“The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story,” writes the unnamed narrator in Meena Kandasamy’s new novel When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (Juggernaut).
Just like her battered young protagonist, whose marriage unspools into a nightmare when she moves with her husband to a new city to set up a life together, it’s a lesson that Kandasamy had to learn the hard way, too. In 2011, she married the man she loved — she had met him during the course of her Leftist activism and he had seemed to share her ideals. But, in the four months that followed, hemmed in by a cycle of escalating physical and emotional humiliation, it was her intellectual life that offered her the gritty resolve to write her own ending.
In her second novel after The Gypsy Goddess (2014), Kandasamy walks the thin line between imagination and lived experience. In spare, visceral prose, she situates herself at the centre of her novel — she is Everywoman who has to come to terms with the consequences of her choice, the one who is told she’s not worthy enough, whose assertion of equal sexual rights results in marital rape; who is judged, shamed and dismissed.
“I think leaving the narrator unnamed was at the heart of the novel — something before I had even started it. As the writer, I see the entire book as a chronicle of this nameless woman fighting the erasure of selfhood. That means existing in a realm where even her name does not exist. It is a fractured world — where she tells herself stories, invents lovers, believes her life is a film — inhabiting fictions to find her real self and treating reality as if it were a fictional construct in order to be able to cope, survive and go from one day to the next,” says Kandasamy, 32.
Even though her prose is luminous, When I Hit You is nothing less than a vicious punch in the gut. Kandasamy admits it was a difficult book to write. “One, my writing was based on my first-hand experience of the horror of marital violence — and it was something I desperately wanted to forget. So, writing it felt like the act of salvaging something from a burning house — something you wanted to actually destroy. Two, how do you talk about something that is so everyday, so commonplace, so widespread — and weld it into high art and literature?” she says.
In her delicate poetry, her feisty non-fiction writing, Kandasamy has always been a woman “sheltered within words”. “All writing is insanely, incredibly difficult for me which is why I think I’m a writer. I spend far too much time with any sentence,” she says. But long before she committed it to paper, When I Hit You was born of desperate hope and a raw, unyielding commitment to her art. “There is a point in the novel where the narrator says how she is thinking about writing the violence even as it is happening, and how that holds hope for her, because writing means that she has already overcome it. In that sense, this book was being mentally written even during the marriage. But the actual writing started in late 2012,” she says.
The narrative around domestic violence in India has mostly chosen to ignore its protagonists: the victims. In March 2016, in a written response to the Rajya Sabha on whether the government plans to criminalise marital rape, Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Women and Child Development, had noted, “It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament, etc”. A year before that, in Parliament, the then minister of state for home affairs, Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary, had had the same response to a query by the DMK MP Kanimozhi on whether the government would introduce an amendment bill to address marital rape. “Those who say this are, in effect, saying — rape is sacramental, rape is holy because your lord-god husband is raping you — it is a crime only if a stranger does it to you. I hope they hear the absurdity of what they are saying!” says Kandasamy.
If abuse is reductive, what comes afterwards is no less daunting. “Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. The shaming is in being asked to stand to judgement,” writes Kandasamy in her novel. “It is frustrating because everyone, every time pins the blame on the woman. That is the biggest fiction that exists in India: He beat her. She must have done something wrong. He raped her. She must have been cheating. He tried to kill her. She must have provoked him. He killed her. She must have driven him insane. For everything horrible happening to the woman, committed by the husband — the narrative remains in patriarchy’s control: it is the woman’s fault,” she says.
Unlike many others, Kandasamy is also the woman who got away, “the one who could stare down the barrels of endless interrogation” and not give in. Her social media bio is a brief introduction to her métier: “My Kali kills. My Draupadi strips. My Sita climbs on a stranger’s lap. All my women militate. They brave bombs, belittle kings, take on the sun, take after me.”
“I think this mad obsession about virginity and the way in which women are judged on the basis of previous sexual partners (as if sleeping with only one person your whole life is a claim to some higher moral ground) has to go. If you found the love of your life and spent your whole life with him/her in absolute commitment, great! Get a cake, celebrate. Don’t go around throwing stones at people who have had failed relationships and moved on. This social censure is why so many women stay in bad marriages because they know that if they move out, and move on, society will start its stone-throwing,” she says.
In the years since, Kandasamy has wrested back control over her story. There is poetry and tell-tale signs of a love fulfilled. She has moved to London to be with her partner Cedric Gerome. In between scouting around for a job, there are ideas for another work of non-fiction. “It is difficult to believe when you are caught in the nightmare itself, but I think that eventually, every broken, every betrayed heart that seeks love, finds love. I’m in an incredibly nurturing and caring relationship, and Cedric means the world to me at this point,” she says.