Benyamin on his new book Jasmine Days, writing about the Arab Spring and the beauty of Malayalam
Benyamin speaks about the politics embedded in his works and how he uses writing as an outlet for the pain he experiences
Malayalam author Benyamin, who has been living in Bahrain since 1992, shot to fame when his book Aadujeevitham became an overnight sensation in 2008, the year it was published. It told the story of an abused Indian migrant worker who moves to Saudi Arabia. More than 50 editions of the book have been released thus far, and it has also become a part of school and university curricula. Three years later, this award-winning book was translated into English and titled 'Goat Days'.
Benyamin has also written several other books, short stories, and contributes regularly to Malayalam publications. In this conversation, he speaks about his newly released Jasmine Day, his writing process and the politics deeply embedded in his works.
Your novel Goat Days or Aadujeevitham is an incredibly hard-hitting story with references to some of your own experiences. What did you draw inspiration from for Jasmine Days, and what was the process of creating and developing the main characters like?
I have spent around 21 years in the Gulf. In the initial years, I was totally unaware of their politics and democratic ambitions. I would always wonder about how these people were living under a monarchy for the last 40 years without saying a single word against it. Are they all completely satisfied with this political system? Then I made friends with many people across different classes of Arab society and spoke to them about several issues. That really opened my eyes to how they think. At that time, the Arab Spring had started from Tunisia and had spread to the Middle East. Protests occurred in my city too. It was stunning; the whole country had gathered at Central Square and asked for the regime to resign. They showcased their power and made a demand for democracy. In many countries, it was a success, but in mine, it was a big failure. The victims of the Arab Spring were many — not only the nationals, but expatriates too. These real-life incidents are the inspiration for this novel. I developed the main characters based on the personalities of my own friends and acquaintances.
Do you write in small sessions or prefer to write a major chunk in one go? How does this improve the character building and flow of the novel?
My writing process has three stages. Initially, I put together or create relevant incidents and thoughts for the novel. I write these as small portions; they could be one or two lines long, or a paragraph. In the second stage, these portions will come together to form chapters and be rearranged in the process. In the final stage, I will rearrange the chapters to ensure that the novel has a proper flow and that the plot is developed well. I think this also helps me to build the characters in the manner that I want to. When I write small portions, I prefer to focus on the traits of each character and incidents that should be highlighted. If I am to write the book in one go, it might not work well.
How would you describe the timeline of your writing process? What do you come up with first and last?
I never write in a linear manner. But I do have a clear idea about the story of novel and what I want to write, as well as the distance the novel has to travel. Collecting material for it may take one or two years. If I am satisfied with the material I have, then I begin fleshing out chapters. I may start at any point — Chapter 35 or 23 or 17. It may not even be a complete chapter, just a portion of it. Next, I place and rearrange these chapters to develop the flow of the plot, like pearls in a necklace. Then I rewrite the chapters until I am satisfied. Normally, I take roughly three to five years to finish a novel.
What are some underlying metaphors in Jasmine Days which you would like readers to focus on?
Not many metaphors are used in this novel. But the novel itself is a metaphor for the world today, full of fanatics.
How are you able to convey the more "political" aspects in your novels, while being able to cater to a varied demographic?
I know what I have to convey to readers, or the reason why I am writing a novel. At the same time, I am keen on maintaining the balance between story and ideology, philosophy or politics, which I have to convey through the story. The story is always the hero, and I never made statements or slogans in my work. At the end of the book, the reader may realise what the purpose of the story is. So, I am not bothered about the section of society my reader belongs to.
Is it cathartic to write about events and places that heavily draw from your life experiences (for example, moving to and living in Bahrain)? How do you think this shapes the emotions both felt by the characters and conveyed to the readers?
This raises a basic question: Why do I write? It is not to tell a simple story but to unload the pain which I cannot carry. This pain may be life experiences or a social issue that affects me. If nothing causes you pain, you may have nothing to write about. All my novels and stories have real-life connections. I can’t write fiction from purely imaginary sources. When I write, I feel as though I am sharing and there is a sense of relief from that pain which had been plaguing me for long time. It will certainly reflect in characters and be felt by readers.
Do you think the translations of your novels change the meaning and effect of your words? Is there a specific effect that Malayalam has which cannot be achieved by other languages?
That depends. When I read some translations, I felt that they are more beautiful than my own words, especially in English. At the same time, some colloquial words or proverbs are untranslatable and do not capture the beauty. My Manjaveyil Maranangal is more beautiful than 'Yellow Lights of Death'. The satirical power of ‘akkapporinte irupathu nasarani varshangal’ will never be conveyed by '20 years of Christian Quarrels'.
As seen in Aadujeevitham and Manjaveyil Maranangal, you seem to be drawn to dark themes in your novels. How are you able to inject realism into these dark events? As a writer, what stylistic techniques and plot forming methods would you recommend to writers interested in similar themes?
Nowadays, the readability of a novel is very important. As I wrote in Manjaveyil Maranangal (Yellow Lights of Death), “I allowed a margin of 50 pages, from that point onward it was the duty of the writer to take me forward. But those days are gone. Now if you can’t buy a reader in the first five pages, then it’s impossible to get him.” That is the ground reality. So I experimented with many methods to hold the reader. One of these methods is fictional realism, a blend of fiction and facts. I use real places and fictional places, real characters meet fictional characters, and I mix real history with pseudo history. The result is that the reader begins to question what is real and what is fiction. The only concern is readability in order to keep readers hooked to the subject. If one has clarity about the subject, appropriate writing techniques will follow.
Many people have praised your novel Goat Days and said that it has changed their life and outlook. What novels have you read that have inspired your writing and life in a similar manner?
There are many. Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kasant Zakis, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Blindness by Jose Saramago and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
How do the main themes and takeaways from your novels reflect your philosophy in life?
I never write a novel to tell a plain story. For me, a story is the best tool to share some thoughts, incidents, ideas, doubts, fears, and hopes that haunt me, as well as philosophies about life and society. So certainly, my philosophy will reflect in my novels. It may not be visible or loud, but it is an underlying aspect of the story.
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