“This is not the story of a single nation. It can happen anywhere, at any time. So I thought I must write about it,” says Benyamin. His latest novel, a sequel to his JCB Prize-winning book Jasmine Days, explores the lives of people in a fictional Middle Eastern city, in the aftermath of a failed revolution. He recalls having planned one novel to narrate the events of the uprising against an autocratic system. The sequel took shape only when he realised that he was in fact telling two stories: one, of the incidents that occurred during the revolution, and two, of events that transpired following the uprising.
Al Arabian Novel Factory begins with the story of Pratap, an investigative journalist from Toronto who is sent on an assignment that involves travelling to several countries and researching for an author putting together a new book. Pratap’s first stop is the City, filled with people who have survived the Jasmine revolution, living in the shadow of a dominant power, with spies and officials lurking in every corner of the street.
Originally from Kerala, the author lived and worked in the Kingdom of Bahrain for two decades. Upon first setting foot in the Arab country, he wondered how people could live peacefully under an autocratic regime and not raise their voices against the oppression. “But I gradually understood,” he notes, “all of them are not satisfied.” Many have political visions and democratic ambitions. “But they are suppressed and their dreams are restlessly sleeping.”
These dreams were realised when the Jasmine revolution broke out; the subsequent series of protests across the Middle East would come to be known as the Arab Spring. A time of conflict and turmoil, these uprisings sought to overthrow a state-controlled economy, calling for democratisation and fair elections. As a first-hand witness of the protests, strikes and riots, Benyamin remembers how the police and military treated the rioters, how a society was divided in the name of sects, and how a revolution was suppressed.
He also witnessed the derogatory treatment accorded to migrant labourers. Once, while at medical college, he remembers seeing these workers brought to the hospital after being beaten up by the locals. Their only crime: they were migrants.
In a third-world country, the author emphasises, the immigrant community is the first one to come under fire during times of internal strife. Innocents are accused and blamed for the conflict. People demand that they be deported. His identity was questioned too, Benyamin admits, and his work aims to address these concerns.
In writing Jasmine Days and its sequel, Benyamin attempts to discuss the face and attitude of an overpowering government towards its people. In Jasmine Days, the story follows Sameera, a radio jockey living in the fictional 'City' who writes A Spring Without Fragrance, a book describing the events of the revolution as it unfolds around her. Following the uprising, in Al Arabian Novel Factory, this book is banned in the City, and a reader can get into trouble for even searching for a copy.
Yet, some courageous people across the globe ensure that the text reaches every corner of the world. "In the age of the internet and social media, censorship or bans are a senseless act. Nobody can stop the spread of words,” the author explains. “What will happen to a book which is written in one place and banned in another?” “How can a ruler stop people from reading?” “What can they do to a person who has already read the book and entered the country? Will they kill him?” are some of the pertinent questions he raises through the novel.
Autocratic governments do not like freedom of speech, says Benyamin. In such states, any criticism will be considered "anti-national". When Pratap embarks on a search of the book and starts reading Sameera’s account of the revolution, you wait with bated breath to witness the inevitable catastrophe that will befall him and his colleagues. They pay a steep price for reading literature that was never supposed to fall in the hands of the citizens of the City.
Benyamin maintains that this conviction within people that prompts them to rebel against dominant forces and act in ways that could even land them in prison should serve as a lesson to all governments. They must pay heed to the demands of the people. Drawing attention to India, he says that our government wants to play "religious politics" and escape having to deal with real issues. “No such state was spared from the common people’s rage,” he adds.
Translated into English by Shahnaz Habib, Benyamin’s new book is peopled by colourful characters and their myriad emotions. There is Daisy, unlucky in love; Pratap, going to increasingly dangerous — even criminal lengths — to find his lost love Jasmine; and Perumal, Daisy’s husband, helpless after discovering his wife’s love for another man. Each of his characters, Benyamin explains, represents different forms of the mind. Each of them have different opinions about love, courage and even marriage.
In Al Arabian Novel Factory, Pratap jumps at the opportunity to visit the City so as to search for Jasmine, the love of his youth, with whom he has recently connected over the internet. Both Pratap and Jasmine are married to different people but find solace in writing to each other. Of the strain that such relationships might put on a marriage, Benyamin quotes a character from his novel: “Marriage is not a supermarket where you can get all the items you need, it's just a small grocery. You get only very essential items from there.”
This not only highlights the stark issues inherent in matrimony as a social institution, but also begets the question of the significance of marriage in the modern world as a relationship based on mutual love, trust, and companionship. In response to the question of Pratap and Jasmine’s friendship in the context of their respective marriages, Benyamin suggests that one must not expect everything from a partner. A human being has vast interests and one must look beyond the partner, perhaps to find a friend to fulfill those mental needs. To be relieved from narrow thoughts is to acknowledge that a partner will not enjoy all the same interests of an individual. As an institution, marriage is proving to be an utter failure because of its patriarchal structure, the selfishness and ego it harbours, he remarks.
A recipient of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, Benyamin's books have been translated into several languages. According to him, this is a prosperous time for Malayalam literature from the point of view of translation. A decade ago, he says, this was not the scenario and getting translated and published was a Herculean task. “Nobody considered regional fiction as important as English fiction writing.”
The author, who has previously authored the popular novel Goat Days (Aadujeevitham) which explored the life of an Indian labourer in Saudi Arabia, has already started envisioning a new story around the history of Travancore in Kerala. He dreams in Malayalam, he says, and those ideas translate into his novels because it is the only language in which he can express himself fluently and thoroughly.
Benyamin’s Al Arabian Novel Factory has been published by Juggernaut Books
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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2020 12:10:03 IST