“In this marriage in which I’m beaten, he is the poet. And one of his opening lines of verse reads:
When I hit you,
Comrade Lenin weeps.
I cry, he chronicles. The institution of marriage creates its own division of labour.”
When I Hit You is a semi-autobiographical fictional account largely drawn from author Meena Kandaswamy’s own experience(s) of a turbulent marriage. The female protagonist is left unnamed to build transnational solidarity among women who have been, or are in, abusive relationships. Kandaswamy delves into the theme of violence, love and intimacy within a heterosexual marriage. She does not create any suspense around the fact that the book is about violence – both physical and emotional – within the domestic spaces of romance and intimacy.
The story starts with the protagonist engaging the reader with her broken marriage and violent husband. The book traces the life of a young 20-something woman, who is navigating life, a writer documenting her four-month-old volatile and violent marriage. Kandaswamy’s protagonist meets her now husband at a political rally, a professor of literature who had a good hold over Marxist ideals and a mature attitude towards life. Eventually, they fall in love and get married. The newly-wed couple moves away to Mangalore due to her husband’s job. Away from all things familiar, Kandaswamy’s protagonist suddenly finds herself in an alien house, city, and no common language. Her home is her husband and, in the merging of their lives, their individuality too collapse into one.
Collision of individuality and intimacy
Kandaswamy gracefully depicts the loss of individuality in a relationship, and that took me back to one 20th century drama class from my undergraduate days. We were reading Look Back in Anger by John Osborne and my professor said something so profound that it stuck with me. He said “love becomes the end of individuality” and drew on popular notions like “do jism ek jaan’”and asked us to think about the rationale behind the romanticisation of selfless love and relationships. Kandaswamy, particularly, portrays this loss of individuality in such a manner that we witness the transition of two individuals in love into one, demanding selfless love.
Selfless love subtly transitions into ownership, as the wife becomes the husband’s asset. So much that he decides to respond to her emails, delete her emails and sign off emails with both their names.
“I feel nauseous. I feel robbed of my identity. I’m no longer myself if another person can so easily claim to be me, pretend to be me, and assume my life while we live under the same roof.”
Soon, she is completely cut off from the social world and is only ‘allowed’ to keep in touch with her parents. The protagonist is bound to feel trapped, lose her sense of self, making her marital home an emotional and psychological Gleichschaltung.
Abuse wears the cloak of affection
The most predominant question invoked in a discussion of domestic or intimate partner violence is ‘why didn’t the woman leave, why did she endure the abuse for so long’, minimising if not ignoring the reality of abuse. Abuse often coexists with affection, and perpetrators take seeming accountability the next moment, birthing a ray of hope, hope that change is possible, hope that love is enough, hope that this is the first and last time. And in no time, they find themselves in a loop. Kandaswamy has brilliantly showcased this complexity in relationships of romance and intimacy with their inherent power dynamics.
“…The question within you, coming from your own sense of fairness: what if he was given the chance to rectify his mistakes, to change himself, to begin anew? The next question, coming up after the commercial break: were you willing to forgive him? And then of course, the inevitable, the unavoidable, absolutely vital: have you fought enough for what you believe in? Fight or Flight. The old formula again. I haven’t given up fighting, not yet. The flight only comes when the fight has failed.”
Unfortunately, our hyper-patriarchal society and culture erases its existence and creates an image of absolute harmony. Srimati Basu speaks along similar lines while observing family courts. Basu argues that the artifacts that adorn the walls of Mumbai family court invoke a soft ideological notion of a prototype family. Kandaswamy also amplifies the tendency of state apparatuses to covertly reinstate the cultural norms of women’s (wife’s) subjugation through the protagonist’s encounter with the legal justice system.
When she visits court for her divorce process, she is instantly asked derogatory questions and finds all fingers pointed towards her character. Whereas, when she writes to the college authorities of the husband, they respond to her saying, “We will ask him to resign”, as the process of sacking an abusive faculty member is too exhausting. Later, when the husband joins another college in Chennai, the protagonist writes a letter asking the college board why they hired a perpetrator of abuse, they draw on the argument of ‘personal’ matters to dismiss her inquiry.
The realistic depiction of the institution of marriage is an overarching theme in the novel, starting from the duties of a wife, responsibilities of a husband, to troubles in marriage. Kandaswamy also draws the audience’s attention to a common (mis)perception – that of childbirth being the salvation of a broken marriage. The mother of Kandaswamy’s lead echoes a similar opinion in a conversation, “A child is not a bad idea. He will become gentler when he is a father. I’m a mother. Babies have that effect; they can tame brutes.”
The author skilfully illuminates the problematics of (un)holy matrimony. The protagonist speaks of the unequal division of labour that the institution caters to and the casual denial of women’s agency over their own bodies.
One wonders whether the democratisation of the institution of marriage will make a consequential difference. Periyar’s visualisation of conjugal relationship under the purview of the self-respect movement is one such attempt, where the institution has been very conspicuously deconstructed to give women an equitable space.
V. Geetha elucidates how marriage as an institution is used to regulate and discipline woman’s familial and reproductive labour and also denies their desires and rights to the kind of self-respecting lives they might wish to live. Geetha illustrates Periyar’s scorn towards the social phenomenon of motherhood. According to Periyar, motherhood is an “insidious institution that forced women into an existence of forgetfulness and anomie.”
Through motherhood, women’s subordination (social and sexual) is fortified, unlike what the protagonist’s mother claimed. Self-respecting marriages were essentially formulated to give women (and men) the agency to seek their desire, their love and if these become volatile or violent, self-respecting marriage gave men and women the right to leave and break free.
Tale of a violent lover’s valentine
The husband of the story has personified the aggressive and manipulative behaviour that characterises an abusive marriage. Kandaswamy makes it crystal clear that the husband was painting his acts of violence (and violation) in the colour of love, care and affection. For instance, when he wants the wife to deactivate her Facebook account he starts lighting match sticks and burning them off on his hand, one matchstick at a time. When she urges him to talk while calling him out on his blackmail, all he had to say was, “You’re pushing me into this corner where I’m forced to tell you what’s good for you and what is not… If you love me, this is the quickest way you will make up your mind.”
The author demystifies the popular notion that having the correct (desirable) political awakening and ideological leaning will erase the chances of a lover turning into a violent valentine. As a professor of English Literature and a Marxist hardliner, one would assume he understands and empathises with feminist principles and considers his wife an equal. But in reality, he was raping his wife, and using rape as a weapon to tame her. “Sex, actually rape, becomes his weapon to tame me. Your cunt will be ruined, he tells me. Your cunt will turn so wasted, so useless you will never be able to offer yourself to any man.”
Unfortunately, the reality for women in India is that marital rape is yet to be considered rape by the legal justice system. This is how culture trickles down into the state apparatuses; culture which sanctions marriage as a legitimate space for intimacy also legitimises a husband’s right over his wife’s body, muting her voice. Consent and bodily integrity hold no value in marriage and find no articulation in the legal system.
Growing up in a middle-class and upper-caste Bengali family, we were given a specific kind of cultural, perhaps, a sort of moral education that ideally should form the base of our knowledge about relationships. One teaching was about marriage, in its perceived inevitability that is perpetuated by family members. We were also taught to frown upon divorce. Funny, even uttering the word divorce could get us sisters in a good deal of trouble. From there, we have come to a point where we had to step up and raise our voice when a family member faced domestic violence. But being the supposed kids of the family, we were silenced and told that it was an adult matter.
From experiencing second-hand aggression in intimate spaces and to experiencing it first-hand in an intimate relationship, I have gained new perspectives on intimate partner violence (IPV). Some of this I’ve found difficult to articulate in words as I feel I lack the skills and am also apprehensive about revisiting the memories. Reading When I Hit You was a gentle reminder for me, a kind voice guiding me towards acceptance and acknowledgement of a part of life I wished to suppress. My experience of reading the book was filled with a roller-coaster ride of emotions, raging that this reality of women often gets invisibilised because marriage (with its sanctity), is a supreme institution and cannot be broken at any cost. It is a combination of the profane and the sacred, but seldom takes into consideration the individual’s desire or love.
The process of falling in love, fighting for love, and the final culmination of love into marriage is well-documented. But what we forget is that is not the end of the story. It is merely the beginning, and proper documentation of such spaces have been ignored for far too long under the veil of ‘privacy’. It is time that we start looking into what happens after the ‘happily ever after’ and critically gaze upon the same.
Jayashree Paul is a postgraduate student of development studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is interested in working in the field of gender with an emphasis on rights-based policy and advocacy.