Nine very strange stories could change the channels of a long literary legacy. Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut collection asks whether to be, is human, says Aditi Saxton
THE SHORTCOMINGS of the short story are long-listed whenever an author attempts the form and doesn’t quite measure up. Paucity of detail, incomplete character arcs, unspecific space and time and a scanty scope are common causes for readers feeling short-changed. Rajesh Parameswaran’s first book I am an Executioner– Love Stories flips the kill switch on genre critics. It is everywhere, thinking about everything, and even in its gaps, there is a notion that nags, as Elie Wiesel put it, “of a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them.”
The final story ‘On the Banks of Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319)’ is a sweetly told, but deeply difficult deliberation on whether our being is enclosed in our begetting. Procreation as a justification for life is a pedigreed debate, and placing it on a galaxy far, far away brings our own uncertainties closer home. A troubled yet proud father of a pubescent girl — genders only loosely ascribed — struggles to shield a child buffeted by unprecedented change. The recent arrival of humans on Planet Lucina is exciting, unsettling. Instead of applying her talents to the family business, young Nippima chooses to give human tourists joy rides as a local guide. She blooms and then wilts under their relentless gaze. It feels natural for Nippima’s Ka, helpless in her flux, to think back to his last moment of control — the birth of his beloved baby. This is an economy Parameswaran uses liberally. He lets our own renderings of relationships create empathy, even explain characters, while he hoards his words to highlight differences between them and us.
There is a nice sense of bookended balance in revisiting Nippima’s birth, since her Ka is a mortician offering funerary services reminiscent of embalming. Now the easy assumptions begin to bite back. The traditions of death on Lucina are vaguely comforting in their atavism. Its processes of birth are shocking in their savagery. The revoltingly riveting ritual of praying mantises mating is immediately and specifically evoked, without any actual allusion, like that Danish Elephant trick. And with it comes a realisation of our boundless bigotry in containing the universe. With de minimis visual cues — wings, feelers, multiple limbs and a technicoloured torso — we’re seduced into reducing these thinking, feeling creatures to insects. Wait, what were we supposed to think? Did that swift sleight swindle us of our sympathy or did it rip the scales from our eyes? Here is Parameswaran’s central, cerebral theme — the corporeal is connected to consciousness. That ‘we’ (however you choose to use that collective pronoun) are not the sole claimants to an elevated moral awareness, the author reveals through recondite reality, through story-allegory.
Parameswaran doesn’t wait till the end to tip his hand, but builds to crescendo. An invitation to inhabit other skins opens the book, with a runaway, captive-bred tiger, ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’ whose physicality is paw-pressed onto the prose. Parameswaran’s language is pliant to plot. Besotted by his keeper, the tiger’s speech is as endearing as the precocious pre-teen in the film Love Actually, who plaintively asked if there was anything worse “than the total agony of being in love”.
But as the tiger chases its tale, the round differences grow dizzying. Upset by the cries of a human infant, he tells us, “opened my mouth wide and took its whole head, gently, inside my own mouth, and in this way, I picked it up again. There!” The sentences that follow, each tender in its description of ministrations to the human cub, soothing and lulling in its language, induce a gagging nausea for the baby’s fate. And then, as the tiger returns to a state of nature in the carefully manufactured city periphery, it all gets to be sad and silly and, surprisingly, funny. The zoo is home, suburbia is wild, and the hungry tiger just chomped on a child. Humour trumps horror, and it’s tough to see how it was done, but proof that Parameswaran is crafting a grand illusion, not playing a series of cheap tricks.
An Indian tendency to gratuitously appropriate immigrants with tenuous bonds to the motherland can get grating, but Parameswaran is at least a legit literary legation. The ‘Four Rajeshes’ is so very archly South Indian in style and story, ‘The Strange Career of Dr Raju Gopalarajan’ is keen Indian immigrant ambition hacking its own path and ‘Demons’, a stern warning on carrying the baggage of Indian superstitions you didn’t pack yourself. Though Parameswaran’s referents are specific, his readings range wide. Spot Kafka in the frightening report of the secret agent turned witness against herself, and Nabokov in every one of the deranged, unstable or inhuman narrators that you cannot trust, but as the sub-title of the book urges, you learn to love.
Parameswaran recesses big questions into oddities of dialogue and perspective, like little wormholes to slip into and ruminate humanity
MIDWAY THROUGH, the title of the title story, ‘I am an Executioner’ throws out a blunt declaration of identity. A familiar pidgin of “Why she did like that”, “Then she smiled me” give a jostling ease to the no-name, no-nation narrator, coaxing us away from the strong assertion of his profession. It seems an unlikely job for a likeable man. We’re matter-of-fact about him being an executioner, not only because he is, but also because that’s how we expect someone of a certain station to be. That we settled upon his class and circumscribed his thoughts through his speech tics only clicks later. Parameswaran does this exceptionally well, recessing big questions into oddities of dialogue and perspective. An unpredictable constant, it’s like having little wormholes to slip into and ruminate humanity before being slapped out by the sharp turns of the plot. Initially a catalogue of troubles with a new wife, the amusing, if banal telling, soon devolves into a distressing darkness, still couched in the same cute, conditioned patois — “She did not bend or cower me, like my first wife had did.” The latest death-row charge, a little girl, possibly a political prisoner, is a grim parenthesis in the executioner’s own easy statement of his occupation.
His most awful aspect is not that “not many people are capable of pursuing such unpleasant work day after day with alacrity” as his semi-annual psychologic review says. It is that he is capable of ideas. One especially has him in its grip, about words having an eternal life. And so he utters a sick secret, too twisted to share, into doomed ears. “Was my words still here? Where my words went?… A moment in the ear, a moment in the brain, and then the brain become smashed. What is the effects of it after all?” It’s one of those queasy-making moments of good literature, when entering the thoughts of a murderer or a paedophile, you find they echo your own. How far can understanding extend to this stilted, off-kilter personage, revelling in a dead-end job, so much like us but not the same? All nine stories hinge on that question. And Parameswaran in showing us how to see teaches us a little something on how to be.
Aditi Saxton is Editor, Features with Tehelka.