At a time when the #MeToo movement is birthing increasingly nuanced dialogues on the way men sexually relate to women, prolific writer and activist, Meena’s, latest lyrical book, When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as Young Wife, bursts pertinently to the fore. Not out of some biological enactment of motherhood, but because, as Meena herself emphasised, she consciously chose the professional construct of authorship. “People have told me: ‘your prose style is unusually tight -well done!’ It’s not accidentally like that s*** head– it’s because I’ve actively worked on it.” First published in early 2017, When I Hit You, is speedily gaining global traction. The story is primarily based in Mangalore, India, and gives an evocative, personal account of Meena’s entrapment in an abusive marriage. There are descriptions of controlling behaviour, escalating physical violence, and finally the horrific acts of repeated rape.
It is a fierce and unapologetic piece, but is cleverly set apart from other contemporary narratives on domestic violence through its candid yet flowing creativity. As the word warrior herself told us: “having been a poet first, with short verse collections such as Touch and Ms. Militancy published before the marriage, due diligence was paid to the choice of words, metre and crafting the narrative.” This allows Meena’s story to be uniquely incisive: at once providing a valiant supplement to an existing gender critique. For example, one small line reads: ‘Lights, camera, action./Rolling, rolling, role-playing’. Immediately, we intuit the wider concept of a woman being scrutinised into her assigned place as well-behaved and submissive. Meena’s more objective role as the self-professed ‘writer as a young wife’ allows her to distance herself from her experience without losing any of the poignant clout. She also regains mastery over herself in the process. By claiming her destiny as a powerful writer, she reclaims her autonomy as a woman.
Indeed, Meena also attributes the structural soundness with which she wrote, When I Hit You, to her first – literary - love of lyricism. Obviously poetry demands brevity, and Meena “has carried this into her long-verse writing”. Her first book after the marriage was The Gypsy Goddess. Using her signature fictional fire, she has left exposed other social issues close to her heart: the inequality endured by the ‘Untouchable’ or Dalit community, with whom she identifies, and class and caste injustice within the nation. Here, Meena’s particularly significant contribution to current feminism is precisely – contextually - identified. Not only does the writer highlight the agency of an individual who can successfully rebel against their oppression in When I Hit You, but also the full responsibility of the external body who has inflicted it. Yes, she depicts the pain of her then husband’s aggressive assault on her body, academic career, love of writing, and connection to the community, but simultaneously omits huge and unexpected, chunks of the story. For example: what exactly happens after the climactic moment when she escapes, and the big interrogative hook of why she endures the violence for so long. As Meena stated: “a good writer knows not to be too dramatic, especially when this was not meant to be a sensationalised story of a very real, everyday crime.” The main point is not the simplistic take-away of abused women learning to walk away sooner or why, as one ignorant blogger writes, ‘she (Meena) does not just admit she made a mistake? Perhaps it doesn’t work with her feminist image’: it’s that being hit, held down or harangued is never, ever the woman’s fault.
At the end of the day, women are only human, and many men purposefully prey on that. Touting her stance as a survivor and gender rights and community fighter then, Meena powerfully challenges this tired social hypocrisy. The strongest, smartest females can be the target because they are individuals before they are women: reacting in entirely normal, acceptable ways. For example, if a man appears charming and caring, and is viewed as such by the wider world, why wouldn’t you also think so? If someone threatens you with psychological and physical violence, would you not also buckle – perhaps more than once? “Forget deep, psychological scars from childhood,” Meena passionately told me when asked about the theory of parenting informing a person’s vulnerability: “that’s a secondary issue – another way to entrench the idea that women have invited violence upon themselves.” She is not saying don’t get help if it is needed, but implores us not to make this the default diagnosis. “This a socio-economic problem: an expectation of passivity that many men, especially in India, freely exploit. As a woman you find yourself culturally invested in preserving the idea of home and commitment to family. In the case of film actresses and working women generally, they are bound financially by their industries and the trajectory that they need to accomplish: it becomes necessary to suffer to thrive in the work-place.” Thus, the real problem emerges an invisible patriarchy that surreptitiously protects “unchecked male entitlement.”
After writing When I Hit You, a catharsis in itself, how did you seek to heal in the long-term?
There’s no one trick. Everyone’s different. Some people do require help from trauma, or they might find themselves repeating cycles of abuse. You have to shed that past part of yourself. In that sense, it’s not simply about healing: you must also be defiant. Do what you were told you couldn’t. I’m still an ardent socialist though my former husband would accuse me of being just ‘a petite bourgeois writer’.
Was it your incredible mind and education that helped you escape abuse?
No, it was deeper than that. It was an innate strength that came from the people who influenced and touched my life. My mother, for example, is very kind and strong inside. The courage to keep fighting comes from those around me: from sharing similar stories and fighting for equality across society.
Do you have comment on the fragile, masculine ego?
As a house-wife you face a patriarchal double-standard. On the one hand, if you simply do house chores, you’re an abject failure. If you go out and become a success, you must be sucking c***. You can’t win. I have found certain men to be very jealous of my relationship with work. Other men don’t even have to be in the picture: the husband will be competitive with any activity outside of them. A lot of men are not big enough to let you take the centre stage.
What makes a talented fiction writer?
Being able to open up a whole new world that beckons you in. For example, Tony Morrison’s novels: they’re addictive. As well as the story, another element is the brilliance of the language and sentences. Morrison also uses beautiful metaphors.
Do you have advice for individuals fighting oppression who feel they’ve lost all hope?
Say to yourself: You are important. Life is beautiful, and nothing comes close to its mad, terrifying beauty and you are here on this planet to live it fully. Don't waste away. Do everything you can to reclaim your life for yourself.
You mentioned the 'polite code' in your latest novel, including friends not asking after your absence and your parents averting the wrong-doings of your then husband. I have to say, even in the West, a lot of the burden on women trying to escape an abusive situation, is ultimately doubled by this and might be to blame. Would you agree, and do you have comment on what can be done at the grass-roots to combat this?
Yes, I think we need to listen. In India, despite all the politeness codes of language, what prevents people opening up is imposed isolation. Here, it is very difficult unless someone is your partner or best-friend or something. I'm guessing it's some bizarre side-effect of advanced capitalism--and you become so moored in your own life--that sharing, looking beyond one's own individual needs becomes impossible. Years ago, when I first used to visit the UK, people would ask me: "You alright?" and idiot that I was, I would begin telling them the thousand things that went wrong, and this and that, and then I realised that the answer to Alright? was actually Alright? With another question mark. So we ask questions we do not even want the answers to. Sometimes, and this is not just for abused people--everyone wants to share something, some experience, seek help--and I find that so closed. This also results in a bizarre situation where everyday communications are avoided and supplanted by oversharing on Facebook--which honestly helps no one.
Your husband used Communist intellectualism to put you down. As an academic corollary to this, do you feel communism and feminism can ever be compatible?
The problem is not the socialist ideology itself; honestly, in India leftie men seem to use it selectively to take more women to bed with the convenient reasoning that there will be freedom from a capitalist family unit when in fact they are merely interested in selfish sexual exploits. There’s a term for men who don’t seem to understand this: ‘Brocialists’! On the other hand, when women want to assert sexual autonomy, these same men dismiss that as a petite bourgeois women's quest.
Many women experience purely psychological abuse: would you say all forms of abuse are equally damaging, and would you agree that there is always a gendered, controlling element underlying?
Yes, I agree there is a big psychological element. Men can be abusive without lifting a finger and it’s only when he’s explosively violent that it is recognised concretely: you can have men reducing you to nothing through endless, corrosive chains of reasoning, and turning your achievements into nothing.
Finally, you have an upcoming show, Red Raw: Leftover Women. What will you speak about?
I’ll be reading a lot of new poetry, which has not been published in either of my previous collections. I want to talk on news headlines surrounding rape culture, and on the conditions of women and female writers and immigration, after having moved to London recently. The poems would explore themes of violence, and explore the immigrant experience.