“At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” – Frida Kahlo
Meena Kandasamy, in her new novel, “When I Hit You”, pens a scorching critique of the Communist men in India, who voice their idealism with buoyancy and candour but become shy and crumble when confronted with the gender question. Autobiographical in most parts, the narrative transcends the injustices and inequities of the acts meted out to her, the insubordinate wife, by her Communist-crusader of a husband, to toss a barrage of questions about the hypocrisy of Marxist idealism in a world divided along gendered lines.
“When I Hit You”, subtitled “Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife”, stresses on the need to tell one’s own story verbatim. Before delving into the details of how she escaped an abusive husband after four months of marriage, she postulates, “The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story.”
This need stems from her firm resistance against being appropriated. A woman writer playing the roles of a daughter and a wife, the narrative expounds on how people around her routinely twist and bend her tales of woe to fit their personal discourse. It is interesting that we are introduced to her plight through her mother’s retelling of her daughter’s failed marriage in front of friends and relatives, where she glosses over certain aspects of her predicament while underlining others. In her mother’s narrative, the writer’s calloused feet and lice-infested hair become the only two towering metaphors of her conjugal crisis while her husband’s dismissal and derision of her job as a writer (‘a petit bourgeois writer’, according to her husband), is grossly overlooked to recite her ordeal “as a fable about one mother’s unending, unconditional, over-conditioned love”.
Kandasamy, in her account, talks about the process of writing one’s own story as taking responsibility for one’s own life. The responsibility of an author to tell her own tale in an effort to stop others from stealing her story is a dominant theme that resounds throughout the narrative. Her story transports the readers from her maiden life in rural Chennai where she acted as a weir between her parents, to an intellectual spiral when she moves to urban Kerala to pursue an integrated course in literature. She lingers on the men who loved her with a certain vehemence but fails in her search for the One True Love. After being jilted in love by an unnamed politician, she marries a college professor because of the apparent safety it represents to her parents. But, oh, the irony!
Ardently feminist in its conception and delivery, the novel reads like a fiery reaction to the deliberate misreading of Communist principles, where she posits the question of gender against the dominant narrative of culture. The narrative, as candid and unswerving as the narrator’s voice, abounds in anecdotes of the sort that would remind the readers of the oral tales of yore. Her father with his tattooed forehead, which was an attempt on her grandmother’s part to prevent the Gods from ‘taking him back’, epitomises the prevailing idea of masking beauty in plainness or ugliness. There is, however, a fundamental difference in this superstition, and that is a gendered one. While her father’s beauty was a threat to himself, the narrator’s beauty is a threat to society and has to be veiled by the “shapeless monstrosity: the nightie”.
The male incursions into her female identity as a writer come in sundry ways after she meets her husband, a Naxalite-turned-college professor. Ensnared by his politics, poetry and an enduring dream of building the grassroots for a better nation, she embraces his fervent love for a classless and unbiased society and marries him. However, just after the marriage, he embarks on a special project, a ‘re-education camp’ for his ‘vacillating petit bourgeois poet-prostitute woman-writer’ wife. Acting as a Communist-crusader to his wife-student, he impresses everything from facts to fiction in the red light of revolution.
The red light that equalises all men and women in the hope of a community that does not discriminate is quickly abandoned when her husband confronts the question of feminism. Quite pejoratively, the narrator recounts how the ‘Communism 101 (Marriage Course)’ is swiftly abandoned for an exercise in people-pleasing when she is stopped from walking out to the grocery store without a dupatta (a long scarf that is essential to many South Asian women’s suits). She is also advised to unlearn the ‘tricks’ of her sex and act like a dutiful wife even within the ostensive context of liberalism: “I must learn that a Communist woman is treated equally and respectfully by comrades in public but can be slapped and called a whore behind closed doors. This is dialectics.”
There are two kinds of responsibilities talked about in the narrative. One is of the narrator herself and the other is of her husband. While she talks about the responsibility of a writer to delineate her own tale, her husband harps on her responsibility to efface her physical (and sexual) self for decency: “I must remember that the responsibility of the female body belongs to me, and that I must not move or walk in such a fashion that makes others feel it as an object of allurement and enjoyment (although I should respectfully tolerate the gropes, the whistles. The hissed invitations).”
As the narrative progresses, the narrator elaborates on the roles that she is forced to play to keep her identity as a writer intact. In the initial days of her marriage, her profession as a writer is tolerated if not encouraged by how good a wife she plays, how she keeps the household and makes her husband happy.
However, the urge to control the woman seeps into her husband in a manner that frustrates any hope of reconciliation. This sense of control is all-pervasive in their marital bed where he tries to eliminate any evidence that they have intercourse. The ‘occasional involuntary’ moan from her is thus seen as an act of rebellion that has to be ousted with the brute force of rape. After one such night, she writes: “Sex, actually rape, becomes his weapon to tame me. Your cunt will be ruined, he tells me. You cunt will turn so wasted, so useless you will never be able to offer yourself to any man. It’ll be as wide as a begging bowl.”
The narrator strikes back at the formidable monster with her personal rhetoric of silence (her ‘invincible shield’) to stop her husband from stepping across the line of humdrum domesticity to disciplining the ‘ultra-feminist’ with the rule-book of male superiority. Mistaking her silence as a sign of defeat, he offers her interlude to start a monologue about his time as a guerrilla warrior against an oppressive state. However, as is the nature of interludes, he starts suspecting that her silences are betrayals and resumes the torture. When the rape becomes a regular occurrence, she tries to play rag-doll in a desperate attempt to normalise this violence on her body and mind. Understanding that the marital rape comes with a one-point agenda of legitimising her husband’s ownership over her body, a disciplining that disables instead of enabling, she plans her escape with caution. Charging him for fleeing the scene of crime, leaving his fellow comrade behind to die, she instigates the final act of violence on her while remaining completely apathetic to the outcome. She stands up to him, undaunted, and discards what remained of her marriage.
Her escape from her marital house epitomises every woman’s frantic resolution for self-preservation in the face of gendered prevarication masquerading as liberalism. Fleeing from her husband, from the fear of death in ignominy, the narrator in “When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife” towers as a resilient woman who managed to carve out a self for herself and her art despite the violent male infiltration that disguised itself in the form of marriage.