I couldn’t get a word in during the first few minutes of meeting Benyamin at the Kerala Literature Festival. We were stopped by a different reader every five or ten seconds, asking him to sign his book or take a picture together, and one went as far as to prompt Benyamin to read his self-published book, which he kindly refused. From a quick review of the readers who interrupted us, it was easy to gather they range across age, gender, and class. Benyamin has become synonymous with contemporary Malayalam literature, not just in the state – where he’s undeniably a household name – but also in the rest of the country.
In 2009, Benyamin won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award with Aadujeevitham. This book follows the protagonist Najeeb’s harrowing journey from being a hopeful job seeker in Saudi Arabia to becoming a slave on a desert farm. It tackles the narrator’s disillusionment with the Gulf dream in the context of the aspirations and migration patterns of Malayalis, particularly during the late 20th century and early 21st century.
Joseph Koyipally’s English translation of this book, Goat Days, made it to the longlist for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize and the shortlist for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. In 2018, Shahnaz Habib’s English translation of his novel Jasmine Days won the JCB Prize for Literature and the Crossword Book Award for Indian language translation.
In a conversation with Scroll, Benyamin spoke about his writing, the translations of his books, and the Malayali reader’s relationship with world literature. Excerpts from the interview:
You’ve written around 30 books over the last 24 years. That’s a substantial number – at least one book per year. Have you ever thought, “Okay, maybe I should slow down?”
Not exactly. If you write half a page a day, you can produce around 180 pages a year. So it is not a big issue. At the same time, I am thinking that I should slow down my writing because all my books are based on experiences from the past 50 years. All those experiences were documented in those days. Now, I want to incorporate new experiences, new readings, and collect fresh material so that I can write more. This means I may slow down in future years. Currently, I bring out a novel every three years. Later, it might be every five years, but I will continue writing every day. I can edit or cut it out later, but I have to keep on writing, and that is the main thing.
So you write every day?
I write something – maybe a part of a novel, perhaps a short story, or even a travelogue or an essay. If I have time and I’m not travelling, I keep writing.
When you wrote these books, did you write them one at a time, or did you work on several books simultaneously?
No, because when I’m working on a novel, it’s not written at a single stretch. I write a portion, then I have to think about the rest. At that moment, I might switch to another travelogue or essay, maybe even an article for a weekly. Eventually, by the end of the year or after two years, it becomes a collection of essays. A book is produced without my own knowledge. That is usually my process.
If I am free, I will go to my laptop, and I will try to write something. That’s what I meant when I said maybe at least half a page a day. And I am not a linear writer at all. If it’s a 300-page novel, I am not writing it sequentially. For example, in the beginning, I don’t write the first chapter. It might be the thirty-fifth chapter, and I don’t know where it’ll fit. I’ll just keep on writing.
The second stage is when I rearrange the chapters. Then I connect each chapter. In the third stage, I’ll edit what I have and add new things. At this stage, I don’t know where it will start and where it will end, but I have an idea. It’s like…if I know that I am travelling to Trivandrum, I know I want to reach Trivandrum, but I don’t know which route I will choose. When I reach that point, I know that, “Oh, I have to turn left or turn right or something.” That’s what I do. And like I said, I am always writing. If I am not engaged with someone else or something else, I am writing.
Does everything you write find its way into a book?
No, a lot of times, in the middle of writing, I realise that some paragraphs or sentences are not good. So, I will drop it. I’m not bothered about losing something. I don’t think anything is a waste either.
You write a lot about the diaspora. Was it a natural subject to turn to because you lived and worked in Bahrain for many years?
Yes, because I was there, and because I want to reflect on the experiences from those places. When I read in Malayalam or other languages, I feel that many of these experiences were not adequately represented in the books or languages. So, I believe it’s my duty to bring those experiences into literature. I’ve written more about the diaspora, and that kind of representation in literature has become increasingly important, especially after the 2000s. I thought that I should share these experiences with the world. That’s why I am writing more about it. If I were somewhere else, I might write about something different…
So you always draw from experience?
Experience, yes. Without experience, I can’t write anything. I take maybe a small element from an experience, and I elaborate it into something else. But the core of the writing is an experience from my own life or someone else’s life.
Many of your books have been translated into several languages. Are you ever involved in the translation process?
No, not at all. Writing is one thing, and translation is a creative process in itself. If I interfere there, the flow and genuineness will be lost. So, I give all the freedom to the translators. With their own imagination and perception, they can translate. At the end of the day, I will simply read it. If the idea, the core of the novel, the core of the story, is not missed, I am not bothered about the translation.
So it’s an active choice to not interfere?
Yes, yes. But if they have questions or doubts, I can interact with them to clarify. I don’t interfere with their process.
Is there a translation that you prefer among all the translations?
Not really…but I like Shahnaz Habib’s translation [of Jasmine Days]. Perhaps because she lives in the US, so she knows how to address a universal reader. Every book needs to address someone, whether it’s a regional or international audience. She has a unique vision that speaks to universal themes, making it something special. She possesses something quite rare in that regard. But the others are also very good.
Goat Days is based on a real story. Why did you choose to fictionalise it?
Because I am not writing a story to portray someone’s life. I want to express my feelings, vision, experiences, theology, and everything. I aim to convey these aspects through the characters. The novel is the best medium for these expressions. While the person’s story and experiences are present, I also write about my own experiences. If I were in their position, how would I react? This is my perspective on writing. Characters are just a part of my experiences and my writing. I am essentially writing about my own experiences and projecting them onto the characters.
You write across forms and genres. How do you manage different creative processes required by all them?
Because each experience is expressed through different media. When a story comes to me, I mentally assess whether it would be better suited as a novel, an essay, or another form. Sometimes, I think, “Okay, this is a short experience, better served as an essay.” Other times, it’s so expansive that I believe there are multiple entry points. Take Goat Days, for instance; it could have been an essay. It is a sourced story. However, I thought, no, it’s a broad narrative, so it’s a novel. In Marquez, EMS, Gulam and Others, on the other hand, it is a fleeting moment. Then I considered it as a short story. [He’s referring to a short story where a young journalist believes he has become the eponymous author. His witty wife gets him back into reality by giving him a taste of his medicine: She pretends to be Vargas Llosa, who had a physical fight with Garcia Marquez.] This choice is derived from experience as well, it will determine how the story unfolds.
You deal with a lot of dark subjects, but you’re still a humorous writer. Could you tell us more about how you incorporate this humour into your works?
Sometimes we need to infuse humour. Even in Goat Days, you can sense that during the protagonist’s struggles, he attempts to lighten the tension. Adding funny elements to our lives is essential to alleviate stress. Even when narrating something intense, the narrator can convey it through humour. Therefore, I often incorporate many sarcastic elements into my stories.
You present Jasmine Days as a translation of an autobiography written in Arabic. Some have called you a writer who bends genres.
I am writing because I want to enjoy the process. If I am imitating myself, it will not bring any enjoyment at all. Trying different kinds of writing is crucial for me to find pleasure in the creative process. Creating a mould is essential for the stories. And if I have a mould, placing the stories in it becomes easy. But for each novel, I attempt to create a new mould and shape the story through it. I find joy in this process, and that’s why I experiment with different kinds of moulds.
In another interview, you mentioned you want to write “The Indian Novel.”
What would that look like? Are you working on it right now?
No, not at the moment. But it should be a very good novel, representing the diversity across the country. I want to explore that. First of all, I want to experience it by travelling to North India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and understand how people live. There are so many experiences I want to hear about. Only then do I plan, but within 10 years, to write a cross-cultural novel, not limited to a Malayali character. So many experiences and characters will come into play in this novel. I’m planning on it. At the moment, I am dreaming about it. Let’s see.
Goat Days is now becoming a movie. Are you involved in the project?
I was present during the shooting. I am certain that a movie is something we should perceive distinctly. The story is not the movie. The movie is the movie, and the story is the story. It’s like water and steam. The story is like water, and the movie, like steam, emerges from it, but they exist in different states. In essence, the story is present, but the movie is an entirely different entity.
So do you see this as similar to how you treat translation also? Do you intervene?
I don’t intervene at all. But I was there for the shooting. I was there for the screenwriting process. We sit together, we plan, we change the sequence. I was part of the process. But the director is the master of the film. Not the writer.
Many academics consider you a catalyst for the second movement in Malayalam literature…
It’s not me alone. There are many writers from my era, including KR Meera, TD Ramakrishnan, VJ James, Unni R, Subhash Chandran. Together we made an attempt because, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a belief that reading was declining with the rise of the internet and television. We aimed to bring readers back to novels and books…and we succeeded. It wasn’t just my effort, but the collective effort of many people, and we are happy about it.
During that period, the form and style were crucial for literature from the ’70s to the ’90s. But we felt that for our time, we needed to focus on reality and simplicity in our stories. This is evident in Goat Days as well, where I deliberately kept the form simple. Such straightforward storytelling is crucial in the new era, where there are various distractions like TVs and mobiles. Form is not as important now. In the ’70s and ’90s, experimental forms were crucial, but we decided to prioritise stories and life.
When NS Madhavan was asked who the greatest Malayalam writer was, he said, “Marquez.”
Haha, Marquez, yes.
What, in your opinion, is the relationship of the Malayali reader with world literature?
There are so many factors to consider. Numerous translations are being released in Malayalam rather than in any other Indian languages. Any Booker Prize winner, any novel from around the world, is translated into Malayalam. We are up there when it comes to translation releases, so every Malayali writer is fighting for attention from readers. Every Malayali reader is well aware of Indian literature. They compare our novels with world literature. That is the norm because while we are reading something, we are unconsciously comparing our reading experience. Only then do we realise, “Oh, this is something great. Something new that is interesting.” So Malayalam literature is almost at the level of world literature, thanks to translations from Marquez and Pamuk and others. This has raised our standard of writing.