Nine very strange stories could change the channels of a long literary legacy. Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut collection asks whether to be, is human, says Aditi Saxton

THE SHORTCOMINGS of the short story are long-listed whenever an author attempts the form and doesn’t quite measure up. Paucity of detail, incomplete character arcs, unspecific space and time and a scanty scope are common causes for readers feeling short-changed. Rajesh Parameswaran’s first book I am an Executioner Love Stories flips the kill switch on genre critics. It is everywhere, thinking about everything, and even in its gaps, there is a notion that nags, as Elie Wiesel put it, “of a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them.”

The final story ‘On the Banks of Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319)’ is a sweetly told, but deeply difficult deliberation on whether our being is enclosed in our begetting. Procreation as a justification for life is a pedigreed debate, and placing it on a galaxy far, far away brings our own uncertainties closer home. A troubled yet proud father of a pubescent girl — genders only loosely ascribed — struggles to shield a child buffeted by unprecedented change. The recent arrival of humans on Planet Lucina is exciting, unsettling. Instead of applying her talents to the family business, young Nippima chooses to give human tourists joy rides as a local guide. She blooms and then wilts under their relentless gaze. It feels natural for Nippima’s Ka, helpless in her flux, to think back to his last moment of control — the birth of his beloved baby. This is an economy Parameswaran uses liberally. He lets our own renderings of relationships create empathy, even explain characters, while he hoards his words to highlight differences between them and us.

There is a nice sense of bookended balance in revisiting Nippima’s birth, since her Ka is a mortician offering funerary services reminiscent of embalming. Now the easy assumptions begin to bite back. The traditions of death on Lucina are vaguely comforting in their atavism. Its processes of birth are shocking in their savagery. The revoltingly riveting ritual of praying mantises mating is immediately and specifically evoked, without any actual allusion, like that Danish Elephant trick. And with it comes a realisation of our boundless bigotry in containing the universe. With de minimis visual cues — wings, feelers, multiple limbs and a technicoloured torso — we’re seduced into reducing these thinking, feeling creatures to insects. Wait, what were we supposed to think? Did that swift sleight swindle us of our sympathy or did it rip the scales from our eyes? Here is Parameswaran’s central, cerebral theme — the corporeal is connected to consciousness. That ‘we’ (however you choose to use that collective pronoun) are not the sole claimants to an elevated moral awareness, the author reveals through recondite reality, through story-allegory.

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