When I Hit You or a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy Review

When I Hit You was a tough read. Its plot is fairly simple, woman gets married, the husband turns out to be an abusive a-hole and she manages to escape. The plot is not novel, but what makes the book an absolutely gripping read, is the way it is written.

I found out about the book completely by accident when I read an article about it in The Wire, I’ll post the link to it because even the article is worth a read. I am not entirely sure how the book would read to a non-Indian reader because there are so many local references that a lot of them would be lost on someone not familiar with the country and some of the cultural aspects. But there are other things that are universal and therefore should not impede the reading experience. I cannot use the word enjoy because this is not an enjoyable read.

The book didn’t shy away from the violence that the wife suffered, Kandasamy described the violence in a very matter-of-fact way. The novel is narrated in the first person and it really allowed the reader to inhabit the mind of the protagonist. The book is not particularly thick and is a fast read, however, the incidents described are disturbing enough that the book is not easy to get through. There are no saviours here except the protagonist herself.

The character is a modern Indian woman, she is well-educated and opinionated, she is a feminist and considers herself to be a strong woman but Kandasamy never offers a physical description for her. In an interview about the book, Kandasamy stated that she did that because she wanted to tell every woman’s story. She wanted women to be able to relate to what the protagonist was going through. She takes it to the extent where she doesn’t even name the main character. The novel is partly inspired by the author’s own abusive marriage but she draws from more than just that.

The language is matter-of-fact but there is a certain beauty to it. It’s not cut and dry. The novel also weaves between the past and present, offering a glimpse into her past relationships. Kandasamy uses anecdotes and letters that were written and them promptly deleted among other things to drive home the fear, abuse and humiliation that the protagonist lives with on a daily basis.

I liked that the character was not some virginal young girl but an adult woman who had had her fair share of relationships. There is no sense of shame in this, she talks about these past relationships with the same candour as she does when describing the abuses that she suffers at the hands of her husband. She addresses the age-old question that people love asking victims of domestic abuse, ‘why did they continue to stay?’ It is easy to stand outside the relationship and judge the woman while still giving the man the benefit of the doubt. The problem is compounded because in this case it’s a ‘love-marriage’ and not an arranged one. This adds another layer of difficulty for the woman because now it’s a matter of choice, therefore meaning that she clearly chose this man, she knew him. How could he change so drastically after marriage? But the truth is that it’s so easy to hide aspects of your personality when you’re married and not even living together, that it’s not a stretch to believe that he could turn out to be a very different man post marriage. To the outsiders, he is a charming, intelligent man but to her, he’s a very jealous man with violent and vicious temper.

In the husband she paints the picture of toxic masculinity. He is a repulsive character and one who is genuinely terrifying. There is no one thing that sets him off, it could be anything or nothing. There is no reasoning with him, no appeasement save for the wife to submit in both body and mind. He isolates her physically as well as socially, there is no one she can call for help because he’s painted himself as the victim. It is his need to dominate and dictate every aspect of his wife’s life that is truly stifling, all the while stating that he’s doing it for her own good. Constantly slut-shaming her for all her past relationships while never being honest about his own past.

This book left me feeling so infuriated, the fact that she reached out for help to her parents and was told repeatedly that all men take time to get used to being married and that she should not rile him by arguing by him and so on. All of it useless advice. They never once told her that she could leave immediately and never look back. They were more interested in making sure that their social standing was intact, their daughter’s pain was secondary to that.

When I Hit You is not an easy read but it is an important one. It paints a picture of a house that was meant to be home that instead turned into an prison and the man who was supposed to be a lover and a friend and instead turned out to be a monster. I’d recommend reading the book as well as the article that lead me to it. You can find it here.

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