Meena Kandasamy boldly addresses marital violence against women in her latest novel.
SINCE publishing just a year ago, Meena Kandasamy’s latest novel was quickly shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2018, Women’s Prize 2018 and longlisted for the Dylan Prize 2018. Set in southern India, When I Hit You has gained global attention as an honest account of domestic abuse in a country which unfortunately still shies away from addressing the problem.
Due to the taboo surrounding domestic abuse, statistics rarely offer an accurate picture of how widespread the issue is. However, according to a recent survey, 31% of married women have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence by their spouses in India.
While many women quietly endure this abuse, Kandasamy bravely spoke about her former abusive husband in an article for Outlook Magazine five years before publishing When I Hit You. And although the novel is considered a fictional piece, it’s hard to ignore the similarities between the female protagonist and Kandasamy – making the story a harrowing and realistic read.
The story follows an unnamed female writer who finds herself abused by her husband shortly after getting married. As a university professor, he twists ideologies to his advantage as he tells her,
“The problem is your feminism…that refuses to recognize that we are a couple…you cannot see me as anything other than a man and men as anything other than selfish scoundrels.”
Using intellectual arguments to manipulate her, the verbal abuse builds to actions such as deleting her Facebook and all of her emails. As he begins to wear her down, the physical violence increases as he starts to rape her when she attempts to defy him.
The full title of the novel is When I Hit You Or The Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Wife as Kandasamy emphasises the fact that this story is through the eyes of a writer. And it is writing that becomes this young wife’s biggest weapon.
Finding herself helplessly trapped in a tortuous situation she uses the power of words by writing letters to former lovers – even if it means deleting them before her husband comes home.
However, these small acts of defiance are rare as we see a strong, young feminist writer, slowly broken apart by her forceful husband. While most of the violence is alluded to and not explicitly described, Kandasamy writes of the emotional consequences of rape as the wife wonders, ‘How do I let another person know how it feels to be raped within marriage? Death is all I can think about when I lie there….A rape is a fight you did not win. You could not win.”
As if that wasn’t enough, she finds herself fighting alone as her parents encourage her to suffer through it rather than face the humiliation (perhaps more for her family than her) of divorce. Unfortunately, a response that is still far too common in India.
On the surface, this novel is a matter-of-fact story of a young wife beaten and raped by her husband. However, Kandasamy cleverly reflects on how that affects the woman’s reputation and the fact that even the strongest of women have endured the worst of their husband’s physical violence.
While this story is a difficult read it certainly carries a lot of hope. Essentially the book itself is the ultimate act of defiance as Kandasamy fearlessly uses her own writing to call out male abusers, the families who tell women to stay, the policeman who won’t do anything to help and many others. When I Hit You shows us that this story can happen to anyone but that there are ways of making it out the other side. And with the amount of attention it’s received, let’s hope this book is the start of open discussions around physical violence against women in India and encourages others to share their stories.
When I Hit You. Published by Atlantic Books – 256 pages.