Looking for and finding the answers to ‘What to write and about who?’ in Meena Kandasamy’s ‘Exquisite Cadavers’
By Krupa Ge
Over the course of a stringent Covid-19 lockdown in Madras, I was playing catch up with an unending news cycle, which, let’s face it, was just the ceaseless chatter of my Twitter timeline. First, the news. Then, my reaction to the news. Then, reactions of others to the news and mine to theirs, so on and so forth.
New horrors are birthed here every day and yet all days feel the same. As if I am stuck in that film Groundhog Day.
In the midst of this China-Ladakh-Nepal, Sachin-Gehlot news cycle, I still see calls for donations to migrant workers who walked back home. Calls for donations to those in cyclone-hit parts of India needing money to repair their homes; and calls for donations to those migrant workers who are urgently looking to go to these cyclone-hit areas where their homes have come crashing. There’s a flood in the North-Eastern part of India, that the Delhi media does not care about.
I scroll further down. I read about Kashmir. Come August, it will be a year since (that word I have come to hate) the abrogation of Article 370.
Then about the Bhima Koregaon 11. About Varavara Rao’s declining health. Kafeel Khan’s incarceration.
I am soon staring at the number of Covid-19 deaths rising across India. There are no hospital beds in my own city. A man who posted a video saying so had a case slapped on himself by the government. For saying so.
I receive a phone call. It is feedback on fiction I am working on. I scribble it all down. Making a mind map.
Trying to (re)write while the world is being undone feels like denial. Like cowardice. Like going to war with ants in your kitchen, while a mob burns down your neighbourhood. And here I am, staring at the prospect of rewriting an eight-year-old manuscript.
I can’t write. And I can’t think. So, I read.
Meena Kandasamy’s Exquisite Cadavers in half a day.
Exquisite Cadavers is an inventive novella that compresses what feels like years into the margins of a book, while unfurling a story at the heart of which is the question, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’
In response to readers and reviewers, constantly misrepresenting her previous work as a memoir when in fact it was a work of fiction, Meena, in this new work, splits each page into two; to help the reader separate her and her life, from that of her protagonists’. She lets us in even on research; on the making of Maya and Karim of this book. And shows us how different from them she and her partner Cedric are.
Exquisite Cadavers is novelty, not just in the ‘look here’s something new’ way. It is cool in the real sense. Meena’s playful explosion of routine and form until you can no longer separate the story from the form itself is not new. She is among this generation’s most original authorial voices, especially in fiction.
I find Exquisite Cadavers appealing, urgent, not only for the contents of what’s in the margins, the things plaguing India now (religious fundamentalism, violent subjugation of dissent) but also, for the concerns of the writer; who’s coming to terms with what she is writing; removed from the violence that’s threatening to undo India. She is writing about it. Yet she isn’t.
I want to be the ideal reader and say that there are no parallels between what’s going on in the margins and the ‘main’ story in Exquisite Cadavers. This is where Meena’s craft challenges the reader. She’s indulging in a duel, daring you. A pregnancy in the margin, for instance, spills over to the main story. As do the cadavers of still-born films. Stories of immigrants.
Maya and Karim’s story in Exquisite Cadavers is one of love, and nerves. Karim isn’t even afforded the luxury of a joke, as an immigrant in a London that’s staring at Brexit. (When he jokes that he’ll work on a dissertation on the camel as a cultural trope, he’s taken seriously.) He cannot pursue a serious narrative for his documentary film. He can go only so far as tokenism can afford. By writing about these first world people, Meena too is challenging the boundaries of what and who she can write about.
As an experiment, Exquisite Cadavers is successful. Very. But it would be wrong to think of it as just that. An experiment.
It can come as a balm to you, if you’re like me, feeling helpless about the unimaginable torments others around you are grappling with, while trying to “work”. It is most effective as a novella that successfully builds and collapses an entire world within its thin pages. It is full of fun wordplay, littered with the metaphors of a poet’s eye.
When I’m done with the novella, I go back to the news. To read. About more people staring at difficult days. I’ll write another day, I think. Now, I’ll read. I’ll really see.
Krupa Ge is a writer and editor from Madras. She is the author of ‘Rivers Remember’ (Context, 2019), on Chennai’s 2015 floods. Find her at www.krupage.com.