‘A Writer is the One Who Controls the Narrative’
My thoughts on Meena Kandasamy’s semi-autobiographical novel
Its been half an hour since I have been staring at my blank screen. I leave it be and go into the kitchen to fix myself some breakfast, take all the time in the world to finish it, go back and deposit the plate on the counter by the sink to be washed later, walk around the room looking for the AC remote and basically look for every opportunity to avoid writing this piece because I just don’t have the right words.
As a last resort I fiddle with my laptop power cable hoping it’ll give me a clue on how to start writing about the book I finished reading last night. But it only brings back the memory of “thin, red welts” left on the narrator’s arms by her laptop cord. It was the cord that left the marks, it was her husband wielding the cord.
“When I hit you,
Comrade Lenin weeps.
I cry, he chronicles. The institution of marriage creates its own division of labour.”
In my attempt to find the right words to frame this piece I go online. The internet tells me that when Meena Kandasamy wrote an article about her abusive and violent marriage she was badgered with “why didn’t she leave him earlier” and all sorts of what, where, why, when and hows.
So she wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called When I Hit You as a response to the what, where, when, why and how, save the who. The who in the story, like the narrator, is also unnamed.
The who from the story can be found in the husband in the gynaecologist’s clinic who has brought his wife for a fertility treatment, in the dutiful son-in-law, in the university lecturer loved by his students, in the communist guerilla on the run with a mission to topple capitalism, in a father’s fears of a divorcee daughter bringing shame to the family name, in a mother’s advice to endure in silence, in friends who didn’t check in assuming silence meant everything was okay.
The who is outside us, inside us, around us. The who is omnipresent.
“Violence does not advertise itself.”
The narrator’s forced visit to the gynaecologist comes with this understanding, and she leaves realising that if she has to be rescued she’ll have to do it herself. From a writer, to a writer wife, she takes on the role of a strategist.
Strategise she does - equipped with culinary skills, powers of observation and the compulsive need of a writer to put everything in words she runs out of this marriage, her bare feet carrying her to the nearest auto-rickshaw.
Five years on and fed up of her mother’s extravagant anecdotes about her feet and the role they played in her escape the narrator takes charge and gives us the most valuable lesson in life:
“Don’t let people remove you from your own story. Be ruthless even if it is your own mother.”
This is how the book opens. Unlike me, the author has everything mapped, the opening, the close, the in between, the between the lines and I, like a smitten lover, marvel at her words.
Her words are powerful and poetic. Every line seems to have a world of its own; every sentence comes alive no matter how many times you’ve read it. The narrator has donned many roles.
I love the bit where she mentions how we play different roles in the different languages we speak:
“English makes me a lover, a beloved, a poet. Tamil makes me a word huntress, a love goddess. I can dig out every word I’ve uttered in Kannada. In this language, I am nothing except a housewife.”
She does a fabulous job at putting the reader in the writer’s shoes. I swooned at her would-be husband who’d flirt in the language of Marx over text, I could see why she fell for him, hell I did too.
“He made the best rasam I’ve ever tasted.”
As the story progressed I dreaded turning the page, a crippling paranoia coming over me every time a chapter ended as if the man in the book will come after me one day.
For the sensitive and over imaginative reader the narrator arranged a less gory, non-voyeuristic film version as well - the frame, the characters, the actors, the costumes, everything described in detail as the writer becomes the director and not once does it take away from the seriousness.
“I’m finding plot points. This is the occupational hazard of being a writer wife.”
I could only wonder at the abilities of the human mind and the things we think in our heads to cope and make sense of what’s happening to us. Although I don’t think we can ever make heads and tales of it.
The narrator didn’t think an abusive marriage would happen to her. Nobody does, until it happens and what comes after is beyond my capacity to put into words.
The author however did and so it ought to be read, not just because it’s an award winning novel, but because it’s the story of millions of women in this country, this world.
It shatters the myth that women who’re financially independent, educated, empowered can walk out of abusive marriages without so much so as a second thought.
It shatters the myth that economic independence is the cure to all ailments. It’s more common than you’d think and talking about it isn’t as common.
And to show this to the world, Meena Kandasamy, with her words immortalises a woman who cannot be silenced, a woman whose body is “rape resistant”, a woman who cannot be violated by this society, a woman who we all wish to become.
Unlike this bitter world, Kandasamy gives her narrator the opportunity to tell her own story, as it should be.
“I remind myself of the fundamental notion of what it means to be a writer. A writer is the one who controls the narrative.”
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy is published by Atlantic, 2017