This is an excerpt from When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy. At once the chronicle of an abusive marriage and a celebration of the invincible power of art, WHEN I HIT YOU is a smart, fierce and courageous take on traditional wedlock in modern India. Read it for free on 17th October, 2021 at 7pm.
My mother has not stopped talking about it.
Five years have passed, and with each year, her story has mutated and transformed, most of the particulars forgotten, the sequence of events, the date of the month, the day of the week, the time of the year, the etcetera and the so on, until only the most absurd details remain.
So, when she begins to talk about the time that I ran away from my marriage because I was being routinely beaten and it had become unbearable and untenable for me to keep playing the role of the good Indian wife, she does not talk about the monster who was my husband, she does not talk about the violence, she does not even talk about the actual chain of events that led to my running away. That is not the kind of story you will be getting out of my mother, because my mother is a teacher, and a teacher knows that there is no reason to state the obvious. As a teacher, she also knows that to state the obvious is, in fact, a sure sign of stupidity.
When she tells the story of my escape, she talks of my feet. (Even when I’m around. Even when my feet are actually visible to her audience. Even when my toes curl in shame. Even when the truth is that my feet had no role in my escape, except to carry me a hundred yards at the most to the nearest auto-rickshaw. My mother seems oblivious to my embarrass- ment. In fact, I suspect she quite enjoys the spectacle.)
‘You should have seen her feet,’ she says. ‘Were they even feet? Were they the feet of my daughter? No! Her heels were cracked and her soles were twenty-five shades darker than the rest of her, and with one look at the state of her slippers you could tell that she did nothing but housework all the time. They were the feet of a slave.’
And then she beats her rounded mouth with her four fingers together and makes this sound that goes O O O O O. It is meant to convey that what happened was lamentable – indeed, should not really have happened at all. This is also the way Tamil mothers beat their mouths when they hear of the death of a cousin’s acquaintance by misadventure or the neighbour’s daughter’s elopement – signifying the appro- priate mix of sadness and shock, and, most importantly, disapproval.
Sometimes, when she is in a more relaxed mood, and feeling flush with tenderness for her husband of thirty-six years, she will say something along the lines of: ‘He is such a devoted father. You remember the time we had that trouble, and my daughter came back to us, with her feet looking like a prisoner’s, all blackened and cracked and scarred and dirt an inch thick around every toenail? He washed her feet with his own hands, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing them with hot water and salt and soap and an old toothbrush and applying cream and baby oil to clean and soften them. He would cry to me afterward. If this is the state of her feet, what must she have endured inside her? Her broken marriage broke my husband, too.’ But that is the kind of thing that she says only to close relatives, to family friends, and the few re- maining people who are still cordial to her even though she has a runaway daughter at home. That is about six and a half people in all of Chennai.