Rating: 5 stars
Meena Kandasamy’s fictionalised account of her abusive marriage is on the short list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Knowing what it’s about, in very broad terms, I’ve been reluctant to read it, but a couple of glowing reviews piqued my curiosity.
The book describes four months and eight days of domestic abuse and marital rape. It describes why a woman in that situation might not be able to leave, and might not want to leave. It describes how abused women easily disappear from their social circles because the other people in those circles don’t want to look for reasons why.
I found it eye-opening. It made concrete something that I have only thought about abstractly. I’m thankful that I have never been raped, that the worst things I’ve experienced have been isolated incidents of physical and verbal abuse. I read this book from a relatively safe space. I can’t say whether a woman who has experienced or is experiencing the things Kandasamy describes would find it a help or a source of further distress to read this book. I can say that I found it well balanced and honest.
It starts off deceptively funny. The narrator describes how her mother makes the story of her runaway daughter her own, focusing not on the abuse she ran away from, but the signs of the abuse that can be read on her body, specifically her feet and her hair, and the effect those signs have had on her parents’ feelings and social standing. It’s funny in the way that mothers from cultures where Amma or Mammy or Ma are the backbone of the family are funny. They simultaneously miss the point and nail it. They are absolute in their conviction that they are right.
A few pages into the narrator’s perspective, though, and my head was swimming. Anxieties that I am working through in therapy gripped my stomach. I’m not an abused wife. Far from it. I am the child of a mentally and emotionally abusive relationship, though. The tone of voice that the narrator uses in talking about her situation was familiar, particularly the sing-song way she normalises her husband’s behaviour because to do otherwise would necessitate doing something to end it, and to end it would bring shame.
My swimming head meant that I had to step away from the book for a bit. I went for a walk with my husband and some of our friends. It was a good thing to do.
I came back to the book and tried to set a bit of distance between me and the world Kandasamy describes, where a woman chooses plainness as a defence. It’s an age old thing, this way in which many men are attracted to a woman because of her vibrancy but then are compelled to squash it as evidence of their ownership and to prevent other men from being attracted.
I should look like a woman whom no one wants to look at or, more accurately, whom no one even sees.
I should be a blank. With everything that reflects my personality cleared out. Like a house after a robbery. Like a mannequin stripped of its little black dress and dragged away from the store window, covered in a bedsheet and locked off in the godown.
This is the plainness that makes him pleased. This plainness that has peeled away all my essence, a plainness that can be controlled and moulded to his will. This is the plainness that I will wear today, this plain mask on a pretty face, this plainness that will hide me, this plainness that will prevent arguments.
This is an expectation that I have experienced at certain points in my life, where a man has tried to persuade or bully me into being something other than the person I am. Quieter, tidier, dumber, more obedient. It’s what my dad did to my mum. Bosses have done it in my work life, strangers, friends and boyfriends have done it in my social life. I have experienced minor acts of violence against my person at the hands of men who were angered by the way I persisted in being myself. A slap in the face, hands pressed against a hot radiator here, bruising from a strong grip around my arms, being pinned against a wall there. They called me challenging. I have experienced spoken violence, too, being called bitch, tart, dyke and witch, and being threatened with a glassing if I didn’t shut up, among other things.
But I have never committed myself to a man like these men were. I have flirted with relationships with this type, but I have always walked away in the end. And this is where I found my distance from the story, because it didn’t resonate personally. Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to have your trust betrayed, your love manipulated, your very existence turned into something shameful.
As Kandasamy moved into the description of the particular, my head stopped swimming. My anger remained – anger on her behalf that certain men are so insecure that they have to persuade women that they, the women, need to change.
There’s a passage where the narrator challenges her husband-to-be about Lenin, saying that she found the things he said in his conversations with Clara Zetkin offensive in the way they liken women to gutter water and to drinking glasses that more than one mouth has touched. Husband-to-be counters with this:
‘There’s a part where Lenin talks about how men, even so-called Marxists, take advantage of the idea of emancipation of love which is nothing but the emancipation of the flesh, to have one love affair after another. And Lenin condemns such promiscuity in sexual matters as nothing but bourgeois. And that made me feel guilty – feel guilty as to whether all my talk of emancipation and freedom with my women comrades had only been with the motive of making them fall in love with me. Was my talk of their sexual freedom only an excuse that would allow me to sleep with them? I realized the liberties I had taken with Communism. I felt like a cheat, an imposter.’
Disregarding the way that this man was ignoring the fact that emancipation of love includes the freedom of women to say no, to not be obliged to sleep with a man just because he has flattered her with his attention, as well as the freedom to take multiple sexual partners, the narrator takes his words as proof that he is willing to examine his motivations and change his behaviour. Days into their marriage, she learns that this self-critical paragon was looking for a different target all along, and she becomes the cheat and imposter who needs to be corrected. She also learns that he has double standards, and the ones she must adhere to are more stringent than his, which he can bend in times of exception. It really feels like it was ever thus. Am I right, sisters?
Kandasamy’s narrator doesn’t have it so easy as just being in need of setting on the right path, though. She has the added wrong of not being trustworthy. She might betray him. Over the period of a month, he separates her from family and friends, rationing her internet access, checking her emails, replying to some on her behalf. He changes her phone number and only lets her share the new one with her parents. She has been an independent journalist, a freelance writer. She is educated and intelligent. She can see what he is doing, but the pressure of not bringing shame on herself or her family stops her from leaving him. She believes that she should fight for the marriage, give him chance after chance to realise his mistakes and put things right. Her parents tell her that he is her husband and is doing things for her own good. She is isolated and trapped. It only takes a month.
I saw similar things happen between my parents. I saw how my dad punished my mum if she went against his wishes. It was a subtle punishment – the silent treatment, criticism, passive aggressive behaviour – but an effective one. I asked her frequently over the years, from teenage to adulthood, why she didn’t leave him. She told me a version of the truth – that she was worried about the impact on we three children. The last time I asked her, telling her that we three children were adults now and the impact surely couldn’t be that great, she told me the actual truth – that she had found a flat once, when I was a teenager, and told him that she was leaving and taking me with her, that he had told her that if she did, he would kill himself and she would be responsible. She chose to stay.
I went to hear Viv Albertine in conversation with Jeanette Winterson midway through reading Kandasamy’s book. Albertine is an inspiration. Her book Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys is an incredible memoir of growing up in working class North London with a single mum who empowered her to be the best Viv Albertine she could be. Her new book, To Be Thrown Away Unopened, delves deeper into why she is the person she is, examining her family history down the maternal line. I’m itching to read it. Kandasamy’s narrator reminded me at times of Albertine in her inner monologue about her situation, and in the way that she could dispassionately analyse what her husband was doing in order to find a way out of it.
Until her husband rapes her for the first time. Then she becomes mute, absent, lost to herself. I remember Albertine talking about something similar in Clothes, Music, Boys, how she lost herself in her marriage and had to rediscover who she was after the marriage ended.
The passages in which the narrator describes the rapes her husband subjects her to are some of the toughest writing I’ve ever read. It is deeply moving to read a woman’s account of her dehumanisation at the hands of someone who is supposed to love her.
I never understood rape until it happened to me. It was a concept – of savagery, of violence, of violation, of disrespect. … nothing prepared me for how to handle it. Within a marriage, fighting back comes with consequences. The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away. He is not the silhouette in the car park, he is not the masked assaulter, he is not the acquaintance who has spiked my drinks. He is someone who wakes up next to me. He is the husband for whom I have to make coffee the following morning. He is the husband who can shrug it away and tell me to stop imagining things. He is the husband who can blame his actions on unbridled passion the next day, while I hobble from room to room.
Later, the narrator reports conversations she has with her parents over the phone, but only their responses to what she tells them. They are more concerned with reputation than with their daughter’s welfare. The main message from her father is to not talk too much. This made me angry, because it’s the same belief that my dad held. Women should listen and obey. Kandasamy’s words made me sad for her narrator.
I climb into the incredible sadness of silence. Wrap its slowness around my shoulders, conceal its shame within the folds of my sari.
To stay silent is to censor all conversation. To stay silent is to erase individuality. To stay silent is an act of self-flagellation because this is when the words visit me, flooding me with their presence, kissing my lips, refusing to dislodge themselves from my tongue.
Her husband is ever more enraged by her silence. He accuses her of fantasising about other men during her silences. He tells her that he is raping her in order to ruin her for other men.
This is all hard stuff, but it’s important to read it, to hear one voice talk about domestic violence and marital rape, and to know that it is survivable, that even when a woman is buried so far within herself in order to protect herself, she still exists. There is still hope. It’s a hope in spite of the world around her. What Kandasamy makes very clear is how misogyny is ingrained in Indian culture. It’s not a generational thing. The attitudes her father holds are the same as those other men of various ages hold. It appears in a passage describing the kind of tragedy that is reported frequently in the West – the gang rape of women and girls. It is present in the way women are viewed and spoken about and blamed. The same can be said about most countries, but it seems to be the normal thing in India, with respect for women who don’t conform to the ideal standard the exception.
This is a book about being a woman and how that is often threatening to men. The narrator’s first love was an older man who wouldn’t commit to her. He blames her feminism.
‘This is the kind of feminism that ruins love,’ he replies. ‘ … This is the feminism that calculates’, he says, ‘the feminism that negotiates, the feminism with a balance sheet. This is not love that waits … The problem is your feminism, your feminism that makes you an individual, the feminism that refuses to recognize that we are a couple, the feminism that makes you build a barricade all around yourself, the feminism that sows the seeds of distrust in your mind about me because it cannot see me as anything other than a man and men as anything other than selfish scoundrels. … Your feminism will drive away all the men who come your way. No man stands a chance.’
The phrase that jumped out at me was the one about feminism making someone an individual, as though that was a bad thing. The narrator meets with similar anti-feminist opinions from her husband, a man who claims to be a Maoist, a Communist, a fighter for equality in everything, a leveller of class, gender, opportunity. Women are threatening to men and men continually construct their patriarchies to combat the threat they think women pose to them.
It’s a book about language and the power words can contain. The narrator is a writer and one of the first things her husband does is remove her means of communication. He takes control of her email, rations the time she can spend online, deletes all of the work on her laptop. He takes control of spoken language as well. The narrator finds beauty in language. Her husband reduces language to crudeness. But his crudeness doesn’t dim her love for language. She collects words that have multiple meanings. She writes about the way who a person is shapes the language they inhabit. As a writer, she knew poetic words. As an imprisoned housewife, she knows the language of the marketplace. As a survivor, she substitutes a woman made of words for her real self.
This is an incredible book. From the way it is structured like a film, directed by the narrator, plotted to move back and forth in time, to the fierceness of Kandasamy’s honesty about an issue in society that people shy away from. It seems to me, reading this book, that if society didn’t shy away, then women in abusive relationships would feel less ashamed and isolated. It seems to me that the isolation and the feelings of shame for not being resilient enough to walk away are the things that facilitate the abuser.
One of the things that struck me was the reaction of a male friend of the narrator to her story, and his desire for her to provide him with a balanced picture of her abusive husband, to show that the husband wasn’t all bad. This, too, is a part of the way women are shamed and men are given the benefit of the doubt.
Kandasamy’s feminism is one that talks openly, that provides the language for all women to recognise that we are a small step away from abuse and bring that abuse to an end. It’s a call to arms for women to support each other better and to not make anyone feel ashamed about the way they cope with abuse. And each chapter is prefaced by a quote from other inspirational women writers, the chosen words all on the subject of violence against women or what patriarchal society expects a woman to be. Glorious.