TW: This review and the book it covers talk about incidents or rape, domestic abuse and verbal abuse.
Hope is the kind of voice in my head that prevents me from fleeing. Hope is the traitor that chains me to this marriage...Hope—as the cliché goes—is the last thing to disappear. I sometimes wish it had abandoned me first, with no farewell note or goodbye hug, and just forced me to act.
This story is a book about unbreakable resolve and the narrator’s fight to reclaim her identity in the face of devastating circumstances.
When I Hit You chronicles a young, Indian unnamed female narrator who, after getting married to a zealous university professor with political influence, finds the relationship quickly taking a dark and abusive turn. I read this as an e-book which caught my eye primarily due to its striking title. The title pretty much covers what you think it’s going to cover and I must warn you that it’s not an easy read. Kandasamy’s beautiful writing style is a significant juxtaposition from the harsh content she details with it. However it also ensures that she does justice to the topics explored and whoever reads this book, despite it’s tough nature will finish it feeling angry but satisfied. As you read through the text, the narrator, you discover, is not perfect—she’s realistically rough around the edges but has a fire within her that leaves you rooting for her, filled with nothing but inspiration.
This book is set in India, and this is important to note since it plays a large part in the unfolding of the writer’s life. I have origins from West Africa, so to some extent I could understand the judgmental nature and value of honour that can come with many non-Western cultures. However, I was still an outsider when it came to reading this. And to be honest, that is okay—it means lots of things revealed were new to me and took me, the reader, on a journey of learning. One thing I do know, and which helps to contextualise this book’s events, is that India has a massive problem with domestic violence. Recent figures show that nearly a third of all crimes reported to the police (32%) were within the ‘cruelty by husbands or his relatives’ category. Kandasamy beautifully spotlights this problem and how culture, almost like contaminated water, acts as a poison fueling this phenomenon. It’s not worth speculating on the exact cause because—like all longstanding problems—it is unlikely to have a singular problem at its root. Even if all fingers point to culture, that itself is a melting point of other factors like religion, social class, and politics.
A recurring scene that acts as a key example of culture rearing its ugly head is the narrator calling her parents to confide in them about the abuse she is facing. She wants to leave the relationship and is hoping for a show of solidarity. Instead she’s told ‘silence is golden’ and that she should use this as her shield, to protect herself and avoid angering her husband. Her mother piques her insecurities asking her ‘what if you leave him, end up with an abusive partner, and the ‘cycle’ continues?’ There is also the classic ‘if you break off your marriage everyone in town will mock me’ from her father. Essentially, all she receives from them is toxic assurance disguised as constructive criticism of her behaviour. Their fickle reactions and the inability in their eyes for the husband to do wrong really create a sense of frustration in you for the narrator. Marriage creates cultural capital and for them her leaving him would jeopardise their capital and taint their reputation amongst friends and acquaintances; so they choose to protect it instead of their only daughter. A sad yet very real depiction of the warped priorities of many societies and the families within them.
Reclaiming the narrative
"Women, you see, can’t be trusted to make Art; to perform or write or paint informed by their life experiences but in control of their narratives," - this is a quote from Deepa.D’s review of the book, originally published in The Wire, which is also published at the end of the novel in the edition I read.
At the beginning we read that the narrator’s mum often appropriates her daughter's tale of survival, exaggerating aspects and adding a banterous tone for entertainment, particularly to highlight the heroism of the parents in receiving their daughter after fleeing. Of course this is the sugarcoated version, one softened around the edges and censored to ease listener guilt and even evoke a sense of amusement. This book then acts as the narrator’s effort to reclaim the narrative, giving us the chance to hear the unfiltered story, from her own mouth, with her own words.
Even for her, the act of staying alive is rebellion and a fight to control her narrative. Despite battling suicidal thoughts she knows that if she does die, her story disappears too and no one would get to hear it. Without her, her husband’s narrative will dominate and he’ll be able to paint himself in everyone’s eyes as the poor and grieving widow. Death seems to continuously face her at all sides; within and also from her husband who violently beats her and if not doing that, often threatens to kill her. When she escapes the marriage the narrator’s joy is not such in the freedom from her abuser’s presence but also in the liberty returned to her once she is finally free from his reign.
Writing as a source of power
One thing we know about the book’s narrator is that she is an intellectual who loves writing. Her profession is that of one and she feels a sense of power in crafting her words. When she writes, she controls what is reality; in her writing she reclaims a sense of power that has been forced off of her in her relationship. For instance one chapter is dedicated by her to letters she has written for imaginary lovers. Through these letters she roams, has freedom to feel and freedom to be—she gains a momentary sense of pleasure as she imagines herself vicariously living through this liberated doppelganger of herself. Then—because she is forbidden to write such things—she erases it from the page, as to leave no evidence for her husband.
The power she gains from writing is evident to her husband too, who continuously makes snide remarks about her profession by telling her it’s not ‘real work’. He also over time makes sure to take away the tools that enable her to write—at one point she is limited to only 30 minutes of internet access per day which she can only access in his presence. (Any writer or blogger reading this will know this is ridiculous since just one piece of writing can require several hours of research and fact checking.) We witness many other outrageous incidents as the narrator’s husband deliberately schemes to slowly break his wife’s sense of identity and self-esteem to pieces. More importantly, we witness her journey to healing and recovery—one that doesn’t seem to have completely finished by the end of the novel but, for victims, perhaps it never really does.
The danger of looking away
I’ll mention it again: this book is a tough read. It is a raw, unflinching look into the eyes of oppressive society and the cruelty human beings are capable of—intentionally and unintentionally. But a raw take is something we need since the persistence of domestic violence shows the failings of several generations—at what point will we begin to take it seriously? The scary thing is this story, although fiction, is the past story and probable present reality of thousands of women in India right now, if not the world. It’s a cry for why we need feminism but also a call to arms, we can’t be silent: silence is what fuels this violence and suffocates its victims.
For those affected by these issues or eager to find out more both the UK charities Women’s Aid and Refuge offer an array of services to help victims of domestic abuse, with the latter has a 24 hour hotline and live chat service.
When I Hit You, or A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife
By Meena Kandasamy
249 pages. 2017.