On reading and writing violence in Meena Kandasamy’s ‘When I Hit You’

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You is perhaps the most powerful writing I have read recently—and perhaps in a long time (including even her debut novel, The Gypsy Goddess). It’s been over two weeks now since I finished the book, and I am no ready to put my thoughts down on paper now, as I was when I had just finished the book. It is a book that lingers in your imagination and consciousness.

Yet, I feel it important to put my words on paper; to partake in the discussions that the book inspires, because it does inspire—and question, and trouble, and disrupt.

‘When I Hit You: Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife,’ Meena Kandasamy (Juggernaut, 2017).

When I Hit You is a book that resonated so much with me, as a feminist and an anthropologist who’s been involved with front-line workers and domestic violence prevention over the last three years; it resonated so much because it tells a truth about the experience of millions of women across the world who face abuse and violence of all sorts, whose voices are battling the silence forced upon them (and the abuse faced by others who are marginalised in other respects and are forced to stay silent). Kandasamy writes,

“Violence is not something that advertises itself…As long as a woman cannot speak, as long as those to whom she speaks do not listen, the violence is unending.”

And it resonated as much as it intimidated me. Intimidated, because of how she shows violence is so close to us all, in our lives, in our words and actions (her intellectual world of postcolonial theory and feminism, for instance, is so similar to mine). It wasn’t the fear of being abused that intimidated me; but, as a man, of committing abuse, being complicit in it, that did. The book inspired, for the lack of a better word, a sense of fragility and vulnerability — one that I believe is a positive, ethical thing for men aspiring to be feminists. I will return to this point towards the end. For now, let me write about the book.

I would inform the reader, however, that this essay isn’t a review in the strict sense—though I certainly recommend you buy the book and read it! Instead, I hope to offer a (sort of) mediation on themes I felt are central in When I Hit You, reading them alongside (anthropological) questions on violence and feminism. I must say that it is Kandasamy’s brilliance as a writer that these themes—and several more in the book—are so beautifully composed in her prose; each flows into the other effortlessly, and with enviable grace. My reading and interpretation thus, by necessity, must remark on—and follow, to an extent—the recursive relationship between these themes, even as I single them out for more deliberation.

To these, I now turn.

I began reading When I Hit You on a late-night train ride home. I was 50 pages in, and I had to literally stop reading and rise up for air almost half a dozen times, only to dive right back in. Kandasamy’s words, I felt, are a tumultuous ocean. Her prose is deep, turbulent, but also calm. One can easily float, or get caught up in the tide. This is an exceptional and enviable feat for any writer.

As I was looking up the book, I came across one reviewer who described the book and Kandasamy’s writing as “raw.” Indeed, given Kandasamy’s highly original, visceral style of writing, and even the subject she’s writing about, “raw” could very well be an apt adjective. But “raw” denotes something that is unfinished or unpolished, which When I Hit You certainly isn’t.

In fact, I would suggest the opposite: tempered.

When I Hit You is a very tempered, carefully put together book (whether or Kandasamy intended for it to be so is a different question).

Kandasamy’s writing—and her actively underscoring that aspect of her identity—is what truly holds the book together. And it would have needed to, for it’s a dense, rich repository of memories that shifts across space and time: her childhood, her broken relationships with lovers in her university, her affair with a politician, to her turbulent and violent marriage. Kandasamy weaves back and forth in time, through different layers of her identity as a narrator. She writes,

“I remind myself of the fundamental notion of what it means to be a writer. A writer is the one who controls the narrative.”
“Here, I am the actress, the self-anointed director, the cinematographer and the screenplay writer…The story changes every day, every hour, every single time I sit and chart it out. The actors do not change, I cannot escape the set, but with every shift in perspective, a different story is born.”

Her narrative in several parts is dialogic: her letters to lovers which exist only fleetingly—she writes them in afternoons when her husband is away, only to delete them by evening; her conversations with her parents—who display sympathy, and ultimately helplessness as they ask her to find refuge in silence, “for her own good”; her dead interactions with locals—who only talk about the weather; her disappearance from her social circle; and finally, her husband—to whom marriage is an “re-education camp,” “Communism 101,” to instil the virtues of Communism in his bride, violently and brutally.

But Kandasamy also pauses to reflect on the sociology of violence against women—from colonial India, which regulated prostitutes by keeping their hair short, to contemporary cases such as the Suryanelli gang-rape case in Kerala. She’s a scholar in postcolonial studies, literature and sociology; her writing oscillates between an academic treatise that seeks to analyse and explain, and at the same time, is geared to present and control her narrative (but one that also lends voice to others who confront and face violence).

A major reason this works so effortlessly is because Kandasamy gives primacy to content over form. Rather, her form is in service to her content, to the story she wants to tell: Abstractions are easy, but my story, like every woman’s story, is something else.” She’s an exceptional writer who does not compromise on this (this was more than evident in The Gypsy Goddess that breaks with received wisdom and conventions to tell a story of brutality and violence), even if it means confronting her vulnerability without knowing how, or if, it could be overcome:

“Can I write this novel: Will the fear in my state of mind eat into my writing? Will I be betrayed by these words I choose? How many words can you write before they turn traitors?
I find myself incapable of writing even a single word.
The women in the book I am supposed to be writing are so strong.
I’m nothing like them. My life shames me before my prose gets a similar chance.”

Or, writing to reclaim the power and pleasure of language:

“Marriage has ruined my romanticism, by teaching me that this thing of beauty can be made crude. Bitch. Whore. Slut. And yet, for every insult that has been flung in my face, language retains its charm.
English makes me a lover, a beloved, a poet. Tamil makes me a word huntress, it makes me a love goddess.”

Now, to address an issue which should’ve been at the fore: Many reviewers have focused on the “unnamed narrator” in When I Hit You, suggesting the book is part-fiction and part-fact; a memoir. I, too, faced similar seductions but dismissed them as soon as they came to my head.

Because: as someone who’s worked closely with front-line workers and survivors of violence, every word that Kandasamy writes rings true; every word, every sentence that recounts the abuse and trauma is mirrored in one ethnographic detail or another—the harrowing accounts of sexual abuse and rape; the societal dismissal of survivors of violence; the helplessness of parents who feel silence can be a refuge from violence; the transformation of one’s intimate space where violence is not only possible, but inevitable.

I am tempted to describe the book to be “in part, an anthropological work on the nature of violence against women” (and not just intimate partner violence; here’s where Kandasamy offers anthropology’s comparative analysis).

I say tempted, because describing it as such would perhaps diminish its creative—and sociological—genius and depth. But let me explain myself. As a trained academic and experienced activist, Kandasamy seems to be aware of the anthropological relevance of her writing (which I mention above). But she does not reproduce the distance and sanitised knowledge in academic discourse, where violence comes to be untethered from social context, individual lives, and stories of trauma, abuse, fear, but also resilience, negotiation, hope. In doing so, she is able to subvert the epistemological violence so many scholars commit (mostly unknowingly and unwittingly), and opens up herself, her writing as an instrument of empathy, and of critique.

We must, thus, look at writing and violence together, for it is Kandasamy’s writing that brings violence to the fore.

Throughout the book, we are exposed to the brutality and banality of violence that she faces. We see violence intimately; but beyond the walls of her serene home in Mangalore, the violence is invisible; it’s folded into the everyday; it is quotidian, banal. Unremarkable. Normal. It is so to her parents, to society, and certainly to her husband (to whom it is both necessary and justified).

“I must learn that a Communist woman is treated equally and respectfully by comrades in public but can be slapped and called a whore behind closed doors. This is dialectics.”
“I think the job of a wife comes somewhere in the middle: labouring with my cunt, labouring with my hands.”

Now, for comparison, consider what some of my front-line worker colleagues say about gender and violence:

“When I tell women what gender is, we try to explain to them that gender is the inequality between men and women. It is the inequality between the husband and wife. It is gender-based discrimination. So, like that society gives work to each gender, and from there we have violence.”
“We have learned a lot about violence, by working we are learning. Even today there is violence. Perhaps they stopped burning women, or beating them, or forcing them to commit suicide, but these small violences that are there, the ones we cannot see, these are there even today.”

It is interesting to note here what Kandasamy has to say about the nature of domestic and intimate violence: it is something that doesn’t start with a beating, or with rape; it is gradual, vicious—it is perhaps the very nature of violence, more so than the intent of the abuser, which is so (this is not to deny the abuser agency. They are responsible, and should be held responsible, for the violence they commit). Her husband’s violence starts masochistic: he burns himself, his elbow and legs, to wrest control from her in the form of her email and social media; his violence is a self-flagellation, aimed to disarm her; it takes away control from her; mocks, isolates, gaslights, and dehumanises her. As it grows, it turns the everyday environment into a war-zone; her laptop charger, cords, etc. become instruments of abuse.

We often think of violence as an aberration; it is an exception to the normalcy of our lives. But Kandasamy shows—as feminists of all shades have done for so many decades now—this is, in large part, a myth. She shows that violence underpins and shapes the lives of women and other vulnerable peoples; that it is both structural, and intimate. And the greatest violence perhaps—or certainly the most egregious—is the failure to see it as such. This has been such a cornerstone for feminist and anti-violence politics: the struggle to see violence as violence.

Is Kandasamy a “battered woman”?

We know from decades of research that women (and other) survivors of abuse and violence are often forced to perform “victimhood”; they need to be seen as deserving victims for society’s sympathy; they need to be virtuous “daughters, mothers, sisters, wives”—an insidious sort of violence in its own way. Women don’t merely face the abuse of their abusers; it is society and structures that are more daunting, silent abusers.

Kandasamy, in each page and in each word, eschews and resists this, even as her resistance against violence is more precarious (in parts, it’s an arduous and humiliating negotiation), and she ultimately has to escalate things to “escape from death.”

“In the eyes of the world, a woman who runs away from death is more dignified than a woman who runs away from her man. She does not face society’s stone-throwing when she comes away free. In the quest to control the narrative, I shall have to endanger my own life.”
“In place of a firing squad, I stare down the barrels of endless interrogation. (…) Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. The shame is being asked to stand to judgement.”

What the term “battered woman” does, or rather what it intended to do, was to politicise domestic abuse in the 1970s and 1980s, as exemplified by the Battered Women’s Movement. But an unintended consequence is that it typifies a woman as “battered”; it medicalizes, classifies, simplifies. However, women who are abused — as Kandasamy and so many other women I’ve encountered in my work have shown — are also complex human beings with their hopes, desires, imaginations.

This is why Kandasamy’s voice, her narration is so important: it punctures the social complacency and silence around violence, and stresses that women survivors of violence cannot be solely defined by their experiences of the same.

In a perfect world, my review of When I Hit You would be to annotate the book with reflections, citations, comments, and observations; to open up and translate the text to many of my front-line worker colleagues who are engaged in the everyday, emotional labour of preventing violence in their communities; to stitch their narratives into Kandasamy’s text, to create a polyphony of voices, affect, and reflexivity. After all, isn’t that what anthropology—and especially feminist anthropology—hopes to accomplish?

But it’s not an ideal world, and as much as I do hope to accomplish some of the tasks I’ve mentioned above, I end with a thread I opened up in the beginning of the essay: the sense of fragility and vulnerability that When I Hit You inspired in me.

In an important way, When I Hit You illustrates how gender tends to be a moral fault line in society, even and especially among progressives. As a relationship of inequality, as a structure, a system—that intersects with class, caste, race, as we’re well aware—it doesn’t preclude violence; perhaps, it anticipates it.

We need only remind ourselves of “progressive,” “liberal”—or even “revolutionary”—men who have committed violence against women—Tarun Tejpal, Mahmood Farooqui, R.K. Prachauri, Kandasamy’s husband (a Marxist/Maoist revolutionary guerrilla), and even the famous French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser (who strangled his wife, and claimed it a “proxy suicide”)—and have resisted legal action, or have had their actions defended as less serious than other crimes against women, a plea for “nuanced voices.”

Masculinity and patriarchy are repositories of violence; they are a cornerstone of structural violence, even—and especially—when seen through an intersectional lens. This is what I have described as a patriarchal moral-political economy.

As a cis-gender and heterosexual man, that too from a privileged social location, why does this book resonate so much with me? I feel it’s because When I Hit You—alongside my ethnographic work with front-line workers—shows me the potential for vulnerability and fragility in becoming a political subject. It forces me to look at all my failures (which I have had many and will continue to have), to learn from them, to commit to feminist values, to continually practice them in public and intimate spaces.

Reading Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You is a deeply unsettling experience—in major part, it is the brilliance of her writing, through which she lays bare her experience, and the primacy of her voice. I find her words helpful to confront the feeling of impostor syndrome that male feminists, and especially anthropologists, continually face; because when I read them, I know there are layers of truth to them. It makes me feel insecure and frightful of the violence immanent in my behaviour and relationships—emotional, epistemological, physical, or sexual.

And that is fucking scary.

But it is also so, so important for men who seek to be feminists and allies to recognise the fact that we are complicit in such structures of violence; to be observant and pay heed to voices of women; to consciously participate, even when the ethical thing to do would be to observe from a distance (and not observe a distance). When I Hit You is both a warning and call-to-arms. It keeps me aware; it keeps me awake. It reminds me why I call myself a feminist.