who keep our narrator alive through her ordeal, and how she uses language and art as her strength to fight back.

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