Words gave her wings

Escaping from three rooms and a marriage

May 27, 2017 04:51 pm | Updated April 06, 2021 02:23 pm IST

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife
Meena Kandasamy

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife Meena Kandasamy Juggernaut ₹499

Meena Kandasamy has a sharp antenna for injustice. In her debut novel, Gypsy Goddess (2014), she wrote about the exploitation of Dalits, anchoring it in a Christmas day massacre at Kilvenmani village in 1968, her rage about inequalities evident. Her books of poems ( Touch , Ms. Militancy ) are searing commentaries on caste, class, love, sex, life. In 2012, in an emotional piece on her broken marriage with an abusive husband, Kandasamy wondered if she could overcome the nightmare. Five years on, Kandasamy has taken “responsibility over my own life;” she has written her story.

In doing so, she echoes the narratives of thousands of other women who face violence lurking in the bedroom. In When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife , the unnamed narrator falls in love with a university professor, a “Communist crusader,” who decides to set her “on the right path,” marriage becoming a “re-education camp” on Marx and Lenin and Mao. But soon the professor, a “self-proclaimed ‘true Maoist’,” sets out to cut off his wife from the outside world, logging her out of social media, snuffing out her dreams of being a writer. “My husband decides to set me free.... He deletes the 25,600-odd emails from my inbox. All at one go... everything about my life as a writer is gone.”

Words in memory

But she knows better, and launches a fierce fight back, refusing to forget her words, and never her sense of humour. She poignantly writes letters to imaginary lovers: “I write to you because I can.” The writing follows a pattern: “Open a file, write a paragraph or a page, erase before lunch.” Even as she lays bare her suffocating life in Primrose Villa, where she is trapped “in the space of three rooms and a veranda”, with a husband who takes out belts and other gadgets to punish her, she is not lost for words. So, you have the leaves of a coconut tree playing “air-piano in the rain”; or the Mangalore rain that “trespasses into every private sphere”, telling “me to run away in every way it can.”

The title, unwittingly or not, reminds us of an illustrious predecessor, James Joyce, and his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which Stephen Dedalus or the writer’s literary alter ego, finds words to create his identity and his art, to describe Dublin and her many moods, to defy convention on nationality, language, religion and fly past the ‘nets flung at it to hold it back from flight’.

Before she flies away, the narrator of Kandasamy’s book chillingly records her ordeal: “...when he hits me, the terror flows from the instinct that this will go further, that it doesn’t end easily....” Her talks with her parents holds up a mirror to society. We are made acutely aware of a mother’s “unending, unconditional, overconditioned love” for her child and her desperate ways to make a daughter’s marriage work. Her mother telling her “a marriage is not magic”; or her father saying, “Do not talk too much. Never in history has anything been solved by constantly talking.” And always parental pressure in six words: What will we tell the world?

No one should have to say this in any relationship: “I climb into the incredible sadness of silence.” Her husband tries to break the silence with more violence—and rape. It’s when he threatens to kill her that realisation dawns on her that she is “more useful alive than dead,” and she does not want to do anything that would endanger her life. In the end, she escapes, not thanks to anyone else but herself. She is the woman with wings, the woman who can fly at will, smuggled “out of her history, out of the dos and don’ts for good Indian girls.” The book jacket describes the story as a “scathing portrait of traditional wedlock in modern India.” Maybe not all traditional marriages, but quite a few.

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