It is not a pleasant book, it could not be given that the subject here is the first-person account of home abuse. Our narrator is a writer and a young wife when we first hear her voice she actually is no longer a wife. The first time she speaks to us is to reclaim her story. The story of her ordeal is often told by her mother, who always tells it from her perspective and as part of reclaiming her voice, our narrator decides to take back the ownership of her story.
The book jumps back and forth giving us glimpses of her life before the marriage, as well as reasons to get married. Our narrator does not have a name, throughout the whole story we never learn it, it is as if without the name she also is stripped of her identity and has to fight to get it back. We learn that she was a vocal feminist writer, that she was madly in love with another man before her marriage, but she could never get him to herself. She believes he loved women too much (the plural is intended here), he believed that her feminism was the problem. She was also always deeply involved as an activist on the Left. Which is how she met her husband, she married him because it felt safe, like the end of the turmoil.
She quickly learns how wrong she was. Within the first month of her new life, she is being forced to share all her passwords, she is cut off from Facebook and gradually internet. She is locked at home in a strange city, in the region of India where she does not know the local language. Her husband sabotages all her efforts to find a job. As she herself mentions her marriage becomes a ‘Re-education camp’. Her husband is a Communist and never fails to remind her that she is the ‘little bourgeois writer’, a thing he deeply despises.
She tries during that first month to get her parents to support her, but they do not see anything bad with what’s happening, actually they think it is for ‘her own good’. After one of such conversation, she remembers her childhood and how the phrase ‘for your own good’ was used to cover up various forms of violence or denial of her freedom. It is a pattern that seems to repeat here. She ends up spending her days writing letters to an imaginary lover and always deleting them before her husband comes back home. As her freedom is limited more and more she withdraws into silence.
This was the most shocking moment for me, for it is her husband brutally raping her that shakes her out of the silence. This is the point where all appearances are abandoned, her husband has no other purpose than to humiliate, debase and destroy her. There is no reason for it other than she is there, available and defenceless. All of his hate and contempt crystalizes and focuses on her. There is no reasoning, no negotiations, no begging, there is no communication other than violence.
Our narrator, being so close to destruction, manages to hatch a plan. It was amazing to get to know from her memories that before all that happened, she was a strong-willed woman, she was not timid, not afraid to reach for what she wanted. It helps the reader to shake off the stereotype that ‘those things happen only to weak women’, that they somehow asked for it.
When the beatings continue, and the rapes start, she falls into the most basic survival mode. Which initially makes her normalize the violence, but also secretly regain control of her own body in the only way she could. Four months after the wedding her husband starts demanding a child, and this is one thing she knows for sure she will not give him, this is the breaking point. She cannot openly fight back so she resorts to cooking and using food and spices to prevent her from getting pregnant. The kitchen is the only space where she retains a tiny sliver of control and this way she expands it a little bit more. She starts hatching an escape plan.
I will not go into more details of the plot. The book is deeply disturbing, but also explains in detail the mechanism behind domestic abuse. The first step being contempt and control, stripping a person of their humanity. After that things go fast. Another important point that she’s making is that it can happen to everyone, there is no ‘type’ prone to be victims. She was a strong educated woman and that did not protect her. Because how can one protect themselves from a barrage of hatred and contempt that is completely foreign to us. There is no fighting back, the only hope is to escape, there is no one to help, the only ally is oneself.
It is an important book from many perspectives, the topic it touches is vital and ever-present in our world, but what makes it so strong is the fantastic command of language and imagery that Kandasamy has. Sometimes when things become too much her narrator cuts over to becoming a director of a movie of her life, telling us how the scenes would play, how the light would look like etc. Other times she does hit us directly with the full force of the hatred and contempt, giving us no place to hide. Yet other times he escapes into the lyrical letters to lovers and sometimes resorts to almost chic-lit tone. All of this builds a deeply complex character, a real person behind the event, someone who cannot be described only as an abused wife, because we’re never that simple. She refuses to be defined by what happened to her, but on the other hand, she knows she came on the other side a different person, now the only way to not let it rule her life is to regain control of the narrative. Which is what she does with this book.
Quotes from When I Hit You