In its allusion to A Portrait of a Writer as a Young Man, the title of Meena Kandasamy’s second book reflects Joyce’s tale in which a fictional alter ego searches for his identity in late-nineteenth century Dublin. Similarly, in When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife, Kandasamy describes her own experiences as an abused and dehumanised wife in South India and her struggle to both retain and also create her identity. Her husband, a respected university English lecturer gradually dominates every facet of her life, including what she writes and who she talks to.
Kandasamy admits early in the book that she rushed into the marriage, describing her parents’ encouragement of the relationship due to her husband’s profession and her own vulnerability at the time after a recent breakup. Early in the relationship, everything was perfect and he seemed to be perfect husband material. She admits that she was charmed by his idealistic and dogmatic Communist views, describing him as a ‘Communist Crusader’ whose language ‘was a secret place of pleasure’. However, as soon as they married, he gradually forced her into isolation and his language became crude and abusive. He forced her to move to Mangalore, a place where she didn’t speak the language, and to shut down her Facebook account, hand over her phone, and eventually she isn’t allowed to look at her emails. In his control of all means of communication, he is free to verbally, physically, and mentally abuse her and to condemn her to everyone he meets. She describes his shifting personality and how he always plays the victim:
‘I have watched him play all the roles. The doting husband in the presence of his colleagues, the harassed victim of a suspicious wife to his male friends, the unjustly emasculated man to my female friends, the pleading son-in-law to my parents. The role of would-be-murderer, however, is new.’
His violence eventually causes her to ‘climb into the incredible sadness of silence’, her silence being the very thing her husband has demanded all along. Yet, when this itself only invites further physical abuse, she realises that she cannot win and must find another way to defend herself.
It is not only her ability to communication that is taken from her but also her autonomy and her voice as she is quickly forbidden to write. Thus, her husband also strips her of her language and her self expression. The book becomes not just a treatise on the experience of domestic abuse but also on the power of language, the written word, and art not only as a form of self expression, but as an important political statement. The narrator soon realises that the written word is even more important when it is taken from her. She cannot physically stand up to her husband as he routinely beats and rapes her, but she does exercise her intellectual right to retain her identity and defy her husband.
The book is divided into 14 sections, each introduced by excerpts of key feminist poetry and literature. Therefore, in her defiance of her husband’s control, she has not only written her own words but has incorporated the words of great writers alongside her own. And, like the book itself, the excerpts are equally lyrical and shocking. Her use of repetition and lists, such as in her imagined letters to past lovers, transforms her writing into a rebellious call-to-arms or political speech, dramatising her situation. She also imagines herself in various Hollywood and Bollywood films as a way of distracting herself from her everyday life.
One of the most revealing aspects of the book is Kandasamy’s discussion of the caste system and the excuses that her parents make for her husband’s behaviour:
‘My father on the phone:
What is going on? Well, that is common. It is a matter of ego. I know you, you are my daughter, you do not like to lose a fight. The marriage is a give and take. Listen to him.’
Her parents’ attitudes demonstrate wider society’s systematic support and justification of abuse and reveal the changes that need to happen regardless of location or culture. In its brutal honesty and very real depiction of an abusive marriage, the book demonstrates the systematic misogyny that exists no matter where you are. The book is very timely considering the #metoo campaign and the increasing prominence of the feminist voice around the world today. Throughout the book, the narrator never loses her dignity and even the most horrific events and situations are often conveyed with a touch of humour, demonstrating that she never lost her humanity in the face of dehumanisation.
This review first appeared in Storgy Magazine. Thank you to Storgy Magazine for providing a review copy.
About the author
Meena Kandasamy (born 1984) is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist who is based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch (2006) and Ms. Militancy (2010). She holds a PhD in socio-linguistics from Anna University Chennai, has represented India at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and was made the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow at the University of Kent, Canterbury. The Gypsy Goddess is her first novel.