Here is another example of a major literary prize bringing to my attention a new author. Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has been shortlisted this year for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the winner of which will be announced in the first week of June.
When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is a raw and visceral story of an abusive marriage. It is also a novel that explores how writing helps the woman, the unnamed narrator, find solace and make sense of what is happening.
When the novel opens, we already know that the unnamed narrator managed to walk out of this violent marriage.
Here’s how it begins:
My mother has not stopped talking about it.
Five years have passed, and with each year, her story has mutated and transformed, most of the particulars forgotten, the sequence of events, the date of the month, the day of the week, the time of the year, the etcetera and the so on, until only the most absurd details remain.
The mother prefers her story telling in metaphors and finds various ways to convey how her daughter suffered in her marriage without really finding the need to explicitly dwell on the actual chain of events.
But the narrator is having none of it. She is firm that she must write her own story.
Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It also takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story.
We learn how the narrator meets her abusive husband – she was a student then leaning towards the Left, and he was a revolutionary who seduced her with his ideas.
He was a college lecturer, but as far Left as they came and as orthodox as it was possible to be. He wore his outlaw air with charm, his Communist credentials without guile. He had been a Naxalite guerilla (‘Maoist,’ he corrected me). An underground revolutionary. He had assumed at least ten different names in three years. The element of danger provided an irresistible aura around him. I loved this sense of adventure. I loved his idealism, I found the dogmatic obsession endearing.
They marry and it all begins to unravel. He gradually starts controlling her. It begins in a relatively minor but incredibly frustrating way. He forces her to close down her Facebook account, keeps tabs on her emails and her phone calls. The narrator begins to find her herself isolated as she is cut away from any meaningful contact with the outside world.
But as the days go by this escalates into full blown abuse – beating and rape.
He is channelling his anger, practicing his outrage. I am the wooden cutting board banged against the countertop. I am the clattering plates flung into the cupboards. I am the unwashed glass being thrown to the floor. Shatter and shards and diamond sparkle of tiny pieces. My hips and thighs and breasts and buttocks. Irreversible crashing sounds, a fragile sight of brokenness as a petty tyrant indulges in a power-trip. Not for the first time, and not for the last.
Kandasamy’s storytelling is non-linear. This means that while we do get an idea of the chain of events, the story is not narrated in the order in which these events occurred. Rather Kandasamy picks up various themes and each chapter is dedicated to that.
Thus, in one chapter the narrator focuses on the tumultuous two year relationship she has with a much older politician much before her marriage to her current husband. She talks about her naivete and what she assumes to be love, only to realize that when pushed towards making a choice, the politician goes for his career.
In another chapter, the narrator talks about the letters she writes to ‘lovers she has never seen, or heard, to lovers who do not exist, to lovers she invents on a lonely morning.’
But in every chapter there is always a sense of menace lurking around, that uneasy feeling of an impending disaster ahead. Indeed, the chapters which focus on the actual physical violence and rape are quite gut-wrenching and disturbing.
However, the narrator finds some sort of meaning in her chosen profession – writing. Writing helps her deal with her suffering and pain, something her husband does not like, instead finding ways to thwart her at every turn.
I cannot agree with what he has to say. To me, it sounds strange, alien almost, to imagine that my poem will be the source of future trouble, that a poem will prevent us from healing. The poem is the healing, I tell him. It’s by writing this that I can get over it.
Despite such a gruesome subject matter, the story is not without hope. After enduring so much, the narrator manages to walk out of the marriage in the nick of time. And her parents finally support her, even though they were slow to accept the realities much earlier on for fear of being judged by Indian society.
Of course, when the topic is as grim as an abusive marriage, any novel can come across as nothing but a misery memoir.
But not in Kandasamy’s hands. She writes with poetic intensity and grace, and her intelligence simply shines on every page. Her prose is lush, and her narrative quite compelling making you want to keep turning the pages.
It seems that Kandasamy is examining every facet of this doomed marriage from an angle – writing is something that helps her do that – as she ponders over her role as a housewife which her husband chains her to, the pressure on her to produce a child, and her parents’ initial reaction to her abuse telling her to bear with it in the hopes that the husband will turn over a new leaf. In a culture where divorce has negative connotations, and given they are in denial, they would rather their daughter stick it out rather than be berated by society.
Kandasamy also reflects on the right of a woman to express desire, and how in many cases it is always assumed to be a man’s prerogative.
When I Hit You in many ways is autobiographical – Kandasamy was the victim of an abusive marriage. But she refused to bow down, crafting instead a powerful novel in a unique voice. And she brought to the fore the sad truth that even educated women can become victims of domestic violence – both physical and mental.