Domestic abuse can leave emotional scars that last a lifetime. This is the story of how a feminist wrote her way out of suffering
London-based Meena Kandasamy is a fiery feminist, a Dalit rights activist, a poet, an academic and an author. Her first book, The Gypsy Goddess, was based on the Kilvenmani massacre of 1968. When I Hit You, her second novel, is about violence at home based on her own experience of being in an abusive marriage.
This isn’t the first time she has written about domestic violence, but much of her published poetry, except a handful of protest poems, was written before her marriage in 2011. “I look back at these poems and wonder how much I dealt with these themes—of domestic abuse, intimate violence, marital rape—in my own poetry, before I had had any sort of first-hand experience. I think that happened because these were huge concerns, they were all around me, happening to people I knew .... Thank goodness I’m not a believer in premonitions, because if I were, all this obsession about violence, and then the same happening to me would seem eerie,” says Kandasamy.
How does a feminist find herself stuck in an abusive marriage? It’s hard to believe, even for the protagonist in Kandasamy’s book. In her head, she is enacting the role of an actress playing the role of a dutiful wife. Bursts of verse ‘one two, tame the shrew, one two, just push through, one two, yes thank you’ breathe life into Kandasamy’s prose. Moods change as pages turn; academic fervour juxtaposed with love letters that will never be sent and of course the pretence of a camera trained on her as she deals with the terror, trauma, depression and disbelief.
Although Kandasamy had written a piece in 2012 directly addressing her marriage, she says she tries her best to steer clear of revisiting the events. “To dwell (on) and dissect such a traumatic period deeply pains me .... But writing, and especially writing fiction, makes a different creature out of you—you are looking at something (private, personal, painful) and you are thinking in terms of craft and narrative structure and style... in a sense, you are thinking about everything from a writer’s perspective. Being a writer allows me to step outside the experience, and I’m actually insanely lucky to be able to do that,” she says. ‘I must take some responsibility over my own life. I must write my story,’ the protagonist notes in the very first chapter. But Kandasamy says she didn’t write the novel in a self-absorbed, self-explanatory way. “I wrote it because I wanted to remember my suffering with something beautiful that would instead take its place,” she says.
Through the book, Kandasamy attempts to shatter the idea of a woman’s domesticity as a boring, mindless zone by showing a certain intellectual-ness, a fierceness that is being crushed. The irony is that the husband intellectualises the violence and abuse he hurls at her. “It is a case of the Devil quoting the Scriptures. The real danger is that any form of theoretical engagement that does not wear its feminism on its sleeve, that does not constantly and unforgivingly and mercilessly demand and factor in women’s concerns, can be manipulated and peddled around to propagate patriarchy,” she asserts. Rather than kill patriarchy, education could instead produce a more sophisticated misogynist; instead of getting rid of the wifebeater, it only makes it harder to spot one.
“I WANTED TO REMEMBER MY SUFFERING WITH SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL THAT WOULD TAKE ITS PLACE”