This smorgasbord of stories explores love's dark underbelly. The author kickstarts the collection with a riotous story about a tiger in a zoo which falls in love with its keeper. In a frenzy of passion, it commits an act that sets off a series of events in which, after escaping from captivity, it kills a baby and a woman in the most guileless, unintentional manner.
Parameswaran's opening story sets the tone for this debut collection of unsettling but highly inventive tales. "The Infamous Bengal Ming" illuminates a power-relationship in which the dynamics can shift unexpectedly and dramatically; in which love and mistrust combine in varying proportions. The story inverts this delicate relationship - animal and keeper - by making the animal the protagonist, the first-person narrator, and casts a strange light on the bond between man and beast while showing great empathy and tenderness for animals.
"The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan" is a story, set in American suburbia, about an Indian immigrant quack who while he pretends to be doing well in television sales, in front of his wife, blagues his way through a short-lived career as a doctor until he is forced to confront the ignominy of exposure. With delicious deferrals, Parameswaran takes the tension in the narrative to a crescendo with an ending which remains enigmatic.
With "Four Rajeshes" the author transports us back in time to India. A railway stationmaster - in a small town in India at the beginning of the 20th century - hires and then fires his assistant which becomes the cause of his psychological undoing. The tale is a marvel of the power of storytelling. Parameswaran, whose first name is Rajesh, uses the rhetorical question often and effectively in this perhaps real, perhaps imagined account: "Who was I, you wonder. Some distant ancestor, some early echo of yourself? What were my days like?" and, by the ruse of an intrusive voice, embroils himself in the story raising questions about the reliability of narration.
We return to the nondescript North American suburb in "Demons" where we encounter an Indian immigrant couple in a union which has lost its colour. This story, which features two individuals in a tangle of discontent and unhappiness is about how, sometimes, what one wishes for - however reluctantly and ambivalently - can come true.
In a complete departure from what precedes, "Narrative of Agent 97-4702" is set in an Orwellian dystopia - a city-state where everyone is under surveillance and even entertaining a mental state conducive to forming an intention is liable to prosecution.
"Bibhutibhushan Mallik's Final Storyboard" is a love-triangle in which an art director writes a screenplay and aspires to become a director. He embarks on an affair with and dreams of a life with his longstanding director's wife. The story references the works of great auteurs such as Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Alfred Hitchcock and Michelangelo Antonioni and in its telling are shades of the works of these greats. It is about the best laid plans; the ungovernable nature of passion; about talent and the aspiration for outstanding talent.
"Elephants in Captivity (Part One)" hints at a future sequel. It again places an animal centre-stage - the mighty elephant - and in its content and contours questions our limited understanding of the animal world - a theme with which the author begins the collection. This, however, goes beyond mere anthropomorphising and defies genre with its form which is a curious combination of traditional storytelling, dialogue and extensive footnotes.
The tale that is the title story is a deeply affecting, at times, devastating look at the life of an executioner who finds love on the internet and does not meet his wife in person till the day of their wedding. When his wife discovers the nature of his calling she goes into a state of shock which results in tantrums and protracted spells of sullen silence and, most crucially, in the denial of his "husbandly rights". In this brave telling, for which he invents a unique register, Parameswaran shines a light on societal attitudes towards the profession of an executioner. He goes beyond the shame, loathing and guilt and bravely homes in on the pride, and most touchingly, the beating heart behind the callous exterior of an executioner.
Parameswaran's broad repertoire takes in the sci-fi short story with the last tale in which he imagines life on a planet where insect-like creatures live harmoniously alongside visiting humans - they meet and "suck nectar with them socially". Humans wear bubble helmets and bright orange bodysuits as protection from the heat of many suns. Earthlings visit this planet for tourism, research and run "mineral extraction operations". The narrator is one of these weird but wonderful creatures who works as a funeral preparer. These creatures, despite having bodies of insects feel and think much like humans - they even wear ill-fitting trousers and skirts for acceptance and advancement with the Earthlings. This bizarre world even has humans mating with these creatures. With this peculiar cross-over world, the writer explores human avarice, colonisation, racism and the possibility of romantic love beyond biological boundaries. In anthropomorphising these creatures, he envisages the possibility of life on another planet and an inclusive existence which is respectful of mutual difference.
I am an Executioner: Love Stories is about love but love with a remarkably broad purview. At times, it all gets a little too unreal and bizarre but suspension of disbelief is rewarded generously. All the stories which are told from the point of view of animals attempt to show modes of consciousness which are different from ours and are informed by deep compassion. Rajesh Parameswaran has a sharp sense of what makes a story work, his stories reveal their mysteries gradually and very cleverly zero in on the heart of the matter.