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The other woman - Deccan Herald
The other woman
Shreekumar Varma,
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The woman who went looking for love, and fell into a bad relationship, beaten and taunted by her husband, virtually made prisoner in the brightly named Primrose Villa; the woman who made herself smaller and smaller to avoid unpleasantness and pain, and to keep the status quo at the most tolerable levels; the one who can't convince her parents to see what's happening to her, who can't reach out to her friends because they've been effectively cut off. The death of individuality, the death of pride, and the fear of death.

And then there is the other woman. The poet. The one with the words. Who painstakingly chronicles the pain and patient waiting out that's the lot of a woman of strength who cannot show strength. "Words give birth to another woman." Behind the words is a body roughened by work, abuse and suffering, a mind too timid to tell its story.

Meena Kandasamy's protagonist survives only because she's a poet. Her story survives only because she's a poet. But, during the course of her ordeal, she becomes a careful strategist, spy and observer, a detective watching the patterns and habits of her husband, his weaknesses, so she can strike when she's ready. He is a Marxist - a survivor - whose social theories rarely fit into their domestic life. And, beyond the pages of this story, he is still at it, still at large, getting his own way, championing causes. Even while the ghosts of his terror continue to haunt his wife; the poet fighting court battles, the woman dealing with scandal-mongering relatives and acquaintances.

She writes a series of letters to a lover, letters that will never be read by another. Her "thought-crimes" will never be discovered, because she will delete them before her husband returns home each day. She surrenders her individuality, her persona to him, succumbing to the weight of his words and his hand. He gets her passwords from her and replies to her letters, he becomes her voice to the outside world.

Not many people can imagine what it is to be in captivity, to be uncertain of the future, to be filled with fear and dread, to lose all touch with the familiar, and yield to the phantoms of the mind, to dread each day, to not know.

Being hit by her man is not an end in itself. She cannot tell herself, 'okay, so this is as much as he'll go'. The tormentor will think up newer and more painful ways of torment; that's how he retains his role as tormentor. The only way is to be cunning, and to devise a counter-strategy that will get her out of here. The catch is, if she leaves, she should have good reasons that will satisfy her parents, relatives and neighbours. And the only reason that will work is that she feared for her life. To drive him to that point, she uses doses of courage borrowed from the 'other woman', the strength gained from weeks of painful experience, the clever scripting of an invisible strategy that will take him by surprise.

This is probably among Meena Kandasamy's best writing, because the poet works on so much that comes from the painfully personal. The poet who can sense and feel and empathise. The wife is too traumatised to speak out, but the poet absorbs it all like blotting paper and makes us feel the red of suffering, even as she puts out her points with prismatic intellectualism, and confronts precarious situations with humour and a deep sense of irony.

After going through a variety of lovers in Kerala (categorised with characteristic poetic humour), she falls in love with a politician, about double her age. Theirs is the ideal love story, intense yet distant, complete but secret. But then, "secrecy is cancerous - it begins to eat us from the inside." Their passion lights up even in his office, but "in the presence of a third person, his love is programmed to self-destruct." Their arguments are intellectual and full of words and detail. In the play of dialectics, romance suffocates. "Love is not blind," she writes, "it just looks in the wrong places."

And then comes the man in the book.

"In the marriage in which I am beaten, he is the poet. And one of his opening lines of verse reads: "When I hit you, Comrade Lenin weeps." "I cry, he chronicles. The institution of marriage creates its own division of labour."

It's difficult not to react when a poet weeps. Enveloped by the mundane as we are - as she is, having to offer reasons, to explain, to justify herself, even as the man is sunning himself - only the words of a poet can touch us where we need to be touched. From one woman's tale of pain, the story rises to become a legend, making every male reader uncomfortable.

When I Hit You

Meena Kandasamy


2017, pp 249, Rs 599