The aphorism says a “thin line” divides love and hate, but in fact they operate more like two circles in a Venn diagram with a thin sliver of overlap. All of the short stories in Rajesh Parameswaran’s collection I Am an Executioner: Love Stories live in that borderland where love and hate intersect. His stories aren’t “love stories” so much as grotesques.
Whether by Parameswaran’s design, or by the design of his editor or marketing team, the book’s subtitle seems designed to lull the reader into a false sense of security, which the first story smashes into smithereens. Narrated by a Bengal tiger, the story “The Infamous Bengal Ming” begins with the protagonist in a zoo, falling in love with his caretaker, and ends with the escaped tiger eating the flesh of an infant he accidentally killed. Killed, or perhaps murdered, because the voice of the tiger, while completely animal, is at the same time completely human.
“The Infamous Bengal Ming” is a fantastic story, and it is also the collection’s starting gun. From there, Parameswaran tells one horror-love story after the next, building tension in some stories just by describing the mundane circumstances of everyday life and the desperate terrible ways his characters try to escape those circumstances, always to a bad end. Spouses die, as do innocent bystanders, elephant mothers, and jailed criminals. The body count is alarmingly high; the deaths are often gruesome. Characters who don’t die often suffer a spiritual death, or drop off the face of the earth, or experience the quiet death of social restriction.
Parameswaran stories spring from an incredibly diverse group of characters, including men and women, who are often but not exclusively Indian American, as well as tigers, elephants, and bug-like alien creatures reminiscent of (though less sexualized than) the Khepri species from science fiction writer China Mieville’s fictional world Bas-Lag. Parameswaran deftly blends genres in this collection: any sci-fi fan who reads Parameswaran’s story “On the Banks of the Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319),” featuring the bug-ish aliens, will immediately yearn for a novel or three set on Lucina. No creature, human or animal or alien, escapes the terrible consequences of falling in love.
The collection, strong overall, suffers from two weak spots. The title story, “I Am an Executioner,” follows a man living in an eerily familiar but unnamed country, who is tasked with executing death row criminals and burdened by an unhappy wife who he met on the internet (and romanced under false pretenses). Parameswaran wrote the story from a very close first person perspective, a style that is often called “voicey” because the language used to build the story is not supposed to be understood as the voice of the author, but the direct thoughts of the character. Unfortunately, the voicey voice of “I Am an Executioner” begins to annoy long before the story concludes.“Bibhutibhushan Mallik’s Final Storyboard,” set in the place where the Indian film world and Hollywood intersect, fails to rise to the level of the other stories in the collection, and doesn’t deliver the same punch to the stomach.
The other eight stories are phenomenal. In “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan,” marital deception and suburban malice culminate in a scene of body horror rivaling David Cronenberg’s best films (think Dead Ringers). The multilayered, footnoted story “Elephants in Captivity (Part One)” perfectly balances the dual narratives of a female elephant once wild, then zooed, then escaped, and a man translating the autobiography she wrote shortly before death. We also catch up with the Bengal Ming from the first story, who was evidently captured and returned to the zoo. All animals in Parameswaran’s fictional zoos escape, only to die or be captured and sent back.
Tellingly, the book opens with the voice of a tiger and ends with the voice of an insect alien, sandwiching the familiar human perspectives in between. Many readers may easily accept the dark parts of love in humans, but spreading them outward, to the Earth’s other species and to alien futures, creates an overwhelming sense of inevitability.
In Parameswaran’s world, love is a cage, love stories are the descriptions of those cages, and there is no escape from them.