Exquisite Cadavers – Meena Kandasamy

“All words are hideously poor shadows for the price that is being paid with lives”, Meena Kandasamy writes as the last line of her acknowledgements and I sit here, miles away reconsidering them, juxtaposing them, and finally understanding them. 

I am also miles away from Delhi that has been submerged in anti-Muslim riots for the past 3 days and UP that has been so for over 2 months. I am always dumbfounded when literature that reflects and contextualizes my reality somehow falls into my hands. The blurb of the book is brief. Paraphrased it says that the book is about a couple that navigates love in London while being connoisseurs of cinema and quarrels.  

This book is an ode to the dichotomy of suffering, of living political upheaval and not having the words to be able to express or make art of it. I have wanted to find the words myself to be able to talk about the times we are witnessing, but all my words have turned into SOS messages, short captions that yearn to educate and amplify. To say that my words fall short against the unending cruelty of our collective reality is an understatement.  

Meena Kandasamy starts off similarly but she has the words, and she has found the form. What enthralls me about this book is the constant fictional storyline juxtaposed in the margins with the author’s reality. The book is physically divided into the main fictional story and a margin on the other side of which the author puts down her thoughts, making for a unique format of writing as well as a unique reading experience. At any given time, she is using theme and form to delve into this couple’s relationship, while simultaneously equating or explaining the inspiration through the excerpts of oppression that she has witnessed as being Indian.  

The book effortlessly halves itself to be able to shelter these realities. I was as taken by Karim and Maya, Maya and Karim as I was with Kandasamy’s thought process. All the lines that I highlighted in this book want to come to life in this review but that would be much of the book.  

Representing the state of a marriage through the objects of the household, to describe characters through the cinema they consume and interact with, to understanding them through their racial identities, and ultimately the political upheaval that is life and nation – these are the myriad of themes and forms that Meena Kandasamy spins masterfully to bring to life Karim and Maya.  

While in the margins – “Self-flagellation becomes a default mode of feeling. I’m Marxist, my concerns and my solidarity align with the oppressed and the exploited. And yet, creating art under capitalism, I sit here, playing with form, with format, with fonts. All of my frivolous, fanciful play is the class struggle taking a make-up break. Such indulgence, such decadence when my country of birth has been taken over by Hindu fascists baying for blood, when the country of my second life is on a suicidal mission (A for austerity, B for Brexit…)”. 

Karim of Maya’s imaginings puts it succinctly when he is able to bring the book together and says, “Death in Tunisia (a place of conflict) wears two faces: It is out in the open, imminent and inevitable, or it remains invisible… the dead give rise to the new, in their gruesome end they allow a society to break free. It is on the corpses of these martyrs that change comes about”. 

And Meena Kandasamy in the margins upholds that as she says, “Even if all the hate around us comes undone, what will become of those who were killed? They will never be brought back to life. And if we do nothing to challenge this atmosphere of hate, they will have died in vain. Their inert corpses will mock and mock our inaction”. 

Exquisite Cadavers is an intensive exploration of life in all its conflicts, far from being depressive, it is able to rally the readers thoughts because of the author’s ability to think out loud and find these very issues even in her fiction.