A few years ago, I was visiting a friend’s guesthouse in Attapadi, Kerala. Around dinner time, a local naturalist dropped by. He was soon followed by a schoolteacher from the nearest town. After the stars came out, we all congregated on the verandah to enjoy the breeze and chat with each other while nourishing the local mosquito population. We flitted from topic to topic, from the pros and cons of new generation cinema to how Western diets had destroyed our bodies, all topics beloved to the Malayali heart. And as often happens to women in the company of men, I found myself on the fringes of the conversation, ignored or drowned out. Fine, then. I was too busy anyway trying to massacre as many mosquitoes as possible.
Then the conversation turned to literature and I heard someone mention Benyamin. I had just started working on Jasmine Days, my first foray into literary translation. “I am translating Benyamin,” I murmured. And something interesting happened – four men stopped talking. They looked at me with interest, even, dare I say it, respect. Now they wanted me to talk. What is it like to translate Benyamin?
The irony is not lost on me. It took the name of a male author to get the dubious honor of that male approval. But it is also a testimony to how beloved Benyamin is in Kerala. Malayalam literature had settled into fertile but familiar ruts, when Benyamin came by. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that it took so long for us to read a novel like Goat Days. Far too easy instead to take pride in the US$7 billion that floats in annually across the seas. Far more fun to mock the cliché Gulf NRIs with their cooling glasses and the architectural confections that lie uninhabited for ten months every year. Then came Najeeb and his goats. We read and felt the heat of the desert and just as Najeeb saw his family and friends in the goats he tended, we saw our family and friends in Najeeb. Some writers show us things we haven’t seen. Benyamin showed us what we had always suspected, and didn’t want to confront.
So it was with excitement and curiosity that I took on translating Benyamin’s twin novels Jasmine Days and Al-Arabian Novel Factory. Also set in West Asia, but in an unnamed city where different diasporas mingle uneasily with locals in the aftermath of a failed revolution, Al Arabian is narrated by Pratap, a Canadian-Indian journalist who arrives on a research mission for an anonymous novelist. I suppose one should not judge a book by its title, but I will confess that I found the title hard to resist. What writer would not want to read about a novel factory? The title alone seemed to be a comment on how the borders between art and industry have blurred, how fiction and nonfiction have exchanged their roles. In the course of his life in the city, Pratap comes across a review copy of a mysterious book, A Spring Without Fragrance. Then the book itself disappears, and Pratap finds its impossible to trace the book or its writer, a young woman called Sameera.
Jasmine Days takes the puzzle one step further. It is a translation of a (fictional) translation. As a first-time translator, I found this auspicious and intimidating in equal measure. Eventually Pratap finds the mystery book and commissions a Malayali writer who used to live in the city to translate it into Malayalam, that writer being none other than Benyamin. “It was the novel I would have written if I had had the guts to write it. I pitied myself for not writing it,” Benyamin the character says after reading Sameera’s novel. He regrets that, like so many people in the diaspora, he had preferred to not muddy the waters, to choose self-censorship. Pratap forces him to ghost-write Al Arabian Novel Factory in Malayalam in return for the rights to translate Sameera.
Yes, it’s enough to make your head spin. I am in the middle of translating Al Arabian Novel Factory, and sometimes I have to stop and take a deep breath and think through all the different authorial personas that have been baked into these twin novels. But it is also exhilarating to see the narrative centre of the book shift from author to author. And as the translator of a fictional translation, it is tantalising to experience that narrative centre move from one language to the other, from Arabic to Malayalam to English, from the diaspora to the homeland, depending, of course, on what you define as home.
My favourite moment in Jasmine Days is when Sameera writes about her father’s annual visit home to Pakistan.
One day at home when we, including Ma, were teasing him, Baba burst into tears. He was feeling very small about his ignorance and helplessness. I was twelve or thirteen. For my birthday, Baba had sent me a card that played music when you opened it. It was the first time in my life that Baba had sent me a greeting card. He had no interest in “fashionable” behaviours such as expressing love, sending greeting cards, paying compliments etc. But perhaps some friends of his had fired him up, “your daughter is growing up fast. If you don’t show her love now, when will you?” And so he had gone eagerly to some shop and bought a card and sent it to me on my birthday. That’s not why we laughed at him. The card Baba sent me for my birthday was a Christmas card!
The scene moves me deeply because Sameera’s father is failing at translation, and yet, how much more precious his failed attempt is, because it conveys the unsurmountable distance between his love and the expression of it; between who he is and who he tried to be. Jasmine Days reminded me that translation is never enough, but it is all we have.