‘Writing is a political activity’

Ambika Shaligram
Friday, 25 January 2019

At a session at the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival, Malayali writer Benyamin spoke about his novel Jasmine Days, which was the winner of 2018 JCB Prize for Literature

To begin with, there was a select audience to hear Benyamin, one of the foremost Malayali writers on Friday. By the time the session on Jasmine Days, winner of 2018 JCB Prize for Literature concluded, Charbagh, one of the venues at Diggi Palace which is hosting the 12th Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, was full. There were many youngsters in the audience, bearing copies of Jasmine Days, the eponymous novel written by Benyamin.

But neither the adoring audiences nor the praise heaped on him by the panelists — N S Madhavan (author), Rajeev Punnoli Irupattil (investigative journalist and moderator of the panel) and Shahnaz Habib (who translated his works) — seemed to affect his cool composure. The very rooted and simple man said, “I am not used to talking about myself. I am happy that Shahnaz is here today. Maybe she can speak on my behalf… I am an engineer. I have no answer to ‘Why I became a writer?’ Yes, I had lots of stories to tell, most of them were untold. I thought, why not tell them?”

Having lived in Kerala and worked in the Gulf, Benyamin was exposed to the dark side of life and employment conditions there. The story of migration, psychological displacement were a few of the layers in Jasmine Days (published by Juggernaut), its original title being Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal.

Jasmin Days was described as ‘structureless’ novel. When Benyamin was asked questions on his writing style, he said, “The original work was a twin novel.” Here, Habib chipped in, “Since the second part of the novel is due to release in English, later this year, the continuity or perhaps the structure which this part lent to the original, was missing. But yes, Benyamin’s writing is not easy. The characters and their personas and navigating through them in an unnamed Middle Eastern city (the city in which the book is set has no name)  confused and confounded me. But towards the end, I found myself enriched.”

When the book was first released, there was some confusion about it — with some people wondering if Benyamin had translated it from Sameera’s (protagonist) writing. Sameera is a girl of Pakistani origin, working as an RJ in the Middle East, and the novel unfolds through her voice, with various characters adding to the narrative.

The panelists observed that there is ‘disorientation’ in his writing, which enhances the novel. N S Madhavan observed, “The disorientation lies in the argumentative Malayalee becoming the obedient one in the Gulf. The psychological displacement in the book is its literary merit.”

Responding to questions on how he writes his novel — whether it’s all planned and are characters are important or the story, Benyamin said, “Characters are important to me. Although technicalities like plot or structure are important, I am trying to say something through my writing.”

“Writing is a political activity. There are other modes to entertain yourself, writing should do something more,” he added.

And it was precisely for this reason that he quit his well-paying job in the Gulf and returned to Kerala. “The story talks about Arab Spring (the revolution that first broke in Egypt and then spread in the Arab world). I began writing it when I was in the Gulf, but with the draconian laws there, there were too many restrictions. So I came home to become a full time writer. That was a challenge…finance was a restraining factor. But with JCB Prize, which offers a big prize money, I am feeling a little lighter” he recalled. 

“Also, now that the book has come out in English, many more Indian communities are reading the book. I am a glad,” the author added.

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