Meena Kandasamy


Uno spaccato della vita nell'India contemporanea attraverso la storia e l'opera di Meena Kandasamy con cui esploreremo la condizione della donna nella cultura Tamil.

di Silvia Mazzau

Kandasamy was born in 1984 in Chennai, India, the daughter of a mixed-caste Tamil marriage. Her parents’ involvement in the anti-caste struggle led Meena to work alongside the Dalit movement, a religious as well as socio-political movement which challenges the caste system in India and promotes the rights of the Dalits, i.e. the people belonging to the lowest caste, the “untouchables”. Thus, in her late teens (2002), she was the editor of The Dalit, a bimonthly “that provided a platform to record atrocities, condemn oppressive hierarchies and document the forgotten heritage.”

Her debut collection of poems, Touch (2006) was themed around caste and untouchability, and her second collection, Ms Militancy (2010) was an explosive, feminist reclaiming of Tamil and Hindu myths. When interviewed on her poetic works Kandasamy said “My poetry is naked, my poetry is in tears, my poetry screams in anger, my poetry writhes in pain. My poetry smells of blood, my poetry salutes sacrifice. My poetry speaks like my people, my poetry speaks for my people."

In 2011, she was married briefly – four months – to a man who subjected her to physical and psychological violence and in 2013 she met her current partner, with whom she moved to the UK in 2016. They currently live in East London with their two sons.

Her critically acclaimed first novel, The Gypsy Goddess (2014) is a stunning and deeply faithful account of the murder of 44 low-caste labourers and their families in a Tamil village in 1968. The workers, striking for better pay and conditions, were locked in a hut and burned alive. It is a terrible shocking story, framed by a humorous narrator who talks directly to us of people fighting for justice. Her second novel, a work of auto-fiction, When I Hit You: Or, The Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife (2017) drew upon her own experience within an abusive marriage, while her third novel, Exquisite Cadavers (2019) is a work of experimental fiction in which the writer dissects her own creative process revealing how her ideas are worked into fiction.

Kandasamy works closely with issues of caste and gender and how society puts people into stereotypical roles on the basis of these categories. Let’s take a closer look at When I Hit You, the novel in which she lifts the veil on the silence that surrounds the burning issue of domestic violence and marital rape in modern India. The author made it clear that it is not a memoir but a representation of her own story which anonymises the narrator in order to universalise the experience, transforming it into “a call-to-action to believe and support all women”.

When this powerful novel opens the unnamed protagonist has already escaped from her abusive husband so the suspense is not whether she'll survive but whether she'll be allowed to tell her own story. The woman's mother has been telling the story to relatives, neighbours, and circles of friends, focusing on the physical signs of her daughter's abuse and escape: “That criminal had cut my daughter’s hair short, and it was in-fes-ted” while “Her heels were cracked and her soles were 25 shades darker than the rest of her.” But lest those four harrowing months of her life be whittled down to an anecdote, the narrator realizes that she can be the only one to tell us what happened.

Her story leads us through her emotional journey, from confident college student then published writer to “a woman whom no one wants to look at or, more accurately, whom no one even sees”. The journey towards that assertion is a tough one which begins with a stripping of the narrator’s autonomy after her marriage to a university lecturer, Marxist and one-time revolutionary in south India, an educated cultured brute who uses communist ideas “as a cover for his own sadism”.

When she moves with him to an unfamiliar city, an assault on her tongue, mind and body begins. The language barrier ensures that in public she can only speak words of wifely domesticity, shopping for vegetables or cleaning products. Her husband manipulates her into the surrender of her email accounts and the suspension of her Facebook page through emotional and psychological blackmail, for example by singeing himself until she gives in (“If you love me, this is the quickest way you will make up your mind.”)

Beatings and rapes follow, with everyday middle-class implements weaponised: the hose of the washing machine, the power cord for her laptop. Shame, pride and a society in which everyone, from parents to police, expects a woman to put up and shut up force the realisation that, if she wants to come out of it alive, only she can save herself.

However this is not just a story of survival. It is one of self-preservation, and what makes the novel unique is that even as she is beaten down the narrator reflects that every moment of her life has narrative potential and writing can be her salvation. Thus the novel becomes a meditation on the art of writing about desire, abuse and trauma and we are introduced into a “play-within-the-novel”: “Lights, camera, action. Rolling, rolling, role-playing”. The narrator speaks of her life as if she were directing a play and acting her own role in it at the same time: “And cut! I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday.” In this double role of director/actor she does not only manage to distance herself from the hell she is experiencing but she also succeeds in regaining control of her life, at first virtually and only partially, through the “play” she makes up (“And what is a writer, if not the one who gets to shape the narrative, to have the last word?”) but later on fully and decisively, when she exceeds her written brief and shows her husband up for what he is: “Don’t tell me how brave you are. A brave man doesn’t run. A brave man doesn’t rape and hit his wife. You, my husband, are not a brave man.

Thoroughly heartbreaking and often characterised by stunning changes of tone, Kandasamy’s writing is nevertheless also funny, tender and lyrical, usually simultaneously. She writes with poetic intensity making extensive use of stylistic devices such as repetition which create a pounding, hammering rhythm: the last chapter is a case in point, adding a tinge of grandiosity and melodrama to the ending of the story which underlines who “the woman sitting down to write her story” truly is, a strong resilient indomitable person.I am the woman…” is repeated over 35 times and each time we are offered a different aspect of this woman who, despite the devastating experience, is “the woman who still believes, broken-heartedly in love”.

Where does Kandasamy fit into contemporary literature? Her mixed-caste upbringing and her experiences as a Tamil woman in both India and the UK inform all of her work. Notwithstanding her undeniable artistic merits, the act of writing for her can never be separated from her politics. Driven by a desire for social justice she feels compelled to bring to the fore such appalling realities as the fact that “In India a bride is burnt every ninety minutes. The time it takes to fix a quick dinner. The time it takes to do the dishes. The time it takes to wash a load of clothing. The time it takes to commute”. Despite having faced threats of violence for her fearless criticism of Indian society she believes that threats “shouldn’t dictate what you are going to write or hinder you in any manner”. Her work has appeared in eighteen languages giving voice to the voiceless so that they may be listened to.

Kandasamy’s novel When I Hit You brings to light the dramatic issue of domestic abuse and of woman’s place in contemporary Indian society, confirmed by the 2019 National Family Health Survey which discovered that over 30 percent of women were physically, sexually or emotionally abused by their partners at some point. Find out more about the problem in our world today and create a powerpoint presentation on the topic, connecting it to to the UN Sustainable Development Goals which have to do with gender equality and human rights.

Referenze iconografiche: Pako Mera / Alamy Stock Photo, Polonez / Shutterstock,
rudall30 / Shutterstock, Cristian Casranares / Shutterstock


Silvia Mazzau: currently teaches English at a high school in Verona. She lived in Cambridge (UK) during her youth, worked as an interpreter and copywriter, and has 30 years of experience as a teacher in Italy. Together with her musical family, Missing Link, she created show-lessons which turned into a project, English or… Nothing!, born to involve students as musicians, actors, scenographers and dancers, using English as a means to learn while having fun.
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