So many people have raved about Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife that I could not resist borrowing a copy from the library. The novel, which is set in Chennai, has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize 2018, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow. India is one of my favourite literary settings; I tend to find that novels set there are both quiet and incredibly powerful, and hoped that would be the case with Kandasamy’s novel.
The narrator of When I Hit You is a nameless woman in her mid-twenties. We come to know her rather intimately by the things which she reveals about herself, her past, and her relationships. Her husband works at the university, and is campaigning ‘in favour of a Communist Revolution’. Identifying as a Communist herself, she meets her husband whilst running an online campaign to abolish the death penalty: ‘I was enchanted. He was a college lecturer, but as far Left as they come and as orthodox as it was possible to be. He wore his outlaw air with charm, his Communist credentials without guile.’ Following their marriage, the couple move to Mangalore, a long way from her home in Chennai and her friends in Kerala, where she studied.
As days go by, she becomes more and more isolated. Her husband begins to exert control over every aspect of her life; he monitors and controls her online presence, giving her a set time in which she is able to access the Internet each week, and replying to her emails without her even seeing them. ‘I feel,’ she writes, ‘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.’ Her personality is slowly eradicated; she has to pretend to stop writing – her profession – as it angers her husband if she so much as mentions love or lovers in her articles or poetry. She fills documents on her laptop in secret, deleting them before he comes home from work, and guarding her rebellious creativity as one of the few private things she has left.
In her marriage, she tells us: ‘I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday. I play the role with flair.’ Her husband, who projects a loving outer persona, and informs his family and friends that his wife has many more problems than he anticipated, is paranoid, possessive, and obsessive.
The novel begins in retrospect, the narrator stating that she escaped from her husband four months into their marriage. She felt that she was the only one who could save herself, after feeling frustrated by her parents’ reluctance to do anything, and ran back to their home. This is not at all the done thing in Indian society, despite the abuse which the narrator was constantly subjected to. She and her family are shunned by many of their friends and neighbours, and judged harshly by everyone around them.
There is a real brutality to the descriptions within When I Hit You, as is evidenced by the novel’s title. The narrator, who decides to record her experiences once in the safety of her parents’ home, says: ‘Trying to recollect the first time I was hit by my husband, there’s only hot glass tears and the enduring fear of how often it has come to pass.’ As the intensity of his violence toward her progresses, she writes: ‘I swing on a pendulum of choice. Alive. Dead. Dead. Alive. Alive. Dead. Dead. Dead. I do not know if I’m alive now. This is the kind of alive that feels dead.’
None of the characters here are named, which serves to make When I Hit You a kind of Everywoman tale. The evocative and violent descriptions are sometimes difficult to read, but Kandasamy’s writing is so intelligently written, and composed with such dexterity, that it is very difficult to put down. When I Hit You is a powerful, raw, and intense novel, which demonstrates how one can manipulate another, and push them to the limits.