Kuzhali Manickavel: New absurdist fiction from India

  • Books
  • Friday, 12 Jun 2015

Kuzhali Manickavels collection of short fiction explores weighty issues like poverty and womens issues with dry wit. Photo: EPA/Piyal Adhikary

Things We Found During The Autopsy

Author: Kuzhali Manickavel

Publisher: Blaft Publications

I first experienced Kuzhali Manickavel’s unique voice when I found her blog with its unforgettable URL, thirdworldghettovampire.blogspot.com. Dry, funny, and committed to the absurd, Manickavel is an Indian-Tamil writer who was born in Winnipeg, Canada, and who moved to Tamil Nadu, India, in her teens.

Her debut collection of stories, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings (2008) was as bizarre and exceptional as the title suggests.

Her second collection, Things We Found During The Autopsy, was released late last year by the same Indian publisher, Blaft Publications, that brought out her first collection. Blaft is known for publishing graphic novels and English translations of Tamil pulp fiction, among others. Manickavel’s work is a good fit there, as she writes undefinable fiction that commonly falls under the label speculative (or just plain weird) fiction.

Manickavel’s stories are largely irreverent, with a fine-tuned appreciation for the mundane made exceptional through absurd characters and situations. This irreverence, though, is undercut by a sense of melancholy in this second collection, as the book opens with “The Whore Raft” that brings several uncomfortable themes to the surface: the lives of labourers made disposable during a natural disaster like a flood, even more so when they’re marginalised women who sell sex for a living.

Manickavel juxtaposes the comic horror of a raft made of whores being hit by emergency supplies like tins of Spam with lines like these: “Four more whores were hit with Spam tins and pried off of the raft – two of them sank, while one floated away, kicking her feet furiously like she thought she could survive and live a good life somewhere else. One whore clung to the raft and we had to beat her off with Clubfoot’s brace.”

The reader’s point of view is mediated by a bland-voiced narrator who is on this raft made of sex workers, watching the cruelty meted out to them with a detached sensibility while seemingly utterly unaware of his/her complicity. Reading this while Asean governments recently played pass-the-buck with the lives of Rohingya refugees on sinking ships made the story all the more chilling.

Things We Found During The Autopsy

The other stories tend to be similarly weighted by themes heavy and dark even while the narrative tone is deceptively dry or profane. Lost women and the banal cruelties of living under a patriarchal society are explored in stories like “Jugni” and “The Decline And Fall Of Western Dance In A South Indian’s Women’s College”.

“How To Wear An Indian Village” is flash fiction that is searing in its ability to highlight how much of tourism in India is centred on “poverty tourism”, an imported mindset that is circulated among the Indian upper-classes, as well. “Boys Like That” and “Tar Heroin Guide” focus on men who have trouble living in a society in which fitting into gender norms is paramount.

Manickavel’s stories are full of misfits. These are not realist tales about well-adjusted people living, or attempting to live, an aspirational “good life”. It’s about people almost falling through cracks and reproducing the cruelties they’ve become used to and perhaps internalised.

There are 45 stories in this book and most showcase experiments with style in a structured prose format, but some are so slight as to be unmemorable filler material that drags down an otherwise solid collection.

The “Tropicool Icy-Land Urban Indian Slum” is a themed series of five stories that revolve around an “urban” Indian slum of labouring IT workers, dead whales, and rampaging penguins. One of the linked stories is absolutely brilliant in concept: about the spirit-entities trapped inside one of the professional young women working in this transnational capitalist nightmare of modern India; but there’s also one, an allegory about modern Indian politics, that doesn’t lead anywhere.

Things We Found During The Autopsy can sometimes be maudlin, and one feels that even Manickavel tires of the whimsy and the weird and gives in to flashes of nihilism. However, it is precisely this tension, between whimsy and nihilism, common to most stories categorised as weird fiction that produces a compelling reading experience. It is the kind of fiction that refuses to be boxed into categories and made to stand for anything.

Reading Manickavel’s stories is a discomfiting experience, but perhaps a necessary one for it refuses to let the reader become complacent. Her stories push the reader towards the edge of rationality and logic, but always with an eye towards the cruelties of our lives in this world. What’s truly weird and absurd is what most people refuse to see in front of them.

For readers interested in challenging speculative fiction that doesn’t turn away from contemporary political and cultural concerns but attempts to face them squarely, Things We Found During The Autopsy will be an unforgettable experience.

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