The heroes—and anti-heroes—of I Am an Executioner include a misunderstood tiger whose affection for his keeper goes horribly awry, a woman trying to celebrate Thanksgiving with her husband’s corpse sprawled on their living-room floor, and an ex-CompUSA employee setting up a medical practice armed only library books and fake business cards. Rajesh Parameswaran has a riotous, singular imagination that promises to dazzle the universe of American fiction.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.42(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.81(d)|
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THE INFAMOUS BENGAL MING
The one clear thing I can say about Wednesday, the worst and most amazing day of my life, is this: it started out beautifully. I woke up with the summer dawn, when the sky goes indigo-gray, and the air's empty coolness begins to fill with a tacky, enveloping warmth. I could hear Saskia and Maharaj purring to each other at the far end of my compound. I'd had to listen to their cooing and screeching sex noises all night, but it didn't bother me. I didn't know why yet, but I realized: I was over it. Saskia could sleep with every tiger in the world but me, and I wouldn't mind.
I stretched and smacked my mouth and licked my lips, tasting the familiar odors of the day. Already, I somehow sensed that this morning would be different from all the other mornings of my life. On the far side of the wall, hippos mucked and splashed, and off in the distance the monkeys and birds who had been up since predawn darkness started their morning chorus in earnest, their caws and kee-kees and caroo- caroo-caroos echoing out over the breadth of our little kingdom. These were the same sounds I heard morning after morning, but this morning, it was all more beautiful than ever; yes, this morning was different. It took me a little while to puzzle out the reason, but once I did, it was unmistakable:
I was in love.
It wasn't with one of the tigers in my compound-no, I had exhausted the possibilities of our small society long ago, and other than Saskia, there hadn't been any new arrivals in years. In fact, the object of my love wasn't another tiger at all. I was in love with my keeper, Kitch.
I know it sounds strange. It kind of caught me by surprise, too, but there really wasn't any avoiding the conclusion.
And it was all the stranger because I had known Kitch for years. When I was a cub, he had been something like an assistant to my first keepers. He wore wire-frame glasses then, and he was skinny and nervous. It was amusing to see him struggle to keep a clear path between himself and the compound door, in case he needed to make a quick escape. It's true what they say about us: we can smell fear, and that's why I noticed him. I was nervous around people then, too, and his manner piqued my particular interest.
Over the years, other keepers came and went, tigers disappeared and new ones arrived, but Kitch was always there. He grew a moustache. His cheeks got round and his belly filled out. His hair went thinner and thinner every time he took off his cap. He shaved his moustache. He lost the wariness that I had once found so intriguing.
His manner changed, his appearance changed, but he was always the same sweet Kitch. And that Wednesday I had woken up and realized: Kitch. Kitch! I love Kitch. Realizing I loved Kitch was like realizing that a bone you have enjoyed chewing for months is actually the bone of your worst enemy. The bone hasn't changed, nor your enjoyment of it, but suddenly things are seen with a whole new perspective. Actually, that's a very negative example, but the point is this: I had just discovered a deep and endless love for the best friend I had ever had in my life.
I should probably clarify. This wasn't the sort of love like when you see a hot new cat and can't keep your claws off her. I didn't love Kitch like I had loved Saskia, not with the same, shall we say, roaring passion. This love wasn't as agitating.
This was a different love. Every morning, when the big metal doors opened in the fiberglass rock, and pound after pound of cow meat and fresh organs came slithering down the passageway, whose face was there in the dark distance, shovel in hand? Kitch's. When Maharaj growled and got restless and came looking for a fight, who was the first to hear his shrieky howls, to fire a water hose and scare him off me? Kitch. I was inexhaustibly interesting to him, and he was an inexhaustible curiosity and a comfort and joy to me.
I think I'd call that love.
And once I realized I loved Kitch, everything else in the world seemed to make so much perfect indescribable nonsensical sense. Saskia rejecting me; fiberglass walls; lonely, zoo-wandering old ladies; little children eating caramel corn; cockatoos and monkeys; and everything under the sun, so funny and strange, and I just loved it all. I had food and water and friends and Kitch. I really didn't need much more than this, did I?
It's a little embarrassing even to think back on it. That was Wednesday morning.
It didn't take long for things to take a turn for the worse. The first sign was when I walked to the fiberglass rock down which my food usually came slithering, leaving a trail of red, wet glisten. This morning I walked to the rock, looked up, and waited. Nothing came. I sniffed and I waited. I closed my eyes and opened them.
I waited some more. And I waited and I waited. I started to play a game: I would shut my eyes for a few moments at a time, and while my eyes were closed I would convince myself that as soon as I opened them, the food would be there. I kept them closed for longer periods each time, but the food never arrived.
Now I was very hungry, and when I'm hungry my head hurts. In fact, it pounds. I shut my eyes firmly and tried to sleep it away, but the sun was quickly becoming unbearably hot-this was the middle of August-and I didn't want to go in search of shade lest I miss the food when it finally came, and Maharaj, finished with his own meal but greedy still, would come and pilfer it.
So I lay down right there, under the sun, and tried to quiet the pounding in my head. By this time the people had started to arrive-not just a few early morning walkers, but thick hordes of people, huge summer-vacation swarms, three or four deep, five or six herds of summer campers alone, plus tourists and regulars.
Normally, I don't mind the people who visit the zoo. They have their business, I have mine. They come, watch for a few minutes, point and stare, talk about me, eat their ice creams, whatever, I don't care. But today there were so many of them, and they were so loud, and I was so hungry. My head was pounding and I was just trying to relax, to stay calm and wait for my food, but they kept talking; and some little kid started to scream, "Wake up! Wake up, tiger! Wake up!" And then a whole chorus of kids joined him. "Wake up, tiger! Wake up!"
I might have been able eventually to block them out and fall asleep, but right then I smelled Saskia, and that smell made me perk up. She was walking directly toward me, with that little sashay, that little walk of hers. I loved to contemplate the fluffy patch of white fur right beneath her tail, and the way her tail brushed over it lightly as she swayed from side to side to side. As I said, I was over her. I was totally fine with the idea of her together with Maharaj, fucking Maharaj. But that didn't mean I had to stop appreciating her walk, that didn't mean I was prohibited from inhaling a deep whiff of her gorgeous aroma as she ambled toward me.
I purred to her, very casually. Just a "Hello there, Saskia" kind of purr. I waited for her to return the greeting, but she didn't even look at me. She walked past me like I wasn't even there.
Now, this annoyed me. It's one thing for her to sleep with Maharaj. That's her business and her prerogative. But to ignore me like that, as if we were no one to each other-that was too much. I felt a little stupid for having let myself get carried away with admiring her walk and everything, and just to show her that she had put me out of sorts, I snarled. It was a small snarl, accompanied by a little swat of my paw: a warning swat. There was no way I could have made contact. But when she saw me lift my paw, she jumped around and roared so loudly that I swear to God I almost pissed right where I stood. All right, I actually did piss. Then she walked away as cool as could be.
I could hear the schoolkids laughing at me now, but I ignored them and curled around and lay down again. Then I heard a familiar noise in the bushes, and I started to get nervous because it was the sound of Maharaj. Maharaj is a massive beast of a cat. He has almost three times my bulk, so he makes a lot of noise when he moves. He must have heard Saskia's growl and was coming to check out the situation.
Maharaj took his time, moving real slow, hefting his huge body through the brush, and I could smell him now-it was definitely Maharaj, so the fear and the pressure were kind of building up inside me. I was debating: should I try to get away, and risk attracting his attention; or should I sit still and stay as quiet as possible and hope he'd ignore me?
I decided to make a move for it, but this turned out to be the wrong decision. As soon as I got up and started to walk, I heard Maharaj break into a run, and in three quick bounds-boom, boom, boom-his heavy body was on top of mine and his claws were in my back and his teeth were sunk deep into my ass.
I screamed and writhed, but he kept me pinned down for thirty seconds or a minute, during which time I heard him fart, casual, loud and stinky, as if to demonstrate how relaxed he was, how little effort it took him to keep me locked down and in pain. Finally, he released me, as calmly as you please. He got up and started to walk away. (He didn't even look at me-just like Saskia.) He paused in front of the metal door in the fiberglass rock where I usually got my food. He crouched down and sent out a fat stream of piss. That smell would stick to that rock for days, and he knew it.
At this point I was thinking: Kitch. I just want Kitch. I just want him to show up and salvage this day and restore it to its original promise. I want Kitch to bring me my food and wash my rock. I want Kitch to hang around for a few minutes and keep Maharaj away from me. I want to hear Kitch's voice flattering me and telling me what a good cat I was, and telling me what to do. Actually, it would have been fine if Kitch didn't do any of these things. He could have forgotten the food and said not a word to me, for all I cared. I just wanted him to be there. I just wanted to see his face for a few seconds, just to look at him. In fact, even thinking about Kitch's pink face made me feel better, gave me a feeling of hope and calm, and made the throbbing in my ass and my head fade a little. He would be here soon, I knew it.
I settled down again and closed my eyes. The noise of the crowd also settled, finally, into a distant hum and chatter like it usually did, like a sonic blanket over the world, and in a little while I managed to fall asleep.
When I woke up it was gray and cool, a bank of clouds having moved in over the sun. My headache was better, but now my whole torso ached from hunger. I sniffed around the metal door, but there was still nothing there but the odor of Maharaj's catpiss.
Kitch still hadn't arrived. I couldn't believe it.
At that moment, I heard a familiar noise wafting over the moat that separated me from the visitors:
The river is chilly and the river is cold, Hallelujah
Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah.
Oh, God, I thought. Not the "row-your-boat" lady, not today of all days. She sat down on the bench, sweatered and stinking, hair astray, grinning with her broken teeth. I could smell her from where I sat!
I roared at her instinctively, but she didn't shut up. In fact, she let out a whoop and a holler and sang all the louder.
The river is deep and the river is wide, Hallelujah
Milk and honey on the other side, Hallelujah.
I got up and paced back and forth, pausing every now and again to glare, but she wasn't intimidated in the least. She sang and she sang and she sang. After maybe half an hour, the singing faded into soft, incoherent chatter, until finally she slumped low on the bench and started to snore.
Still, the day dragged on, and the sun had barely even crested in the sky. I felt a painful knock! knock! knock! in my head, and looked up to see the teenage zoo attendant banging his litter stick against the bench, trying to rouse the row-your-boat lady. Finally, she woke up and walked quietly away.
Kitch, I kept thinking. Kitch Kitch Kitch Kitch Kitch.
And just then, I saw Maharaj rising over the hill again, moving steady and fast, fairly bristling for another confrontation. What had I done this time? I kept repeating Kitch's name like a mantra. My head was about to explode into a million pieces. It hurt so bad I could barely move it from one side to the other, and Maharaj was moving in for the kill, ready to carve up my rump and shit on my lair for good measure. And just at that moment, just as the pressure in my head was reaching the point where my brains felt like they would liquefy and boil and shoot from my ears in jets of steam, just as Maharaj crouched down for the pounce, just as all these things were about to happen, the people door creaked open and who was there but Kitch!
It was really him, his red face aglow in the sunlight, and I almost jumped into the air with delight. Maharaj turned and galloped away to hide. The pain in my head melted into some pink, loving bliss. Where was my hunger? Where was all the gloom and trouble of the day? It was all gone. Kitch was here!
I paced back and forth and meowed, like a lovesick lynx. I ran around in a circle and bit my tail. I peed in a long, hot stream, with a big grin on my face. I paced up and down and up and down again, then I rolled on my back and let my tongue loll out. And then I popped upright and roared. It was Kitch! Yes, Kitch was here! And I loved him! And he was here!
Little did I know, the most horrible thing was yet to happen.
Kitch was still standing near the door. In fact, he seemed, for some reason, unnaturally cautious. He hadn't advanced toward me at all, nor had he called out to return my greetings, and that's when I realized there was someone with him-an older man with thick glasses, and wearing white rubber gloves on his hands. Kitch began, finally, to walk to one side of me, slowly, with caution, while trying to shield this other, nervous, man from my view.
What People are Saying About This
"These short stories hum with life through the steady cadence and confident tones of narrators Neil Shah and Lina Patel... Appropriately, Patel's female immigrant characters come through more gently than Shah's male characters. On the whole, this is a wonderful jaunt through a first story collection." - AudioFile Magazine A Best Book of 2012 choice. - Amazon.com Starred review. "Lethal innocence and the uncanny pairing of brutality and tenderness [shapes] Parameswaran's macabre love stories. A thoughtful zoo tiger is only trying to express love when he inadvertently goes on a killing spree. The thin line between freedom and imprisonment is traced to provocative effect in a story told by a captured elephant, though the footnotes written by her alleged translator, a curious sort of elephant-man obsessed with suicide, take over her narrative. Venturing into Kafka and Borges territory, Parameswaran writes pristine, even serene prose that flows in disquieting counterpoint to the grotesqueness of most of his tales, with one sterling exception, the heartbreaking, Chekhovian story about an aging art director helplessly in love with the wife of a world-famous filmmaker. A potent, haunting, darkly sublime, and completely compassionate debut collection." - Booklist Starred review. "Parameswaran is a dazzlingly versatile stylist and the conceits and voices here are varied and evocative. An inventive, impressive and witty book." - Kirkus Reviews
"...Parameswaran's stories combine narrative brio, ringing voices and beguilingly looped plots." - The New York Times
"In the staggering title story, the awkward, love-starved narrator maneuvers between his day job finishing off convicted criminals and his home life, where he tries unsuccessfully to reassure his new wife that he's not as bad as his profession would imply. His poetic, if exaggerated, Indian English creates its own cadence just as his compulsive justification creates its own logic...Parameswaran should be applauded for pushing the limits of genre and for the searing brilliance of his language...[An] admirably risky debut collection." - Publishers Weekly
"The characters in this first collection, including a frustrated Bengal tiger and a woman gamely managing Thanksgiving dinner with her husband sprawled dead on the floor, suggest an offbeat temperament at work. The venues where these stories have appeared - e.g., McSweeney's, Granta, and Zoetrope - suggest talent at work as well. Great expectations!" - Library Journal
"...the advent of a genuinely distinctive voice in American fiction, abundantly inventive, deceptively cunning and fearless..." - The Washington Post
"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." - The Huffington Post
"Parameswaran writes like a demon...When you read this, you will be telling everyone you know about this book." - Jason Rice, Three Guys One Book
"To claim that an author has written inventive stories about love conjures up many possibilities, but none will compare to the fertile imaginings of Rajesh Parameswaran. His debut collection, I Am an Executioner, is filled with the voices of astonishing characters - a misunderstood tiger, a strip mall con man who opens a medical clinic with only library texts to guide him, an executioner, a surveillance agent, a pompous railway manager, and more - whose pitch-perfect stories recalibrate the notion of love and power with dark humor and unbearable tenderness." - Walter Mosley
"I Am an Executioner gets the pulse racing from word one. I love Rajesh because his last name is even more impossible than my own, and because he has redefined the American short story for me. Bravo!" - Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
"This collection fizzes with a mesmeric, restless energy. Rajesh Parameswaran makes us believe the unbelievable - in his hands the fantastic becomes intimate and human." - Tash Aw, author of The Harmony Silk Factory
"I Am an Executioner is intelligent and hilarious and wildly imaginative. Parameswaran explores with great delicacy that fraught line between provincial life and modern times. There are traces of Chekhov in his writing. These stories have the power to endure." - Said Sayrafiezadeh, author of When Skateboards Will Be Free
"Stories that are savagely funny, stories that haunt and sear and stun, stories so original they defy categorization - above all, stories generously laden with sheer reading pleasure: I Am an Executioner is a brilliant and spellbinding collection." - Manil Suri, author of The Death of Vishnu
"Brilliantly unnerving, wickedly funny, and deeply satisfying. These are ferocious stories about the power of love both to save and destroy, and what can happen to us when we succumb to our true animal natures. Rajesh Parameswaran writes with elegance and style and a fiendishly seductive wit that will take your breath away. An astonishingly original debut by a writer to reckon with." - Julie Otsuka, "Brilliantly unnerving, wickedly funny, and deeply satisfying. These are ferocious stories about the power of love both to save and destroy, and what can happen to us when we succumb to our true animal natures. Rajesh Parameswaran writes with elegance and style and a fiendishly seductive wit that will take your breath away. An astonishingly original debut by a writer to reckon with." - Julie Otsuka, author of The Buddha in the Attic
"Wonderful stories - like small, deft carnivals entering our desert cities and cranky towns to, for a while, muster us into feeling, resolution, and happiness, before they go on their way. We can't help but be grateful for them." - Charlie Smith, author of Word Comix
I Am an Executioner gets the pulse racing from word one. I love Rajesh because his last name is even more impossible than my own, and because he has redefined the American short story for me. Bravo! (Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story)
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of I Am an Executioner, the wildly inventive, darkly funny debut collection of stories by Rajesh Parameswaran.
1. The subtitle of this collection is “Love Stories,” yet many of the stories aren’t about traditional romance. How do you think Parameswaran defines “love story”?
2. Several of the stories are narrated by non-humans. How does Parameswaran use other creatures to illuminate aspects of our own lives? How do they address the theme of “otherness,” perhaps differently from other writers and more traditional tropes?
3. In “The Infamous Bengal Ming,” at what points did you empathize with the tiger? Why? Did you feel the same way toward other animals in the stories?
4. Toward the end of “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan,” Parameswaran writes, “There are those who will never accept what must have happened next. They don’t understand what Manju saw in Gopi, for a few moments, here at the dying-ember end of our story.” (p. 43) What did Manju see in Gopi? Why does she permit what happens next?
5. Why does the author frame the story “Four Rajeshes” with the narrator speaking to a future descendant?
6. What does Parameswaran achieve by having the narrator acknowledge that this future Rajesh is actually writing the story? What do you think this shows about Parameswaran’s own take on authorial identity?
7. Why do you think “I Am an Executioner” is the title story? How does it represent the collection as a whole?
8. In that story, what does the narrator’s pidgin English signal to the reader?
9. Self-delusion plays a key role in “I Am an Executioner” and other stories. What point is Parameswaran making about this idea?
10. Why does Savitri react the way she does to her husband’s death in “Demons”? Who are the demons?
11. How does the subject of the story “Narrative of Agent 97-4702” reveal itself? What is the subtext, and how does Parameswaran explore it?
12. The last sentence of “Bibhutibhushan Mallik’s Final Storyboard” is: “But the greatest challenge always lies in how one handles the actors.” (p. 185) What does this mean, beyond moviemaking? Were you sympathetic to what happened to Mallik?
13. What is the purpose of the footnotes in “Elephants in Captivity (Part One)”? Which part is the real story—the text or the notes?
14. What does it mean for “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319)” to come at the end of the collection? Did you feel that it wrapped up themes introduced in the other stories, or moved them forward in an unresolved way?
15. What allegory is at work here? What does the story prompt us to think about race, parenting, and immigration?
16. What connections do you see among the stories in I Am an Executioner? What overall themes do they share?
A Conversation with Rajesh Parameswaran
Let's start with this: A tiger as narrator (we will get to the elephant later). Where did this idea come from?
The spark of this story might have come when I saw, at a museum, a drawing with the same title as my story, depicting a tiger wandering a residential street. But my memory of this is fuzzyI might have dreamed or imagined it. Google just told me that the Bengal tiger found in a residential Harlem apartment in 2003 was named Ming, so perhaps this is why the name was knocking around in my head. The stories in this collection are so variedyou write about animals, space aliens, executioners, fake doctors, immigrants, outsiders (the list could go on). Can you talk a little about some of the events and ideas that inspired these stories?
Of course each story comes from a million places, most of which I'm unaware of. But to give you the rough approximation of an answer, I will say that the story about the fake doctor was inspired in part by seeing numerous newspaper articles about people practicing medicine without a license. They seemed to be pursuing the American ideal of self-invention to an outrageous and untenable extent. "Four Rajeshes," a story about a writer writing about an Indian railway manager at the turn of the century, was inspired in part by Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener;" and by the eccentric life of the Indian math genius Ramanujan. The story about space aliens on a planet recently colonized by humans takes elements from Insectopedia, a wonderful book by Hugh Raffles, who writes in one chapter about hunting wasps who paralyze but do not kill their prey, so their larvae can feed on living flesh; I was also thinking of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Joran van der Sloot, the young man in prison in Peru for murdering a young woman there, and also suspected in the disappearance of an American tourist in Aruba. The narrator of the footnotes in "Elephants in Captivity" owes a huge apology to the narrator/editor in Nabokov's Pale Fire. Finally, the story about the newlywed executioner was inspired by a mish-mash of old? ideas, Kafka, and current events, and by a news article about the chipper old executioner in a real "small and famous country." I wondered what life was like for his wife.
One reads these stories a bit like one watches a really great scary moviewith a hand over your eyes as you don't really want to see what happens but at same time dying to see what happens.? Did you set out to create that sense of unease?
I would say no, I didn't plan to create a sense of unease for the reader, although I might have tried to tease out this sense when I saw it already at work in the material. My m.o., as best as I can recall, was just to follow the logic of each story to whatever odd place it took me. In the end, however, the stories themselves speak more authoritatively about what I set out to create, than my own fluid memory.
In "The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan," you write, "When people talk about Manju and her husband and what they did and what happened to them, they should try to remember that people have depths."? Sympathy towards people who act in inexplicable ways is hard but you pull it off in this book in many places. Can you talk a bit about that?
Isn't this what fiction generally strives to do? You can't write about someone you don't have some sympathy for. As for writing about "people who act in inexplicable ways" everyone acts in inexplicable ways, to some degree, although perhaps not to the extremes of some of the characters in this book.
There are so many wonderful characters herehuman and animal. Is there a particular characteror storyin this collection that you feel a special affinity for?
I have always thought of myself as an elephant at loose in the city. Just kidding. I like a lot of these characters, even though I probably wouldn't want to be them.
Okay, Elephant meets Footnotes.? What's going on here?
Aside from the fact that elephants are just inherently interesting, writing about animals rather than people was a way to free myself from familiar themes and topics and from my own experience. The footnotes, too, were an attempt to make the story broad and various and multidimensional even within the confines of a short story. I wanted something looser and more freewheeling than the other, more tightly constructed, stories in the book. As a consequence, the story demands a different kind of patience from the reader. I tell my friends it's okay to skip the footnotes and come back to them later.
Many of the people in your stories are from India.? How much does your own background inform your work?
I was born in India, but left for the United States as an infant. As for how this background informs my work: when Charlie Rose asked Seamus Heaney how his own heritage had affected his life, Seamus Heaney responded that it had affected him "totally." And that's the best and simplest answer I can think of.
What's next for you?
A novel set at the turn of the century about a community of people who live and work on a small island, processing the refuse, including dead animals, from a nearby city. Or, as a friend of mine would put it, my next book is total garbage.
Who have you discovered lately?
I have discovered a few great books lately, although they might be old news to a lot of readers:
Richard Wright, Lawd Today! Written early in Wright's career and unpublished during his lifetime, this novel is comic but dark, and stylistically inventive, interspersed with "found" texts like movie posters, snake oil circulars, and newspaper headlines.
The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vol's I and II. The popular fiction sold at tea stalls and rail stations in southern India, translated into English in two beautifully lurid volumes.
Robert Walser, Berlin Stories. These are short prose pieces brimming with love for the quotidian pleasures of city life, like walking in parks and going to bars. Written in the early 1900s and re-issued this year by New York Review Books. "Isn't the average actually what is solidest and best?" Walser asks.