Catch up with Rajesh Parameswaran, who was in India recently to promote his acclaimed short-story collection.
In Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut collection of love stories, I Am an Executioner, love is never a red, red rose. It is often perverse, expressed through death and brutality rather than tired metaphors. In ‘Demons’, for instance, a harassed immigrant housewife wishes harm to her husband, and comes to regret it after it comes true. In ‘The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan’, an ex-CompUSA employee takes up surgery illegally, only to find his wife on the tip of his errant scalpel.
This story, one of the three that won the National Magazine Award for Fiction in 2007, was prompted by reports in the media of people getting arrested for practising medicine without a license. “It just stunned me; there’s something so absurd and outrageous about that. I always wondered what kind of person would have the guts, the insanity and depravity to do something so beyond the pale. People might think it’s a ridiculous story but it happens a lot,” he says.
Beyond the pale is also a good way of describing the author’s approach. “I have often tried to write a strictly realistic story and I find that my mind wants to make it a little bit more outrageous and a little bit crazier and I realise that that’s what works for my writing,” says the writer, who counts Kafka, Poe and Melville among his influences.
Born in Chennai, Parameswaran moved to the U.S. as an infant and studied English literature in college. After stints in the film industry and the New York City Parks Department, he went to Yale Law School. It was here that he started writing seriously. “I had a moment of panic that it was now or never,” he recalls. Writing alongside his “various law-related jobs,” short stories seemed the pragmatic choice. “It fit my schedule and thinking at the time.”
Taken together, the stories in this volume constitute ‘love stories’ but, at the time of their being written, the author was not necessarily aware of their generic unity. “When I first started writing I was really determined not to force the stories to link in any way. I wanted to be free to experiment, to try new things with each story because that’s the only way I would grow and expand as a writer. At a certain point I started thinking ‘I have an accumulation of work here, may be this work is a book’, and I started looking back over the stories and saw that there was a definite theme. As much as you think that you are writing really far away from yourself there are certain preoccupations that any writer has that tend to show up in their works.”
The stories are rendered in a multiplicity of settings and voices. In ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’, a Bengal tiger, who can only express love for his zoo keeper by mauling him, goes off on an unintended killing spree. The tiger is the story’s unreliable narrator. In ‘Elephants in Captivity (Part One)’, Shanti, a circus elephant, describes the sad story of her youth in the wild.
“I think I have always been interested in the situation of zoos, and the poignancy of the zoo animal that doesn’t have the relationships it would have in the wild, but has this peculiar relationship with human beings, and how that might stand as a metaphor for relationships between people. I was interested in the idea of captivity, and what it might mean to be free. The movement from captivity to freedom is a theme in all of literature. It comes up in so many ways — from the Bible to slave narratives to political histories. So I think it’s just a very resonant and profound human theme and I am exploring its different aspects.”
Formally, some of these stories are as daring as their plots are inventive. In ‘The Narrative of Agent 97-4702’ — where a secret agent who spends her days observing a subject, discovers something about her work and society she isn’t meant to — some of the text is deliberately redacted. In ‘Elephants in Captivity…’, the story is bifurcated by elaborate footnotes, where another story seems to play out.
For the author, these are not gimmicks with which to attract attention. “For me the form of the story felt very personal and there was something emotionally urgent about it. I was trying to tell a story that was true to what I felt. I didn’t want to be constrained by the form of the story, I wanted to break out to make something that felt real and compelling to me and this was maybe a way of literalising that feeling,” he says.
Parameswaran is now busy writing a novel, navigating which has been equally exciting and challenging. “In a short story, every paragraph, every sentence has to be a part of the clockwork of the story. You don’t have a lot of space for digressions. With the novel, I was initially really excited to have the freedom to just go on and on, take digressions and come back. But then pulling all those tangles into a coherent weave becomes an enormous challenge.”
He is reluctant to part with more details. “It feels so fragile and inchoate; the more I talk about it the less energy I have to give to the novel itself. It’s like a flame that I have to guard.”