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Notes from a bad year: Review of Meena Kandasamy’s ‘Exquisite Cadavers’

Image: Getty Images/ iStock

Image: Getty Images/ iStock  

Giving us a story as well as the process of creating it, this novella is a brave experiment. But it does not always succeed

An invention by the French surrealists, exquisite cadavers refers to a game in which words are assembled into a piece of writing by each player in turn. Playing on this technique in her new novel, Exquisite Cadavers, Meena Kandasamy gives importance to both the story and her process.

This may be a slim book, but she manages to pack in two powerful stories. This is as much a book about the personal as it is about the political; about Britain and Tunisia as it is about India; and about Maya and Karim as it is about Kandasamy.

Far removed

Exquisite Cadavers is a brave experiment. Every page is divided into columns. One contains the story of an interracial and intercultural young couple, Maya and Karim, who are British and Tunisian, journalist and filmmaker, in love and forever quarrelling. The second, in smaller font, contains Kandasamy’s own notes, the raw material she dips into to create characters and shape their anxieties and world views.

Kandasamy provides no guidance on how to navigate the book. You can read an entire chapter and then the marginalia or both simultaneously or, as I did, the whole story at one go and then her notes.

The book is a reaction to the response to her previous novel, When I Hit You. Annoyed at being bracketed, at reviewers calling that book a memoir though she insists it’s a novel, Kandasamy decides that this time she will “create characters as far removed as possible from my own life”. She writes:

“The reception enforced my perception that, to a Western audience, writers like me are interesting because

-we are from a place where horri

ble things happen, or,

-horrible things have happened to

us, or,

-a combination of the above.

No one discusses process with us.

No one treats us as writers,

only as diarists who survived.”

About others

And so Kandasamy is determined that Exquisite Cadavers will be a story about others, and she will discuss her process with us. Initially distracting and at places self-involved, the marginalia slowly grew on me. But the question on reading both the columns is: how successful is Kandasamy in keeping Maya and Karim’s story detached from her own? Where do their lives, worries and anger end and hers begin?

Notes from a bad year: Review of Meena Kandasamy’s ‘Exquisite Cadavers’

Kandasamy situates the couple first in their home in London, a closed space and therefore a breeding ground for arguments. This allows her to dissect their personalities and reveal their faults. Maya and Karim are equally watchful of each other. They share a passion for films. Karim feels “he learns more about his wife from watching her watch a screen than from any joint therapy session or remedial holiday”. In the notes, Kandasamy writes about her old marriage when she observed, in fear, her violent husband watch the same three films over and over again. She also read the films to read him.

Fact and fiction

Karim, like Kandasamy, also carries the burden of expectations of a Western audience. Kandasamy makes Maya “relatable to the British readers” by stealing a “little of every Englishwoman” she sees. Karim realises as a student pursuing a course in film studies that “an immigrant can be sad, hopeless, embittered, lost or angry — never articulate”. All his suggestions on making films on extremism are shot down, and the rejections passed off as concern for his well-being. He wants to make films about the Islamic State, but they say “interest in extremism is itself a sign of being attracted to radicalism”. Why can’t he make a film about the hijab, they ask.

The concern for Karim at his workplace takes the shape of curiosity in social gatherings. Maya tackles the loaded statements and the questions about Karim’s family and home. Is he fitting in? Does he have many wives? Does she know what she is doing? Being under the scanner shatters her sense of self; the Islamophobia is so deep-rooted that she finds herself trapped while trying to escape. Slowly, Maya’s concerns become her concerns, says Kandasamy. She makes Maya pregnant, just as she was while writing the book.

Towards the end, when Karim suddenly takes off to Tunisia leaving Maya to make a difficult choice, Kandasamy’s own notes on her life and family and the horrors playing out in India disappear. Fact and fiction seep into each other. Maya tells Karim about filmmaking: “You don’t have to play to the stereotype. They want you to interrogate your identity, use that as a weapon to interrogate them... Dress it up in the cloak of high art.” Kandasamy does just that.

Filled with insight, wry humour and uncomfortable observations, Kandasamy’s work is a clever little rebuttal. I found the format interesting, but her notes heavy-handed in parts (the chapter titled “A Good Man is Hard to Keep” especially) and veering off in different directions. However, as a novella, Exquisite Cadavers manages to grip as well as rattle.

Exquisite Cadavers; Meena Kandasamy, Context. ₹399

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 3:00:27 PM |

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