When I Hit You tells the story of an unnamed narrator, a writer who fell in love with a university professor and moved hundreds of miles away from home after marrying him. This man who disguised himself as a progressive individual, in fact, turned out to be a monster – paranoid, controlling, and manipulative – abusing the narrator both physically and emotionally. However, probably because the novel is written in retrospect after the narrator had escaped her abusive husband four months into the marriage, the writing of When I Hit You came off as very empowering – I went in knowing that this is going to be a story about a woman who survived and defied her husband by not letting him erase her identity or trample her spirit.
When I Hit You, which I think is at least semi-autobiographical, is set in present-day India. As frustrating as it may be we know the world is not yet rid of wife beaters, so Meena Kandasamy’s astute observations show us what it must be like to be married to an abuser. She writes frankly about not just the beatings, but also emotional abuse the victims have to live through which at times came in forms I had never imagined. For instance, the husband in When I Hit You inflicted violence on himself to blackmail narrator into doing things, which then quickly spiraled out of control.
Another aspect which is brought to the forefront with When I Hit You is the unfortunate victim-blaming culture. Today, with the progression of feminism, some are quick to find fault with the women who stay with their abusers. “She is a feminist, why did she stay?” they’d ask. But what they don’t realize is how difficult it is to pave the way to safety once you are isolated and trapped. As Kandasamy eloquently points out in her novel it is not about the victim being either “weak” or “brave,” or “stupid” or “smart.” When you are at the mercy of some unhinged man you have to orchestrate your moves to survive the day, become a good strategist and bid your time till you can successfully escape. Context matters in these situations – each victim will be dealt a different hand, a different monster, and some, of course, will be unlucky than others. So as Deepa D. rightly points out in her review in The Wire “That would never happen to me, I wouldn’t let it,” is only something “Smug Privileged” could utter when this could happen to anyone of us.
My only issue with When I Hit You is its political talk which just went over my head. Other than that it is a hard-hitting novel which I’d recommend to all. It is also among the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted books this year, and out of the three shortlisted books I’ve read so far, I feel When I Hit You is the strongest contender. 🙂