When home is a prison: Meena Kandasamy’s story of domestic abuse
Loosely based on the narrative of her own abusive marriage, Meena Kandasamy's novel 'When I Hit You' is difficult to read, but to look away would be a moral lapse
The portrait of a modern marriage is unravelling and it is not a pretty sight.
He’s older, a professor of English literature, Communist star, revolutionary. She’s a young writer on the rebound from a secret affair with a politician who won’t publicly acknowledge her. In her parents’ eyes, he is perfect “husband material". In her eyes, he’ll do because unlike her previous lover, he has no electoral ambition.
But within days, it is clear that she has made a monumental error. He insists that she disable her Facebook account, asks for her password as a demonstration of trust, rations access to the Internet and eventually deletes her email history, effectively robbing her of her past and her identity.
As his grip grows stronger, she retreats into silence—an apt weapon for a woman whose life is words. When he hits her, the most frightening part is not the pain, possible scarring, or even the perverted sense of shame. It is the “instinct that this will go further, that this does not end easily".
Domestic abuse—the single largest crime against women in India, with 122,877 reported cases in 2014, according to the National Crime Records Bureau—never gets better. A slap today descends into a pummelling. Bare hands one day, belt-buckle another. How soon before it could be an iron rod when every day is an “inch closer to death"?
The life-and-blood story behind the data, Meena Kandasamy’s searing account of an abusive marriage, When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Wife, is a difficult book to read despite the stark beauty of her language and despite the fact that this is a fictionalized telling of her own marriage. Yet, to look away would be a moral lapse, the kind that occurs routinely when neighbours go deaf or relatives fail to ask about a bruise, yet again.
Behind the statistics lies reality as it is lived and soon the beatings begin to include rape. “The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away," the book’s narrator says. Marital rape is “the rape whose aim is to make me understand that my husband can do with my body as he pleases. This is rape as ownership."
What could possibly make a woman remain in this abusive marriage?
First, there’s her family. The father who speaks of “give and take", counsels her not to talk back and begs her to stay for the sake of his honour. The mother who assures her that her abuser will “come around" and counsels her to have a baby because it will make him “more gentle".
Second, there’s her own hubris; the need to prove a point to those who predict that such a marriage cannot last.
Third (and incredibly), there is hope: “That things will change for the better tomorrow. The hope that he will eventually give up violence."
But perhaps an answer can be found in a real-life case, that of the 16-year-old “Suryanelli girl" raped over a period of 40 days by 42 men. “The police do not investigate her case. The high court questions her character. The highest court in the land asks the inevitable. Why did she not run away?" notes the narrator.
Sometimes, “the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. The shaming is in being asked to stand to judgement." This judgement that imprisons women in abusive marriages.
For the narrator, the judgement is harsher. After all, she is not some damsel in distress trapped in an arranged marriage. She is tough, “the woman men are afraid of". How could this happen to her? Why did she not ask for help?
“The idea that strong women cannot be abused within their marriages is a big myth," writes Kandasamy from London—where she lives a “very normal, very banal life reading, writing, cooking" at present—in an email response to questions I send her. “I believed that no man, no husband could lay a hand on me. I was fierce and feminist and no-nonsense. Then, within an abusive marriage, I actually realized that your strength is also what makes you a perfect target for an abuser." To hit a strong woman like her became a challenge and a conquest for her husband.
Salvation from such a marriage can only lie in one person: the woman herself. As a writer, the “one who controls the narrative", the protagonist will not allow herself to become the stereotype of the loose woman who ran off with another man. She must emerge triumphant from this horrible marriage, but to do so must literally bring herself to the brink of death so that when she finally leaves, she will at least have society’s sympathy.
In the summer of 2015, the Union minister of state for home affairs, Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary, told Parliament that Indian marriage is a “sacrament" and, so, the concept of marital rape can never be applied. There was a brief tizzy in a country that has only just begun a conversation on sexual violence. On Twitter, a male liberal lawyer informed me that the law had no place in the bedroom—a startling claim given that the high frequency of “kitchen accidents", the euphemism for dowry deaths by burning, had already forced legal intervention within homes.
Men, says Kandasamy, believe that “rape is rape only when it’s gory: when your intestines are pulled out". But “the idea that rape is sex without consent is something they have a very hard time acknowledging. To these men, the consent of the wife is a given, it is already there. In their minds, it is not possible to be someone’s wife and refuse to sleep with him, even for a night—it is seen as a right that a male immediately acquires after his marriage—the right to fuck his wife at will. Sadly, this kind of abusive, misogynist view—where the female consent does not matter—is not the view of men alone, but also that of the state and the judiciary."
Kandasamy’s book is a personal portrait, loosely based on her own abusive marriage. “I needed the crutch of fiction to be able to give coherence to the narrative," she says. She seeks to tell one woman’s story, her own. But behind that tale lies the truth of many hundreds of thousands of marriages as they exist in India, marriages where violence is routine and male authority is supreme, unquestioned and unchallenged. Kandasamy walked out, scarred but whole. Not many women are half as lucky.
Namita Bhandare writes on gender and social issues.