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Read a gripping extract from Meena Kandasamy’s new novel, When I Hit You. It will make you pause, and wonder at how insidious domestic violence can be.
We are in the kitchen, having coffee.
He lights a match, brings it to his bare left elbow, extinguishes it against his skin. I smile nervously. Then another match is lit.
‘What kind of party trick is that?’ I ask.
‘Are you listening?’
Another lit match. Another self-inflicted ordeal.
I do not get the joke.
‘So, I have your attention.’
His head tilted to the right. He is staring at me intensely.
‘Yes, sir’ – I’m tempted to say, but I don’t.
‘Yes. Of course I’m listening. You don’t have to burn yourself, for god’s sake.’
‘Come off Facebook.’
‘I heard you the first time. But why the hell?’
‘I’m going to keep doing this until you see my point.’
‘Darling, please cool down. What’s your point? What have you got against Facebook?’
‘There is no reason why you should be on Facebook. It’s narcissism. It’s exhibitionism. It’s a waste of time. I’ve said this to you a thousand times. It’s merely you voluntarily feeding information straight to the CIA, to the RAW, to the IB, to everyone who is hounding my life. Every fucking thing is being monitored. Your life may be a peep show, but I’m a revolutionary. I cannot let you endanger me. We’ve had this argument so often that I’ve lost count. I’m not going to repeat everything I’ve said.’
I could smell the match heads and the burnt hair.
‘This is plain and simple blackmail. I’m not going to do anything if you blackmail me.’
‘I don’t have to tell you what to do. You’re pushing me into this corner where I’m forced to tell you what’s good for you and what is not.’
‘If you put the matches down, we can talk about Facebook.’
‘If you love me, this is the quickest way you will make up your mind.’
For a split second, I think about taking a matchstick and burning my own skin. His aim is to make me suffer for his pain; I do not want to suffer two-fold by inflicting this bizarre punishment on myself. Another matchstick is lit and put out. And another and another. I’ve stopped counting. It almost makes me feel that he is enjoying himself.
As distressed as I am, there’s a part of me wanting to laugh. This elaborate ruse of revolution being roped in. This standard, textbook mention of the CIA and the home-grown RAW to frighten me. To laugh at my husband would mean that I humiliate him, the consequences of which would be far worse than the matchstick pyrotechnical performance. To reason with him will lead to a long, interminable fight, a war of attrition that would exhaust me into defeat.
I look at him, deciding what I should do next. Now the lit matches are being extinguished on the inside of his left forearm, each leaving a tiny red welt on the skin. He doesn’t look up at me, he doesn’t say a word, and that in itself scares me. He has the defiant eyes of a man who is in no mood to give up. I do not know where this will end.
In the next ten minutes, I deactivate my Facebook account.
It is my lifeline to the world outside. Since moving to Mangalore, Facebook has transformed into my only remaining professional link. Here, I do not have the circle of artist friends I had in Kerala, I do not have the family networks that I had in Chennai. In this isolation, Facebook helps me promote my work, gives me news, keeps me in the loop of the literary scene, allows me to have an online presence which is pivotal if I do not want to be forgotten in a freelance world. My husband is not unaware of this. He knows that my being a writer involves being at the mercy of others, being visible, being remembered at the right time so that someone throws an opportunity my way. In my precarious situation, when he wants me to cut myself off from Facebook, I know that it is an act of career suicide. Right now, arguing with him will not get me anywhere. I simply count myself lucky that he asks me only to ‘deactivate’ and not actually delete my Facebook account.
To save face, and to explain the sudden departure, I put up my last status message, telling the world that I’m busy with a writing project, that I need time for myself, that this is going to be a long hiatus.
My abrupt disappearance from Facebook is the first of several stages. The same week, he writes down his email password and gives it to me.
‘You can have this.’
‘I do not need it.’
‘I trust you.’
‘Do you trust me?’
‘I do. So?’
‘Do you trust me enough to share your passwords?’
‘I have never shared my passwords with anyone.’
‘So, you are hiding something?’
‘How would I know?’
‘By believing me.’
‘How would I believe you if you don’t trust me?’
‘Because I have nothing to hide.’
This argument is endless, it keeps moving in circles, a snake eating its own tail. At the moment, the only way of proving myself means writing down all my passwords. My hot tears burn my cheeks, but I resolutely buy myself an uneasy peace. I write down my passwords.
The camel’s nose has just entered the tent.
A month into the marriage, I find that he has answered some of my emails.
‘I can handle my own messages, I never asked you to do this.’
He does not defend himself. He does not argue. He whistles a tune, continues to fiddle with his computer.
‘Come here, my little one, come here,’ he says. The taunt in his voice is like the slime in a deep, old well – glinting, slippery, deathly.
He opens his own inbox and shows me that he has been replying to his emails by signing both our names at the end of every message. I find that my name has been co-signed in letters to students, in group emails to his activist friends, in making book recommendations to his colleagues, in querying for a postcolonial studies research conference, for all sundry little shit. I feel nauseous. I feel robbed of my identity. I’m no longer myself if another person can so easily claim to be me, pretend to be me, and assume my life while we live under the same roof.
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