Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You reminded me of Rosalyn D’Mello’s A Handbook For My Lover – poetic when describing the mundane, picking apart a relationship and offering it to the reader, the vulnerability and strength of the woman who narrates her own story. There are no similarities in the stories they choose to share with us though. Where Rosalyn D’Mello captures a love that nourishes and evolves, Meena Kandasamy paints for us the ugly underbelly of a marriage.
It starts out alright. The promise of a better life, the lure of building a better world with ideologies that the partners agree on. But this story devolves quickly into one of abuse and the quest for control. We read in horror as the narrator describes the destruction of her real and virtual personalities, the constant monitoring of what she wears, whom she talks to, and where she goes, the taunts, the punishment that makes use of weapons lying around the house. When he hits her, she realises it can only get worse. We continue to read in horror as she describes marital rape – a situation in which the rapist isn’t a stranger behind the bus stop, but a man who returns to the bed every night with the intent to own and destroy.
It is too easy to ask why. Why this woman, this self proclaimed feminist, wouldn’t walk out. I have asked this question too, when I didn’t know better. She methodically answers the questions that will be asked of her – for getting married and for leaving.
As women, we are constantly reminded of what it means to be a Good Girl, a Good Wife, or in this context, a Good Tamil Woman. None of these categories allow women to breathe, to forge their own identities. We are asked to be women who do not talk back, who obey, whose silence means acquiescence, whose clothes do not command attention. We are judged, talked down to, lectured at for not conforming. We are asked to adjust – for partner, for parents, for family and friends who are quick to blame and slow to support.
I was surprised to find myself being able to relate to the narrator, even if I have not been with a partner who treated me as less than human. But maybe I have been that woman who was stifled and let down by those she placed her trust in.
The unnamed narrator walks away one day, towards freedom and a justice that never seems to be available. I imagine her conversing with Nina Simone as she walks:
Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good
In that moment, the woman in the story, the woman recalling this story, she is every woman who found in her courage to protect herself, who refused to do what was expected of her. She is free.
This is also a story about words and what happens to a writer when her writing is discarded and her words are censored. She writes whole essays in her mind. She writes and erases so her transgression isn’t discovered. She observes her life with the hope that she can write about it. She then reclaims these events from the retellings of others. She teaches us what feminism looks like in the face of a patriarchy that is cruel, sadistic and repressive, a patriarchy that is enabled by men and women.
I am always conscious of how this kind of writing is perceived, partly because this is the only way I know to write. And even if I may declare I write for myself, I seek validation in the responses of others. First person narratives about women and their issues, as if men were merely bystanders and not perpetrators, do not get talked about enough. They are dismissed as the emotional hemorrhage of sensitive women. But Meena Kandasamy has no time for that kind of talk. She dazzles us with her craft. She tells us exactly what we are in for and yet manages to surprise us.