Book Reviews

Novel – A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Book review

Written by: Meena Kandaswamy
Publication: Juggernaut
Pages: 231 pages

How does one tell a story of a 26-year-old intelligent, educated woman being battered by four months of marriage? To start with, Meena Kandaswamy trips the reader by almost drawing a chuckle. The first to play storyteller is the woman’s mother, a figure familiar from lachrymose soaps and painful personal experience. She gets around the socially devastating fact of a divorcee in the family in the tradition of middle-class matriarchs: she makes it about hygiene (when her daughter returns home, “her heels were cracked”, her head was teeming with lice) and herself. “This is how my story of Young Woman as a Runaway Daughter became…the great battle of My Mother versus the Head Lice,” says the narrator of the novel, wryly imagining the fable taking a metaphoric life of its own, being “taught in gender studies programmes”, though it “was a little too dirty and disorienting for white feminists”.

The moment any woman speaks out against the violence and sexual abuse, it does not remain her story. This is lived experience. Why was she out late? What will the relatives say? Did she try hard enough? Is she really as chaste as she looks? Kandaswamy’s narrator is keenly aware that her story — a common one in India, where a majority of women face domestic violence — must be wrested back (“I must write my own story”). At one point in the novel, among her many fears — of being beaten to death, disfigured by the daily rape, and trapped in a police case — is that of turning into Althusser’s wife.

The French Marxist philosopher had strangled his wife and rationalised it as “suicide by proxy”, a kind of “non-consensual consent” — and gotten away with it. “As long as a woman cannot speak, as long as those to whom she speaks do not listen, the violence is unending,” Kandaswamy writes. This novel, based on the author’s personal life, is an account of unspeakable marital violence, but the subtitle signals her declaration of intent. The writer as a young wife is here to claim the Authorised Version, even if the title, When I Hit You, makes her just another object.

Hit he does, the husband, with everything he can get his hands on — from heavily-buckled belts to MacBook charging cords, from the back of the broomstick to ceramic plates and the drain hose of the washing machine. The house weaponised, against a woman. Communism and the Little Red Book used to show her her place. She is slowly isolated and cut off from the world. First goes the Facebook account. Next, she surrenders her email password, and then he yanks off the cord that connects her to the world: her internet connection. Finally, he deletes all her emails. Marriage becomes a course in Communism 101. There are tutorials which explain how a woman writer cannot claim to be postcolonial because she is a “whore” writing in English, and why, when revolution comes, there will no lipstick for “petty-bourgeois bitches” and how a Communist woman is treated equally by comrades in public but can be slapped behind closed doors”.

This novel does not seek to answer — why didn’t she walk out? — and flip the responsibility of explanation on to the victim. It instead demonstrates how toxic masculine entitlement enables violence, how being hit and beaten eats away at self-confidence and esteem of strong, able women, and how the quicksand of family pressure and societal indifference is always ready to swallow women, given one misstep. The husband in the novel is a one-dimensional figure, but also an accurate one — education and ideology only a top dressing on the soil of sexual insecurity and contempt for women.

But this novel, raw and stifling in parts, stands out because it is seeking — through language, art, through narration — to reclaim dignity and shake off victimhood. To the narrator, it is art and the self-reflexivity it brings that gives her distance from her abuse. When she is being smashed against a wall, she imagines how she might write about it. In defiance of his suspicion about her sexual past, she writes love letters to old lovers, and deletes them before her husband returns. “Every line I have written to you is a thought-crime, which does not leave a trail of evidence.”

Her abuse is primarily physical and sexual, but she feels it equally through the skin of her language — through the expletives he hurls at her during rape. “Every part of my body is a word spat out in disgust.” She bemoans that the smattering of Kannada she has picked up in this small town only permits her to be a housewife, while “English makes me a lover, a beloved, a poet. Tamil makes me a word huntress, it makes me a love goddess.” But it is in language that the novel triumphs, where it fights its battles and wins them. Through memory and knowledge, Kandaswamy reclaims language as “a secret place of pleasure”, as a pact between two lovers, and a solace for a solitary woman. “I am the woman sheltered within words,” she writes.