‘When I Hit You’: Breaking Down the Wall of Silence around Abusive Relationships
One in every three women in India have faced some form of sexual or physical abuse and ‘When I Hit You’ is one of those innumerable stories penned by Meena Kandasamy. Published in 2017, the book left people curious enough to want to find out for themselves whether the story would live up to its shocking title.
For the South Asian reader, the beginning of the story is not new, it’s one that we’ve heard one too many times. Bruised and broken spirited, a young, newly married woman returns to her parental home after being put through the maddening mirage of the marital machinery. Society’s curiosity, her parents’ questions, her own journey of acceptance are all woven in with tinges of self-blame and anguish as the narrator begins to unravel her story. It’s a familiar tale of falling in love with someone, being enamoured by their intellect, somehow unbelievably attracted to how you both connect. And as time passes, it becomes easy to see that the person you fell in love with is no longer the person standing in front of you today. The reader is constantly thrown back and forth between these two realms, while still living in the clarity that this is far from a healthy relationship.
It is Kandasamy’s knack for world building that plays a crucial role in how the story plays out in the mind of her readers. Chennai, Kerala, Mangalore, each place has an ever evolving role in the narrative. The hometown is first portrayed as restrictive, a place that the narrator is desperate to break out of. Kerala becomes a place of self-discovery and exploration, both intellectual and romantic. She sets off to Mangalore as a new bride, excited to finally live with the love of her life. But solitude turns into isolation as she is shut off from the world, channel by channel, by the man of her dreams, longing to return home. Very often, poignant stories veer into the territory of becoming overdramatic. That’s not the case with this book, with its gripping narrative and peppering of poetry.
Politics and patriarchy. Patriarchy and politics. It feels like the two could be used interchangeably when one considers the effect it has on society, the way both seek to control women. Where similar political inclinations once served as a common denominator between the narrator and her husband, it soon turns into yet another weapon he wields against her.
Fair warning must be heeded that the book describes rape rather graphically. In a country like India that is still discussing the implications of marital rape, this author takes the painful effort of setting context. From the clear power dynamic that it exploits to how it allows the slow breakdown of a woman, there is slow surrender to the abuse that now becomes her everyday reality. As the abuse intensifies, there is a voice growing within the reader that is practically begging the narrator to ‘please leave, just pack your things and never look back’. Anyone who has ever read the news knows how these things fall apart in a split second. Then, the woman is just another statistic in the number of women who met their ends at the hands of men.
There are two sets within the audience that the book speaks to. The first are those people who nod along silently with the incidents recorded, coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that they too were victims of abuse, albeit with different magnitudes of trauma. The second is the uninitiated, those who’ve been bystanders, always looking in at such relationships. For them, the book stands as a primer to recognize the smaller signs of abuse and understand the extent of it.If you are looking for a straight read with a linear narrative, then this isn’t the book for you. But if you are in the market to be taken on a rollercoaster of emotion, to experience dread and anguish and hope and warmth in one sitting, then there’s a chance that ‘When I Hit You’ will become a mainstay on your bookshelf.
The author’s latest book, ‘Exquisite Cadavers’ is slated for release later this year and we can only wonder what she has in store for us this time.
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