In her novel When I Hit You we hear the original, unique voice of the writer Meena Kandasamy recounting a story of domestic abuse in southern India. It is not only a harrowing story of escalating violence, but also an account of the effect of this violence on the narrator as a writer. The beginning of the novel contains both these things: we meet her mother, citing the shocking state of her daughter’s feet and the armies of head lice in her hair as proof of her husband’s neglect. But her mother’s lamentations are swiftly overtaken by the writer claiming authorship: I must take some responsibility over my own life. I must write my story.
She begins with a description of Primrose Villa, the house in Mangalore where she spends the first few weeks of her married life. We immediately get the sense of this as a place of confinement-this is the space within which I must move-where she spends her days shopping, cleaning, washing clothes, performing the routine, repetitive household tasks of the perfect wife. These scenes are narrated as if part of a film script, where the narrator is acting a role-except that she’s forbidden the glamour of stardom when ordered by her husband to wear drab, loose fitting clothes, T-shirts and pyjama bottoms, in line with his revolutionary Naxalite beliefs. (One of the many criticisms he throws at her is her petit- bourgeois background and he’s bent on a period of re-education to get her to reject lipstick and hair care in favour of solidarity with her peasant sisters in the fields.)
His control soon extends to her writing life: he insists she delete her Facebook account, takes over her emails and restricts her Internet usage to 3 hours a week, cutting her off from essential contacts and sources as well as from friends. Then the hitting begins, and as with the film script, she adopts a writer’s viewpoint to distance herself and cope with what’s happening: On a dull afternoon, I can catalogue the weapons of abuse that have gathered around the house. The cord of my Mac-Book which left thin, red welts on my arms. The back of the broomstick that pounded me across the length of my back.
The narrative is non-linear and scrolls back, some way in, to tell us how the narrator found herself in this marriage. Her husband is a college lecturer and political activist whom she admired and married on the rebound from a previous love affair. They move to Mangalore where he has a teaching contract and where she hopes to find work. But the reality is that the work never materialises, and, cut off from friends and family, not speaking the local language or having local contacts, she is trapped. She phones her parents regularly and complains about her husband’s controlling behaviour and eventually of his violence. They are concerned but advise her to change, to adapt, to accommodate his demanding ways: depressingly, her mother says she’s been through it and the first year of marriage is the worst. We know from the introduction what ignominy these parents will have to face in Chennai if their daughter leaves a marriage after only four and a half months.
The violence escalates to rape. The narrator begins fearing for her life and at that point determines to get away. She learns something about her husband’s past which she uses to gain the upper hand with him in one of his rages. She is taking control of their narrative, he’s disempowered, and she manages to escape. However, that’s not the end of the story. She makes a complaint to the police about his violence and threat to her life. Two and a half years later the case has still not come to court, her husband has re-invented himself and carried on working and even progressive, liberal people are leaning on her to drop the case. Eventually she takes her father’s advice and leaves the country.
This is a depressing and shocking account of domestic abuse in India and the unwillingness of the Indian state and society to intervene to protect women. But is also a clever and nuanced account of the writer resisting the subjugation of the experience through writing. She employs techniques like the distancing mentioned above. She employs changes of mood and tone to insist on and express the range of her emotions, as in the tender account of the love she felt for the older politician, the tough, sometimes ironic tone of her take on life at Primrose Villa. She also sees the protective power of words: wrapping my body into words, I proof it against the prying eye, against inspection. I have sheathed it against the hands of others. My woman’s body, when it is written down, is rape resistant. The narrator’s story is fiction and as such she is unassailable: I am the woman at whom society cannot spit or throw stones because this me is a she who is made up only of words on a page, and yet she is giving voice to the experience of many :…..and the lines she speaks are those that everyone hears in their own voice.
Meena Kandasamy uses her writerly sensibility to approach the issue of domestic abuse with a fresh voice. Completely in control of her material, she combines an account of the brutal abuse suffered by the protagonist with a lyrical insistence on the right of women to be free, defiant, sexual and resistant. When I hit you was deservedly short listed for the Women’s Prize in 2018 and I shall go back to it again and again.