When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy
Format: Kindle (ebook)
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Published: March 2018
Setting: Mangalore, India
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Seduced by politics and poetry, the unnamed narrator falls in love with a university professor and agrees to be his wife, but what for her is a contract of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about reducing her to his idealised version of a kept woman, bullying her out of her life as an academic and writer in the process, she attempts to push back - a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape.
Smart, fierce and courageousWhen I Hit You is a dissection of what love meant, means and will come to mean when trust is undermined by violence; a brilliant, throat-tightening feminist discourse on battered faces and bruised male egos; and a scathing portrait of traditional wedlock in modern India. (Source: Goodreads)
‘My mother has not stopped talking about it’
It begins hilariously defiant which is quite apt for such a grim topic. It’s been five years since the unnamed narrator walked out on four month abusive marriage and her mother has not stop talking about it; giving different versions of what happened to different people and centering herself as the story teller. As the narrator’s mother’s story mutates and the engaging narrative she coins threatens to override the truth, the narrator, a writer, defiantly takes back her story. She refuses to watch from the sidelines and decides to take responsibility for her own life and tell her own story.
“The number of lessons I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story. Be ruthless, even if it’s your own mother”
When I Hit You is a heartbreaking but powerful story that lays bare the structure of abuse in marriages and how women can get caught up in this abusive cycle. It is a highly emotive but hopeful book – of resilience, defiance, strength and survival.
Kandasamy takes us through the narrator’s journey and underscores how her past relationships’ failures led her to the arms of her abusive husband. He was everything her former was not and it was an easy love to begin with. A few days into their marriage however, his controlling behavior becomes apparent. He demands that she disables her Facebook account and rations her access to her phone and the internet. He monitors her emails and forces her submission through rape. The narrator finds herself completely isolated and retreats to silence - a grave punishment for a writer whose art form is language
In an act of defiance however, we see how the narrator’s art influences how she internalizes, interprets and relays her experience and how she wields it as a form of resistance drawing strength from it. Her desire to write and expression far much greater than her husband’s quest for submission or the hostile environment she finds herself in. And so, when her husband bars her from writing, she spends her days secretly writing to imaginary lovers and then deleting everything before he gets back home. To make her situation appear less dire, she imagines her life as a film set film and considers herself and her husband as central characters enabling her to control the narrative. Her art – her writing, imagination and creativity – in this sense then becomes her resistance and saving grace.
In 2012, Kandasamy wrote an article in the Outlook Magazine (India) where she documented her own experience in an abusive marriage and this book seems to draw heavily from this experience. She borrows from her own life (which mirrors the narrator in the book) to speak on the important subject of art and the artist. How artists and their art are intricately intertwined and how art is essential to their sense of self and purpose. It is a topic that has generated much debate with some reviewers terming this book as a memoir or auto-biographical despite her emphatic stance that it is a work of fiction – borrowing inspiration from her personal experiences, but fiction still.
I struggled with this myself but what is undeniable is Kandasamy’s strength as a poet and writer. The book exudes such lyricism. The short sentences and her employ of repetition and emotional reflections give it a poetic prose that is so satisfying to read. There are short poems or reflections at the beginning of each chapter which serve as small peaks into the chapters, which I thought was brilliant. And whilst the jury is still out on whether this is a memoir, a semi-autobiography or auto-fiction, I highly recommend this book, not only because it tackles such a salient subject matter but because it is incisive and beautifully written.