Benyamin is a reader’s writer. His fiction aims to make the reader believe that it is fact; to believe that the narrator was “really there”. His style is a particularly good example of what the critic James Wood in his book How Fiction Works calls “Flaubertian realism”, in which the voice of the narrator is writerly in terms of how much she notices, but simultaneously not writerly “because he is not expending any labour to put it down on the page”.
In at least two of Benyamin’s novels that have so far been translated from Malayalam to English, this is achieved by effacing anything that might be described as literary style – by creating a non-literary narrator. So Goat Days is told in the voice of a poor Malayali Muslim man who arrives in Saudi Arabia to earn money, but ends up becoming a slave for a goat farmer somewhere in the desert. Jasmine Days is told in the remarkably forthright voice of Sameera, a young Pakistani woman who works as a radio jockey in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.
The truth-claim made by both novels is amplified by presenting themselves as autobiographical narratives, personal histories that have fallen into the author’s lap. So Goat Days has an “Author’s Note” that begins: “One day, my friend Sunil told me a story about a person called Najeeb. I thought it to be one of the typical sob-stories from the Gulf.” Upon meeting Najeeb, however, Benyamin explains, he grew deeply affected by the recounting of his experience, and “couldn’t fight the urge to write about it”.
In the case of Jasmine Days, Benyamin goes a step further to establish authenticity in the eyes of his readers. His name appears as author on the front cover, but inside, we are told that the book we’re holding is Benyamin’s translation of Sameera Parvin’s A Spring Without Fragrance, originally written in Arabic. In a “Translator’s Note” appended to the main narrative, Benyamin says it is “by accident that this book ended up in [his] hands”, and that he only gained the rights to “translate” this manuscript into Malayalam when he agreed to “ghostwrite” another novel for another writer: Al Arabian Novel Factory (this is the actual name of Benyamin’s next novel). For those of us reading the book in English, of course, there is another layer of meaning created by the fact that what we have here really is a translation: Shahnaz Habib’s translation into English from Benyamin’s Malayalam.
Entering new worlds
The book’s ability to persuade us of its authenticity beyond language also feeds into – and emerges out of – the multivocality of its milieu. This is a Malayalam novel in which neither the locale nor the main characters are Malayali. Benyamin does not name the country, but it is well-known that he lived and worked in Bahrain for many years before moving back to Kerala. He chooses to introduce his Malayali readership to the Middle Eastern migrant life through the eyes of a Pakistani young woman. Right from the start, when Malayalis do appear in the book, Benyamin’s reversal of the gaze forces his readers into self-reflexivity. For instance, Sameera’s use of the term “Malayalam Mafia” for her colleagues who are “experts in speaking exclusively in Malayalam, without using even a single word from Hindi or English, so that the rest of us might not even guess what they were saying” is Benyamin holding up a mirror gently to his countrymen, showing them quite how insular they can seem to others.
As the book proceeds, one begins to realise that this is very much part of Benyamin’s project: his fiction pushes his readers to enter worlds they might close off in real life; to meet people they might live cheek by jowl with, but never befriend. Sameera’s daily life unfolds in two primary locales: home and work. Her conservative joint family setup is headed by her father’s eldest brother, known to her as Taya and the larger Pakistani community in the city as Ashraf Sahib. “A job for someone, a job dispute back in the village, suspicion about a wife....”: favour-seekers come to Taya Ghar with all kinds of problems, and “[l]ike a zamindar, Taya would sit in a chair in the middle and listen.” Taya Ghar represents all the good and the bad things about feudal patriarchy: there is place here for everyone with a need, but how that need is dealt with is determined by ever-present hierarchies of age, caste and gender: visitors like Baluchi Barber and Chamar Chacha have one status, Sameera’s father has another, her Sippy Aunty and her Aisha Bhupoma yet another.
The changing role of women
The many characters in Taya Ghar allow Benyamin another kind of multivocality. One of Sameera’s favourite visitors, Kareem Chacha, declares that love makes women angels, and that they should therefore be allowed to choose their own husbands. But meanwhile, the women of Taya Ghar have all had arranged marriages: they are expected never to go anywhere alone, even to the souk. Facebook is off-limits as well: “The men of the house called it the ticket booth for the train to hell. But apparently those tickets only took women to hell.”
But generational change is afoot: the youngest female member of the household, the school-going Farhana, is conducting a secret life on her mobile phone. Sameera, too, negotiates for her independence within the family and community context, but her style is more upfront than Farhana’s:
“By the age of twelve I had learnt to return ma’s fierce glances and respond with twelve words for every word she spoke. By the time I was in college, I had learned to ignore her scolding and retreat into my room with my cellphone. Remember how you guys used to call me, secretly and not-so-secretly, a harami chhokri? That was me, not just outside but also inside the house. I did not waste too much obedience on my dada and dadi, or chachas, mamus and mamis. I can even say proudly that my family grudgingly learnt to respect me for expressing my opinions to anyone’s face, for charming my way into getting what I wanted.”
As her adopted country plunges into political turmoil, an ill-informed Sameera walks both real and virtual paths to educate herself on the issues at stake: the ills of the monarchy, the historical conflict between Sunnis and Shias, debates over censorship and the freedom of the press, battles over ideological purity when the state tries to wean its citizens away from protest by offering subsidies. Her friendship with a male, Shia, Arabic-speaking colleague, forged over a secret music group and virtual visits to each other’s homes in a Facebook game called City Villa, becomes increasingly fraught with controversy. As the political temperature rises, she finds herself torn between her family’s (and community’s) pragmatic establishmentarian loyalties – and her growing empathy with the Arab protestors.
The immersive quality of Goat Days was based on our identification with a solitary protagonist, a single, hellish locale, and the struggle to escape it. Jasmine Days has more locales, many more characters and a much more complex political landscape. But what Benyamin pulls off again is Sameera’s voice: the almost spoken-word simplicity with which this landscape is rendered makes it hard not to listen.
Jasmine Days, Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib, Juggernaut.
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said only two of Benyamin’s novels have been translated into English. This has been corrected.