Translated from the original Malayalam into English by Shahnaz Habib, Benyamin’s Jasmine Days – shortlisted for the inaugural JCB Prize – is set in an unnamed city in a Gulf nation where tensions between immigrants and residents who claim to have been in the country for generations lead to a violent revolution. The house where a young Pakistani Sunni Muslim woman, Sameera, lives with various branches of her family shows a country that relies on immigrants for labour, hiring them over citizens who feel entitled to those jobs. The radio station where Sameera works includes Malayali Indians, Sunni and Shia Muslims amongst other communities, and when tensions in the city erupt, it sweeps over both her worlds.
Benyamin spoke to Scroll.in about his years living in a Gulf country, the Pakistani networks of support and camaraderie he encountered there, the experience of seeing one’s work in translation, the significance of the word “harami” for Muslim women, the role of social media in revolutions, and the fact that an immigrant, no matter how assimilated, will always remain a “foreigner” in the country of migration. Excerpts from the interview:
Would you demystify the process of translation a bit for us? How is a translator chosen? Do you read the translated manuscript to see if it stays true to the original? What for you makes for a strong translation of your work?
This is an all-time, never ending discussion in the world of literature. As a writer I don’t have much involvement in it. The question is, how much has a translator absorbed the theme, language and rhythm of the original work. For selfish reasons, I may wish for a word-to-word translation. But, I must accept the reality that any word-to-word translation will end up being a miserable book. So, the writer must give some freedom to the translator – to enrich the beauty of the original work. The relationship between the original work and the translation is almost like the relationship between water and steam. So, the better word is not translation but transliteration.
Luckily, my translators are chosen by my publishers. I always read the translated manuscript and give some suggestions. My concern is with how well they’ve understood my thinking, and whether they’re able to follow the original meaning of the words.
What made you choose a radio station as one of the primary settings for a story about communal violence and revolution?
The story takes places in an unnamed city in a gulf country. The primary aim of the story was not to talk about communal violence or revolution, but to talk about what happens to relationships in such circumstances. The possibilities for radio stations had been recognised in gulf countries much earlier than in India. They started many multi-language stations which became big hits in their cities. The regional language stations became a compassionate friend for many people living alone in distant desert villages. The radio stations played a key role in pacifying those lonely people. I used such a situation in the novel because I was aware of the role a radio station plays in a city in such a violence situation.
“Taya Ghar” is a building that houses various branches of the same extended family. It’s referred to alternately as “a place of solutions” where migrants gather to seek advice and assistance with gaining employment, and as a “den of men” who rule the lives of the women within the household. Where did the idea for this house come from?
For many years, I lived in a gulf country. In that period, I had many Pakistani co-workers, friends and neighbours. We shared accommodation, we shared food, we played cricket together – I mingled with them a lot. They shared stories of their day-to-day affairs, family bonding, relationships in the city. They had their own taya ghar of which they told me inside stories. That was more than enough to create my own taya ghar.
Sameera repeatedly refers to the “harami” inside her. Was one of the reasons you chose Sameera as the protagonist the fact that she embodies both what is considered acceptable in her Sunni Muslim community as well as what is considered “haram”?
It’s not just Sameera – every woman is repeatedly referred to as “harami” by others, and sometimes by herself. Sameera represents those women. She has the courage to contest the limits set by men. The word “harami” is not shameful for her, but a sign of her courage in facing the world.
Though the novel spends some time exploring the lives of Shia Muslims in the city, it’s the Sunni Muslims who dominate the narrative. What prompted you to tell the story in the voice of a Sunni character?
In a beautiful and strong democratic society, the majority must become the voice of the minority. They should raise their voice for the minority’s freedom, rights and emotions – it is from that idea that I imagined Sameera as a Sunni Muslim who can understand the pain of others.
The word “foreigner” is used to refer to long-time immigrants in the city, many of whom are citizens. What is the context behind this word in West Asia?
I think anywhere in the world – not only in West Asia – a foreigner is always a foreigner. Nowadays, the attitude towards migrants is becoming more and more dangerous. The years spent in the county are not at all a considering factor. You will be considered as a trespasser. You can’t become a “local” ever, period. You will also be met with suspicion because of your country of origin or religion or skin colour. In West Asia, most migrants have a work visa that is only valid for two years at a time. Very few are provided citizenship and adopted into society, but even then, you will remain on the other side of the wall. Arab society wants to preserve the purity of their blood and culture, and do not want to mingle with other cultures. So, you will remain a foreigner. At the same time, they want your service as a paid slave. I am trying to discuss this dilemma in the novel.
Do you see violence and political upheaval as necessarily linked?
In most cases, there is a link – that is what history says. This isn’t on purpose, everyone wishes for a peaceful shift of power, nobody wants bloodshed or violence along with it. But who will be ready to hand over power? The rulers are not willing to recognise the common people’s needs. Most of them believe that their seats have been given to them by god and that power will remain with them till end of the world. So, people are forced to break into violence to overthrow dictators.
Facebook and Twitter feature prominently in Jasmine Days as vehicles for dissent, mobilisation, debate and more. How do you think these platforms have informed the evolving nature of activism and revolution?
These platforms came very recently into our hands. We were unaware of its power, we used it to share gossip and spread rumours. But the Arab revolution and the Jasmine revolution proved its power. We’ve seen social media’s power in so many cases after that as well from the “nirbhaya” case to the recent floods in Kerala. These platforms have shifted the positions of political parties.
From where do these faceless masses of people come? How do they come together? From where do they get the strength to fight? The answer is from social media. As a writer who keenly observes society, I must make note of it in my books.