Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You Or, a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Wife is a deftly edited book on a marriage that reveals the dark sides of ideology-obsessed men. If earlier, these ideologies were somewhat downplayed as likes/dislikes or masked as principles that the husband liked to follow and imposed on his wife, in Kandasamy’s book, the ideology is explicit, stated upfront and even what brought the couple together, yet its execution has meant physical violence, death threats and control.
Kandasamy’s terse sentences and narrative timing are enjoyable but I have a bone to pick about where the novel leaves us in regard to ideology. Before I come to that, however, let me record my appreciation for the many things she got right. Kandasamy’s beginning is gratifying—it resonates with all the daughters out there who have mothers summarizing their lives for them from time to time. Just when the reader is about to get impatient with the narrative that is denied the backstory, Kandasamy bravely talks about past boyfriends and explains how the marriage that has now ended, occurred in the first place. Brave, because Indian families, whether in India or in the diaspora, are largely in denial about the fact that modern women fall in love and enter relationships.
Kandasamy’s narrative on the predicament of a past love is reminiscent of the many manipulative tricks that cultures have practiced over time. They often follow this pattern: ‘You are crying, you are emotional, let us talk when you are feeling better. You are matter-of-fact, oh, you are so loveless, you don’t turn me on.’ This is largely because current notions of femininity do not allow for women to be emotional and rational at the same time—a dichotomy that is false, in the first place. The past love’s sad yet timely end is inevitable because, “If you stipulated that marriage would be at the end of the road, you were controlling, not letting life flow. If you felt cheated when your lover said: I never promised in marriage in the first place, then you are illogical.” (122) This also captures the current milieu on matters of love; a generation ago, marriage was the assumed end of falling in love, just not true anymore.
Tracing one’s steps back into a failed marriage is an uneasy task, which is why it is now considered uncouth to ask: ‘what happened?’ Women in abusive marriages, when they do walk out, find it extremely difficult to narrate, explain and give convincing examples of abuse. Everything seems trivial to the listener, who is trying to be objective, while this ‘objectivity’ is steeped in multiple layers of cultural norms that misunderstand women, love and surrender, right from the start. People want to know, but they are not listening. Not really.
Writing as a method of healing is highly recommended by psychologists but most abused women in India cannot afford to consult a psychologist or have the time needed to heal. Kandasamy shows such women how to write about their trauma. Her narrative offers rich perspectives and makes probing inquiries, expressing and unearthing the layer of thoughts that lie just beneath our everyday experiences of unease, pain and hurt in abusive relationships until they cumulatively begin to traumatize us. It is in such a layer beneath our expressions that oppression hides, in the very structure of language, society, culture, love, marriage—making it harder for us talk about it logically. Kandasamy effectively relegates the perpetrator of violence in the marriage to the most minimal space; no easy feat.
But, what Kandasamy does with ideology, I find dissatisfying. It does not take the conversation on it forward. Clearly, Kandasamy is not taking the postmodern position of critiquing ideology as such. She is an activist and seriously political and this wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice, of course, if they believed in some form of transformative politics. However, Kandasamy is also not offering the complex theoretical position that ideology is an obstacle yet inevitable because we need ideology to fight ideology. If this is indeed her underlying idea, then it never gets worked into her plot twists, characters or narrative.
A consistent exploration of the postmodern option of critiquing the critical concept of ideology might have opened up the problems she explores within the marriage. My initial reading of her was that she would do this, but she only does this sporadically. When she writes that adhering to her husband’s wishes had meant this: “I should be a blank. With everything that reflects my personality cleared out” I had thought that she had realized that this is indeed what all ideologies do, whether of the left or the right. (16) Much later in the book when she mocks: “The revolution is just around the corner,” it still seemed like a good possibility. (133) But Kandasamy does not pursue this critique to its logical end. Instead, it becomes apparent that she is critiquing the selective interpretation of an ideology (153), its inadequacies, its execution and its blind spots. Now, that is not any less interesting a conversation to have, especially as it gets pitched as Marxism v. Feminism. However, this is a topic that is at least a few decades old. You only had to read We Were Making History (1989) for an amazing set of stories that offer the feminist criticism of Marxism, not Kandasamy (2017)! Well, you could be more charitable and opt to be shocked instead at how nothing has changed for women in the intervening three decades but that too is a point that newspapers seem to be making on an everyday basis, anyway.
Currently, the inevitability of ideology constitutes one of those conundrums in the world of ideas that is hashed and re-hashed but finds fewer innovative ways out. Among non-intellectuals too, there is an increasing intention to be ideological; millennials are weary of the numerous normalized injustices and failures of governance world over. An articulation of the very conundrum of ideology by Kandasamy could have presented greater opportunities to capture our times better, instead of an adherence to one.
What I find inadequate is also the feminist critique of Marxism: “…lipstick will not survive the New Democratic Revolution. The lipstick that costs three hundred rupees is not something that society needs.” (132) Or,
In the same breath I also say that I continue to think that working-class women also have sexual desires and need equal rights, and that they need feminism too. When this is met with disdain and disapproval, I talk about why such a vacillation is a hallmark of the petit-bourgeois mind, and I promise to work on it by declassing myself. (142)
I am not sure how desire is critique enough, because Communism when driven to its logical end is about equality over and above desire, which is all the more why a critique of ideology as such appeared to be underway. Instead, Kandasamy seems to be only critiquing the extremism of the husband’s Communism. Clarifying her position in an India Today interview, Kandasamy says:
This novel is not a critique of communism. It is a critique of how patriarchy and toxic masculinity can enter, inhabit and use any ideology for its own gains. You may have the most progressive ideology in the world and you can see that being co-opted and convoluted for the purposes of subjugating women. That is why I think that feminism becomes an urgent and obligatory necessity in every radical space. As much as I share my experiences of violence and misogyny within progressive groups, I will also bravely stand up to be counted as a Marxist.
To me, her point about co-opting ideologies for agendas of our own, personal or political, is also as old as the earth, or at least as old as Althusser (1970).
Even as I congratulate Kandasamy for speaking about the violence of the left that many artists and intellectuals refrain from mentioning, as if it were some untouchable thing, her response to the issue appears to be: have ideologies but practice them in moderation or, choose their non-violent version. This is no different from the right wing’s formal disavowal of lynching mobs—only a matter of degree, not of substance. And how does this pan out knowing that the Buddhist tradition, which she sharply critiques in her earlier work, Ms. Militancy, upholds moderation as the best way to live?
Even when Kandasamy writes this: “I do my best to criticize myself viciously until I become a ‘true comrade’. It feels like confession. It feels like what I imagine Sunday morning confession feels like to church-goers. It feels as if Communism was a religion, even if it swears that it is against religion” (142); I cannot help thinking, this is Weber (1905). Kandasamy could have at least attempted to sift the differences between the philosophy of Communism and the way it is practiced or absorbed in different parts of the globe, while also telling us why her moderate version of it is worthy and different and where it draws its lines.
Furthermore, anyone who has dabbled in Marxism/Communism a bit, of the moderate kind even, will have had their own moments of guilt that made them unable to enjoy any of the things they once did. Ideologies such as Marxism rip a sense of the everyday from us with their alarmist, red-alert kind of blaring emergency mode. For so many people I have known, Marxism has meant an endeavor in the erasure of their own selves, self-deprecation and self-mockery. In other words, cruelty towards their own selves. I also think that all of us who have been left-leaning, no matter in how small a measure, are guilty of haranguing others; critiquing them with too much passion, and a little too much of everything—anything but moderation. Needless to say, this exaggerated and crippling sense of urgency is true of other ideologies too. Participating in ideologies appears to have one worthy result, however. We get to understand what the lack of jouissance can do to us, why it is important to be happy more than anything else, and to do the little things that add to one’s happiness. Unsurprisingly then, ideological constructs were the single largest object of critique in the philosophical thought that emerged from diverse traditions in ancient and medieval India.
On occasion, it feels as if Kandasamy could be boiling down the problems of Communism to an individual’s flaws; an individual who is a good example of the flip side of strong intentions mixed with idiosyncratic expressions of violence, misplaced masculinity and untreated trauma caused by the justification of violence. It is not reasonable to expect a wife to dig deeper into the traumas of a husband or attempt to heal them. That’s not her job, after all. She is a writer. Not that a psychologist wife could facilitate healing any better. Nevertheless, what did the wife expect when as the article in Scroll mentions, she was drawn “to his claim that he can make a true revolutionary out of her”?
Applying Marxism or Communism as if from a textbook to our lives is obviously flawed. It makes one want to ask: the personal is the political but is the political personal too? Because politicizing the personal is not sustainable. Precisely for such reasons, some Marxist teachers are known to ‘confess’ that they would drink Coke occasionally, to explain to their students that it was alright to live a little, sensing that they thought of Coke/Pepsi as the most useless object that created desire where none existed, symbolically and simultaneously being the essence of capitalism, colonialism and corporation. Perhaps, working out a more nuanced position towards ideology and its workings in the outline for When I Hit You… might have added an additional substantive layer to Kandasamy’s already beautiful writing.
Althusser, Louis. (1970) Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. La Pensée.
Stree Shakti Sanghatana. (1989) We Were Making History. Zed Books.
Weber, Max. (2001, fp 1905) “The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.” London and New York: Routledge.
“Wonder Women” India Today. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/supplement/story/20170703-women-lawyer-politician-comedian-986705-2017-06-23
Bahuguna, Urvashi. Scroll.in https://scroll.in/article/840295/this-novel-or-is-it-a-memoir-shows-a-writer-reclaiming-herself-from-a-violent-abusive-husband