Editorial:Even if you’ve been hit just once

The other day I saw a man speak very rudely to a woman at a supermarket. There were other people watching but that didn’t stop the man from being rude and mean to his wife. I couldn’t understand the language they spoke but their bodies and expressions spoke a lot louder than their words. In the end, when it looked like it was dying down, the woman grabbed the shopping cart jerkily and started to walk away. The husband, however, took that as an insult and raised his hand as if to hit her. Suddenly, becoming aware of his surroundings, he dropped his hand without striking and she, after flinching instinctively, walked away quickly, face red in embarrassment and, perhaps, rage.

This took me back to a place more than 10 years ago where I had gone to Rajasthani neighbour’s house. She had invited me over so I could get henna put on my hands, she specialized in it. There were other women and my turn finally came. Midway, her husband returned home and their toddler son went up to him for attention or whatever. He gave him a rude shove, the kid fell over, took it in his stride and ran around naked as he was doing before. And in five minutes, he went back to his father only to be rewarded by a slap across his face. The kid started bawling. The husband said something to his wife, even though his mother and sister were hanging around, about taking care of the kid. She, ‘modest’ in her veil, didn’t raise her head from what she was doing and said something quietly back. He responded. She kept quiet. In a burst of controlled temper, he walked up to her, took his slippers off and started beating her with one. To say that I was outraged and frozen in shock would be an understatement. Nothing prepares you for that. What was more horrifying is that this woman didn’t budge or raise her hand or cower to protect herself. She just sat there taking in the beating, not letting go of my hand on which she was giving way to her art. When he stopped and threw away his weapon in disgust and walked away, she mutely continued painting intricate designs on my hand. All I could see was the top of her head. And then, I saw silent tears of humiliation splashing her sari, wetting the soft cotton.

In an earlier relationship in my life, there were a couple of instances where I had been hit. I hit back too but it’s not half as effective when the guy is taller and stronger than you. Rage alone is not enough to do someone serious damage.

I grew up, like a lot of Indian kids, getting a sound smacking every once in a while. While my brother got it worse, I think, he now lives with having made complete peace with it. I, on the other hand, have never been able to do that. I believe a lot of the anger that still resides in me comes from there. I can’t quite tell. Maybe I am just discontent as a person, maybe I make excuses for my temper, I don’t know. But the truth is I have a pretty nasty temper. And on more than one stubborn occasion I’ve had to use a couple of hard smacks on my nearly-three-year old daughter (hands and legs only) to discipline or … dare I use the word… punish. I believe she’s a bit immune now and I worry seeing that. And it really hurts to see her flinch when I move suddenly in tense moments. And my brother, enlighteningly once said, “If physical abuse damaged you so much, then you wouldn’t as much touch your kid in a violent manner.” I felt chastised and saw he had a point. But then recently, it has dawned on me that it could have gone either way. Just like anything else – some people swear they’ll never beat their kids; others perpetrate the violence. As of now, unwittingly, I’ve chosen to do the latter.

Ever since this realization hit and I put my finger on my ill-inherited temper (my grandmum – who I love to bits – was a terror to my mum and her siblings. There are stories of her punishing them by placing a steel spatula heated over a flame on their legs, for lying to her) I have been looking at ways to change. And I lasted a good three weeks or more before the control broke and my daughter got a whack from me for scribbling all over the walls in my hall with crayons. She’s done it more times than I can count and I know all kids do it. But limits are limits. I’ve put her away in corners, not given her crayons for weeks, have spoken to her about it more times than I care to remember but nothing makes an impact. So I am left to assume that this bit of mischief holds so much wonder for her that she can’t resist. And at some point I may have killed some creative spirit but I hope not. If I have, I am not going to think about it now.

But I digress. In an earlier post, I said I much prefer a fist fight as a resolution to a problem than a silly cold war, if a confrontation and spilling of painful truths is not an option. It seems a bit immature but I find it the easiest way to get rid of all the negativity hanging around. When I wrote that post, I was convinced it was the way to go. But soon it began eating at me, and I wondered how someone with a brain and a thought process could prefer such a base way of dealing with things. How can someone who wants to get rid of the violence in her system prefer this way? How can someone who has an appreciation of beautiful things prefer this instinctual, violent way of handling a situation? I got no answers. I left it alone so that I could come to it later.

And today, while talking to someone, this whole violence thing came up and I was told, “If you’ve been hit more than a couple of times, by different people then it’s because it’s your fault.” I am a little offended. I know I drive people up the wall. I can be very exasperating, I’ve recently realised. But does that allow the blame to fall on my shoulders? (I use I and my in a general sense. I am talking about the person who is at the receiving end of any kind of domestic violence.)

Premeditated hitting is one thing, but can a person be faulted for the being hit in the heat of an argument? I don’t think so. No matter how annoying someone is, no matter how exasperating, domestic abuse is not the victim’s fault. Just like rape or molestation. So when this came from someone tremendously close, I was forced to examine exactly why the person was saying this. I see that sometimes people will snap but what is it that makes some people walk away from a situation and some hit back?

As a means of control, physical violence works. It builds tremendous resentment and hate in the victim, but over time, it is an effective way of getting instant obedience. Abused women have been known to snap after years of being beaten and kill their partners. Abused children have been known to develop problematic personalities. Recently, I was having this conversation with my really wise sister in law and she said she had never been beaten by her parents, or even yelled at. And for me that’s a miracle because she’s so well turned out – sorted, organised, patient, never has a mean word to say about anyone, gentle and kind. How, then, did her parents manage to discipline her? Soon, she went on to say that her elder sister now whacks her son once in a while when he gets completely out of hand. And my sister in law and her parents are amazed that she does it. “Where is that coming from,” she said aloud, completely lost for an answer.


Indeed, where does this natural violence come from? And how does one undo the damage it has caused?


Until next week.