Book review: 'Exquisite Cadavers' - An artist’s world view

Meena Kandasamy’s new book, Exquisite Cadavers highlights her authorial string with fluttering flags, showing us explicitly the factors that orient her kite of a story. 
Exquisite Cadavers
Exquisite Cadavers

Fiction is a kite. We see a story soar, complete and beautiful, up in the air. The author holds the strings, controlling its flow and direction, invisible in the background, and we think the kite is a bird, flying of its own volition. 

Not so Meena Kandasamy’s new book, Exquisite Cadavers. Here, Kandasamy highlights her authorial string with fluttering flags, showing us explicitly the factors that orient her kite of a story. 

She does this by writing her book in two parallel columns. On the right is the story of Maya and Karim, a couple living in London. Karim is a filmmaker, originally from Tunis, torn between his own artistic instincts and the societal expectation to represent Northern Africa in his work. Maya is of mixed heritage, though London is her home.

In successive chapters, Kandasamy goes into detail about how they negotiate societal expectations and cultural norms, working on understanding each other. She states her aim upfront: to not turn Maya or Karim into herself or her husband, but use a few of her own fragments of world view to inform them. 

How do we know what those fragments of world view are? Kandasamy lists them out in the parallel left column of the book.

For example, when the story talks of Karim using his memories of western movies to understand Maya (a western woman from his POV), Kandasamy is describing her own movie experiences in her traditional family.

When Maya is questioned for her choice of life partner, Kandasamy is recalling racist television reporting and family discussions about diverse marriages and reactions to ‘the other’. Kandasamy herself is torn between settling into London and reacting to events in India, with the rise of communalism and the Hindu right-wing. And so on. It is a complex tapestry that Kandasamy spins, with the influences often far-reaching and diverse, distilled down into a single sentence or throwaway fact about her protagonists. 

As the book proceeds, it’s apparent that Kandasamy is deeply hurt and angry about the direction her country is taking.

She personally knows a few activists targeted by the Indian government for their stance. As a writer, she channels her worry into her book, into Karim’s decision to return to Tunisia, and into Maya’s eventual understanding and sympathy for him.

At some point, she is simply so overwhelmed with the state of affairs that she just lists out all of the outrages perpetrated in recent times, allowing Karim to take the decision she herself would find reasonable in response.

Exquisite Cadavers is a viewport into the relationship between a creative artist’s world and her work. It’s also a reminder that what affects one of us, affects all of us.

Exquisite Cadavers
By: Meena Kandasamy
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Pages: 112
Price: Rs 399

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