Saturday, July 28, 2012

Killing Us Softly

This appeared in today's edition of Mint Lounge.

I AM AN EXECUTIONER Rajesh Parameswaran

Reading Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut short story collection is like watching a skilled young Indian-American writer trying on various hats to ascertain which one fits best. There are a variety of styles on display in I Am an Executioner, matched with a variety of voices, each one crafted to make a distinct impression.

It’s initially tempting to play a game of spot-the-influence with this collection. Is that Kafka lurking behind the story of the secret agent stalking an unknown quarry? Is Robert Heinlein the animating force in the saga of an insect-like being on another planet observing the activity of human beings? Does Borges figure in the DNA of the tale in which a railway clerk from an earlier generation intrudes into the writing of his history? Is that Nabokov in the shadows of the annotated story about the elephant on a rampage? It’s tempting, yes, but self-defeating, too: this is a collection that demands to be judged on its own terms.

A more relevant measure would be to look at Parameswaran’s feat in terms of breaking out of what Korean-American writer Don Lee recently called “the ethnic literature box”. In an interview with Guernica magazine, Lee wondered when Asian American writers would “feel freer to slip away from writing about identity and ethnicity moving to whatever captures our fancy.” Examined through this lens, one sees that -- despite surface differences and whether intentional or not -- many of Parameswaran’s stories are about questioning identities and surviving in alien environments, in a manner far removed from those who have earlier written about ethnic dilemmas.

Consider the stories that feature Indians in America, to begin with. They stay clear of the usual stereotypes and clichés that such characters are prone to. (Look elsewhere for love affairs with ripe mangoes and homesickness for the lush monsoon season.) In one of the stories, a woman whose husband has collapsed and died in their living room tries to continue with her normal activities, unwilling to reject the speculation that it’s her own unworthy thoughts that have killed him. In another, a laid-off CompUSA employee sets up a private medical practice without prior experience, a move that will have chilling consequences. And in a third, an art director involved in an affair with the wife of an acclaimed Bengali film director attempts to direct his own movie for an American producer to find that he has a lot to learn about love and art.

It’s appropriate that the first story here is ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’, not only because it is the most striking, but also because many of its concerns resonate throughout the stories that follow. This takes us into the consciousness of a tiger who, escaping from a zoo, roams the city to discover that the only way he has to express love is by staying true to his instinct to maul. What we’d call victims are, for him, objects of affection. Here, then, is the collection’s keynote tenderness and savagery in equal measure, along with the writer’s unnerving ability to enter into the mind of a being quite unlike others.

All of these are love stories, proclaims the book’s subtitle, and that emotion is certainly present in these pages. But – in the same way that tropes of Indian-American writing are overturned – it’s a love that’s misshapen, demonstrating itself in acts that stray towards the macabre. The actions of the Bengal tiger apart, there’s also the many paragraphs devoted to the insect-like aliens in a remote outpost of the Andromeda Galaxy trying to devour each other after consummating their affair, an act that, we’re told and then shown, is necessary to provide sustenance for their larvae.

It must also be said that sometimes, Parameswaran’s talent with voices can be overdone to the point of archness. The narrator of the title story, for example, an executioner of an unnamed city-state grappling between the demands of his job and his wife, speaks in overstated Indian-English: “Normally in the life, people always marvel how I am maintaining cheerful demeanours and positive outlooks”. (This manner of speech is handled in a more nuanced manner in the story about the art director-turned-film-director referred to earlier: “Our hair is less and our backs give enormous pain”.) Such excess is also to be seen in the tale of the elephant, in which the footnotes become overpowering – this is partly the point of the story, of course, but it does come across as heavy-handed.

Leaving aside these quibbles, all the stories in I Am an Executioner have a cracking and satisfying pace that bespeaks careful composition and saves them from becoming mere character sketches or solipsistic ruminations. This, combined with Parameswaran’s flair of looking at the world aslant, ensures that with I Am an Executioner he sets about killing us softly with his skill.

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