Author: Meena Kandasamy
Published by: Juggernaut Books
Content Warning: Sexual, physical and domestic abuse, marital rape, gaslighting, descriptions of violent acts and distasteful language.
When I Hit You by Dr Meena Kandasamy is a contemporary literary masterpiece. Not only because Meena stands as a substitute in place of the woman who loathes entering such a story in any of its narration – personal or fictional because she has struggled so hard and so long to wriggle out of it; but also because her words bleed you raw.
It is a story of a petit-bourgeois feminist woman, who had the ‘gall’ to invite lovers into her bed without the sanctity of marriage. Society looks down upon the former coitus and legitimizes the latter, even if her consent was present in the first and absent in the second. She is a whore for sleeping with men before marriage. She is a whore, so she can be raped. She lets herself be raped, so she is a whore. The world never lets women win.
The book is not an easy read. The story gets violent and disturbing. There is gaslighting, self-harm, mental, physical and sexual abuse, deep-rooted misogyny, and the list goes on. This book must be read by everyone who has ever blamed the victim of any form of abuse even slightly, even indirectly, by making statements like “Why did she not get out sooner?” or “Why did she not exercise due-diligence?” or “Why could she not be more careful?” The author narrates the trauma in the first-person. Even as she is being hit, she is thinking of how it can get worse. Even if she is being backed into a corner, with her contact with the outside world slowly cut-off, she is thinking of what people will say. Even her parents ask her to not leave her husband because they will lose face and it will affect their social standing – because this is how societal conditioning works.
It is often observed that people express shock when someone they know is revealed as an abuser. They find it difficult to believe that someone who appeared so normal and behaved well with them could be capable of abusing someone. The author also deals with this bias. She discusses how the husband-abuser in the book pretends and makes himself look absolutely harmless before their friends and families. This is how a lot of abusers control the narrative in reality too. It is important to not disbelieve the statements of a survivor only because the alleged accused does not seem to be the type of person who would do so.’ Personal biases should always be kept in check, especially in sensitive situations of abuse. Thankfully, in this case, the writer-wife gets control of the narrative. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the countless other women who suffer the same fate.
The writing was self-aware and intoxicating. She finds momentary escapes in the unsent (or even unsaved) letters to her imaginary lovers. She reminisces about her past life, when she was freer, when she was respected and when her ‘no’ meant ‘no’. The start of every chapter in the book has a thought-provoking quote that has been meticulously picked out to symbolize the contents of the particular chapter. The writing has a languid charm that suddenly leaves you in a zone of discomfort. It is difficult to read the book, but it should be read. It is hard to read the book and it is harder to put it down.
When I Hit You is a contemporary story of abuse, which sadly, is so universal. It is the story of many women. The women whose trust was broken, the women who were wronged by the people, and the system. It is also the story of women who, albeit brokenhearted, still believe in love. But more importantly, the story of women who believe and should believe in themselves.
There was an incident in the book when the wife was deliberating on disclosing the situation of her domestic abuse to the doctor. It made me think that this can be one of the ways to assist a woman who wants to leave an abusive household. I wish it becomes a norm for health care practitioners to ask for a private meeting with the woman whenever a couple comes in for medical tests or advise on planning to have children. The doctor needs to establish trust with the woman, make her feel comfortable, and ask if she wants to have the child in the first place. This should also be done for routine visits, where the doctors can maybe just ask if the woman feels safe at her home. Infact, the doctor doing should be well versed with the medico-legal protocols to be followed in such cases for appropriate documentation. Also, having a female attendant if a male doctor is conducting the evaluation.
I have also read instances where doctors in public hospitals underwent gender-sensitivity training organised by a civil society organisation and the positive impact it created in their work. I remember this instance narrated by a doctor that how previously a woman coming in for repeated termination of pregnancies would usually be advised to make use of better contraceptive options. After undergoing the training, the doctor understood that the woman may be a victim of sexual violence, and during the procedure, the same is explored sensitively with the woman. This may seem far-fetched and out of the doctor’s purview, but it can prove to be helpful for someone who is being abused. It can and does work. Maybe it is time we start thinking about it?
*The instance is from a video created by the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT) Mumbai and can be accessed here.
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