‘When I Hit You’ by Meena Kandasamy

Extract

So, when my mother begins to talk about the time that I ran away from my marriage because I was being routinely beaten and it had become unbearable and untenable for me to keep playing the role of the good Indian wife, she does not talk about the monster who was my husband, she does not talk about the violence, she does not even talk about the actual chain of events that led to my running away. That is not the kind of story you will be getting out of my mother, because my mother is a teacher, and a teacher knows that there is no reason to state the obvious. As a teacher, she also knows that to state the obvious is, in fact, a sure sign of stupidity. 

When she tells the story of my escape, she talks of my feet. 

Review

This novel takes a different approach to themes such as domestic violence, shame, betrayal and fear. Rather than detailing the violence, that the nameless character endures, Kandasmay focuses on the minute details, the desire for freedom and her day-to-day routine.

This is a novel that you do not realise the power of at first, instead I read it quickly but it stayed with me. Kandasmay shines a light on different aspects of domestic violence, including subverting many of the stereotypes – the overly aggressive male who people can sense are abusive, the ‘weak’ woman. Many in society do not understand how a woman can become a victim of domestic violence and you often hear phrases such as ‘if a man ever hit me, I’d simply leave’. This is what Kandasmay destroys, these assumptions and dismissive views. What I also found intriguing was the interview at the end of the book – I would highly recommend reading it as well as it reveals women’s attitudes.  The  antagonist is an educated university lecturer who is polite, cultured and her parents approve of. His isolation of the narrator from her friends and life is methodical and subtle, so that many do not even realise what is happening to her. When she does tell her parents, they are dismissive as he manipulates them so that he becomes the victim, drawing on Indian traditions and expectations. The psychological, as well as physical abuse is shocking yet often we are detached as the narrator tries to distance and detached herself from the situation.

The act of writing becomes part of her rebellion and we, as readers, become co-conspirators in that act. The narrator is forced to realise that she is the only one that can save herself, and even when faced with rape and beatings, she refuses to give up and surrender. Kandasmay’s writing often juxtaposes the poetic with the harsh, allowing the reader to be unsettled whilst reflecting the nature of an abusive relationship – at times loving and hope-filled, at others abusive and violent.

This novel is unlike any I have ever read before and although at times unsettling, it is definitely worth reading. It gives a different perspective of domestic violence and is even more relevant now alongside discussions of femininity and masculinity.

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