“No fucking red saris on the cover.”
This was Meena Kandasamy’s instruction to her publisher while marketing her latest book, When I Hit You: Or A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. In conversation with Mridula Nath Chakraborty at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival about her book, Kandasamy talked about how she wanted to avoid clichés and be taken seriously.
Treat me like a 70-year-old white European man, she says of her instruction. “No hennaed hands, no disembodied body parts, an ankle or navel, and no jewellery,” she says emphatically. “You don’t do that to men, do you? You don’t fuck around.”
When I hit you is fiction, but based on Kandasamy’s abusive marriage, and has been hailed for its poetic intensity and its deconstruction of toxic masculinity and patriarchy. Though the cover of the book says it is a ‘courageous take on traditional wedlock in India,’ Kandasamy stresses that family violence isn’t uniquely an Indian problem. Similarly, she talks about rape and how rape needs to be talked about in a larger context.
“We live in a culture where it is ok to rape any woman as long as she can fit into certain boundaries. She was a traitor, was Maoist, so she can be (raped)”, she says, referring to widespread accusations of rape made against the Indian army and law enforcement. This not only gives rape legitimacy, but is the ultimate method of victim blaming.
Kandasamy talks about marital rape in the book, and says she was conscious in her writing that misogynists and abusers didn’t get off on the woman’s suffering. However, excerpts seem to focus on just that. “This is a book of 250 pages, yet those little sections outlining the rape were the ones they picked! I felt such a betrayal because you work so hard to tell the whole story. If I had to write sensationalist shit, I would write sensational shit!”
Kandasamy also explains why English is the language she chose to write in. “I write in English because it allows me to escape Tamil and the moral, cultural and linguistic codes I have to follow.” She gives an example. “The word in Tamil for rape means a ‘destruction of chastity’, so it presupposes that rape can only occur when there is an element of chastity involved.”
Also, the language of oppression can take many forms, and Kandasamy talks of this in the book. Words like whore and slut, used to malign women and their sexuality, are not the only weapons in the armoury of the abuser. He appropriates the language of the left, and uses Marxist and Leninist ideology to persecute. The simple act of wearing lipstick becomes fraught, and the narrator is accused of being petty and bourgeois because her lipstick costs more than what a poor woman in central India might earn.
Kandasamy talks about this amongst her friends in left circles in London too, where she now lives. “I hear stories of how men force women into sex saying ‘oh, you don’t want to have sex with me because you’re still married to ideals of old world morality’. Or if there are certain sexual practices that one doesn’t like, it is because of their petty bourgeois conditioning. One can easily use Marxism, just as one uses the Bible or the Quran”, she says, referring to fundamentalist interpretations used to oppress women. “(It’s a case of) the devil quoting the scripture.”
Kandasamy’s book is a searing work of fiction inspired by real life, but she doesn’t think of it as a memoir. On this fiction-memoir debate, she reflects on the construction of the narrative, and how being a victim and being a storyteller both involve a degree of disassociation. “When you find yourself in a bad situation, life becomes unreal. Reality appears like fiction, but when I tell the story, people read the work of fiction and think it is real. To me,” she continues, “this book is about storytelling.”