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Posts Tagged ‘Meena Kandasamy’

I discovered ‘When I Hit You‘ through reader-members of a book group I am part of. It looked like a tough read but a book which was hard to resist. I couldn’t. I read the book slowly but read most of it in a day. Here is what I think.

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When I Hit You‘ is a story told in the first person. The unnamed woman narrator talks about how she fell in love with a professor and married him. She is a writer, is widely read, has a deep and wide intellect, and has leftist leanings. He seems to have similar thoughts to hers in many things. But after they get married, things unravel slowly. He undermines her in every way, takes away her freedom slowly, first in small ways, by inflicting violence on himself and emotionally blackmailing her and then in big ways. Then he starts beating her when she defies him and violently rapes her. Will our nameless heroine get out of this bleak, violent situation before it gets too late? You should read the book to find out.

What do I think about the book? First, I love the subtitle of the book – ‘a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife‘. Totally love the nod to James Joyce here. Second, there is a beautiful quote at the beginning of every chapter. Each of them is beautiful, powerful, thought-provoking and made me contemplate a lot. I loved that too. What about the story? It is dark, bleak and hard to read. Our heart despairs for the nameless heroine as she sinks more and more into the dark place, the black hole, that is her marriage. We want her to come out of it, to escape, to run away, to leave this devil’s house, but the devil aka her husband breaks her down in every way and at the end of every day our heroine has sunk more into the dark pit. But, inspite of the dark, bleak emotional landscape, the prose is beautiful. It flows like a serene river taking us on a beautiful ride, showing us sights and smells and sounds which are beautiful, wonderful, delightful. Meena Kandasamy is clearly an intellectual heavyweight, but she wears her intellect lightly on her sleeve. She takes the reader by their hand, shows them the landscape, explaining things like our favourite teacher or our mother would – about the relationship between men and women, about the depth and inadequacy of language, about the infinite varieties of love, about the relationship between parents and children, about communism and capitalism and the grey areas in between, how we get used to and normalize violence within our family, about how one would go to any lengths to save a marriage, about silence and speech and how sometimes silence is louder than speech, about the rare words which describe beautiful things which are unique to a particular language and culture – Meena Kandasamy talks about these and other fascinating themes, topics, questions. Sometimes she gently takes us deeper into a topic and it happens so quietly that we don’t even realize it till we notice that we are in the middle of the intellectual ocean, swimming, and thinking complex thoughts. The prose is elegant but also tight – there are no rambling passages, no superfluous sentence, no wasted word. It is brilliant.

This book made made me think of all the women who have suffered in marriage, most of them silently, many of them withstanding emotional violence, some of them physical and sexual violence. Women like my mom, like Nora from ‘The Doll’s House‘ and countless others that I knew or read about. This book might open some old wounds if one has seen or experienced something similar. It is not for the faint-hearted.

I have read Indian writing / literature in English since I was a kid. I have seen writers write for an international audience, hoping to impress British and American readers and literary prize judges. Then I have seen writers write books on contemporary themes which capture the imagination of the young, modern, urban Indian, like the campus novel or the office romance. I have also seen writers interpret mythology in contemporary ways and make it engaging for the young audience. But I have always wondered – where are the novels that talk about people like me? Or a woman like my mom or some of my friends? Where are the novels which talk about the conflict between parents and children? Where are the novels which talk about how constitutional freedom is nonexistent in the family? Where are the novels which talk about how religious rituals and tradition rule supreme in modern families? Where are the novels which talk about how utilitarian courses of study are winning over the arts and how we all are complicit in it? Where are the novels which talk about the conflict between science and religion that every Indian faces and how religion and tradition almost always win? Where are the novels which depict the actual state of the Indian marriage? There are novels and stories on these themes in many Indian languages – I have read some of them and they are great. There are American and British and French and German and Spanish and Japanese novels on many of these themes. But they are rare and nonexistent in English novels written by Indian writers. I have always wondered why Indian writers in English refused to explore these rich, complex themes, why they were running away from it. It was like the elephant in the room. And along comes Meena Kandasamy and breaks all past stereotypes and shackles and lights the fire in the room and it depicts the scene in all its blazing glory. It is so bright that it hurts our eyes. For that, I am thankful.

I loved ‘When I Hit You‘. Or ‘a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife‘, if you like that title more. It is one of my favourite books of the year and I think one of the most important books I have read. This book heralds a new, powerful, brilliant voice in Indian literary fiction, the likes of which we have never seen, and I hope and pray that Meena Kandasamy has many more novels left in the tank. I can’t wait to find out what she comes up with next.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

There is a distasteful air of the outlaw that accompanies the idea of a writer in my husband’s mind. A self-centeredness about writing that doesn’t fit with his image of a revolutionary. It has the one-word job description : defiance. I’ve never felt such a dangerous attraction towards anything else in my life.

I write letters to lovers I have never seen, or heard, to lovers who do not exist, to lovers I invent on a lonely morning. Open a file, write a paragraph or a page, erase before lunch. The sheer pleasure of being able to write something that my husband can never access. The revenge in writing the word lover, again and again and again. The knowledge that I can do it, that I can get away with doing it. The defiance, the spite. The eagerness to rub salt on his wounded pride, to reclaim my space, my right to write.

I think what you know in a language shows who you are in relation to that language. Not an instance of language shaping your worldview, but its obtuse inverse, where your worldview shapes what parts of the language you pick up. Not just : your language makes you, your language holds you prisoner to a particular way of looking at the world. But also : who you are determines what language you inhabit, the prison-house of your existence permits you only to access and wield some parts of a language.

Hope Рas the clich̩ goes Рis the last thing to disappear. I sometimes wish it had abandoned me first, with no farewell note or goodbye hug, and forced me to act

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Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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