A new story by Malayalam writer Benyamin’s invariably builds expectations. His fiction always begins very close to fact, so close that you don’t know where the line is. His brilliant novel Goat Days picked on the real-life tribulations of a group of labourers in West Asia, added character and plot, and spun a wildly original tale that was clearly believable while being seeming much too fantastic.

In many ways, the same touch is evident in his new long story, Kumari Devi, published on the Juggernaut app as part of the digital publisher’s series of original new short fiction by well-known writers (such as Suketu Mehta’s What Is Remembered). Here Benyamin picks the life of a domestic help come to India from Nepal, the elderly Sunina Shakya Devi who – inexplicably, given class stereotypes – is big on the use of cosmetics while being terrific at her work.

Her strange ways alienate her employers, one half of whom wants to get rid of her – the other is too pleased to have ironed shirts and clean floors without stretching himself to entertain the thought. Benyamin builds the first half of his story as a regular tale of (presumably) small town India, taking the reader along on the back of convincing situations, characters and dialogue. But you are left wondering when the real drama will come.

Which, of course, it does. And leads inexorably to the unravelling of the life of the domestic help who is, obviously, not who she seems to be. Benyamin’s storytelling is magnetic, drawing the reader towards an ending that they half suspect, but which still leaves room for an additional and poignant twist.

The trap of social fiction

It would be easy to interpret Kumari Devi as a critique of the practice in Nepal of worshipping young girls as a manifestation of divine energy, and draw a line from it to the fate of women like Sunina Shakya Devi. But to reduce Benyamin’s story to sociology is perhaps the worst disservice you can do to it – although it is almost an open invitation from the author.

But the real story here is not so much the cause and effect manifested in Devi’s life as it is the relationships of trust, betrayal, exploitation and faith that are woven around that life, using the thread of middle-class urban Indian values. The woman from Nepal is betrayed several times over, and it is this roster of treachery that Benyamin opens up for uncomfortable consumption.

And yet, because his setting is not the world of Indian labourers in West Asia but one very familiar to the Indian reader, the impact is deadened to some extent. To be sure, Benyamin builds in a touch of the bizarre, but even that does not generate the shocks that a Goat Days did.

To start with, there was nothing in the woman to warrant such a long name. Geetha aunty was not impressed and she made her displeasure clear at first glance.

"What work will this woman do in our house?"

I was not entirely convinced on the matter of her name, and I shared Geetha aunty’s scepticism of her ability to perform domestic chores. Sunina Shakya Devi was a skinny old woman. She was huffing and puffing just walking up the ten or so steps to Gopiettan’s flat. Her hair had

started turning grey in places. But none of this seemed to have any bearing on her attire and make- up, to which she had clearly paid a lot of attention to – bright red lipstick, one-and-three-quarter inches of face powder, enormous earrings, shiny nose ring, a necklace that pretty much covered her neck, flashy sari, and red socks and sandals on her feet. She looked as if she was all set to perform at a show.

‘Geetha aunty, you have no idea of the trouble I went to to find this woman. Until we find someone more appropriate, you will have to bear with her.’ I pleaded with her as I wanted to escape from the predicament in which I found myself.

‘Yes, yes, he is right. You won’t understand how difficult it is to find a maid nowadays.’ Gopiettan offered some well-needed support. 

Telling a story

Still, this is fiction, and the telling of the story is important. The narration is vivid in its imagery, always enabling the reader to see and hear, and not just follow the words. These may seem hygiene factors for literature, but in a world where writers compete with one another for linguistic finesse, we often see more effect than fundamentals, more form than content.

That Benyamin writes in an “Indian” language probably enables him to avoid these stylistic routes. Vitally for this work, he has found in Veena Muthuraman the translator he deserves, who smoothly transports the original into English without angularities and cause for hiccups while reading. And the writer’s skill with the spoken word in particular stands revealed in transparent grace.

As always, Benyamin’s story puts individuals at the core of the experience – individuals who embody a larger story of a larger group of community. This is old-fashioned fiction in some senses, relying on narrative power and graphic details. But as with any good story, there are silences and questions, and it is what the reader must do to give a voice to the silence – especially Sunina Shakya Devi’s own – and to search out answers to those questions that brings out the fullness in this story.

Now, if only the story had been several notches more strange than it is. It tries in its own way to do to a Nepalese tradition and Indian exploitation what Goat Days to working life in the Gulf, but it doesn't get quite as close.

Kumari Devi, Benyamin, translated from the Malayalam by Veena Muthuraman, published on the Juggernaut app.