One morning, in June, 2016, award-winning Malayali author Benyamin was reading the newspaper at his home in Pandalam, Kerala. When he came across a particular news item, he held his breath.
Several leading surgeons in Delhi had been part of an international kidney transplant racket. One Dr Deepak Shukla, the CEO of the Pushpawati Singhania Research Institute, along with a few others had been arrested.
“Organ donation is an important concept,” said Benyamin. “Many people can get a new life because of this. These are vital parts of the human body. It was difficult for me to imagine that people could run a trade in this.”
It sparked an interest in him to write a novel on the theme. After his research, it took about two-and-a-half years to write the book. It was originally published in Malayalam with the title Sareera Shastram in 2017.
The story starts simply enough. A character named Midhun has a bike accident in Delhi. The injuries are minor, but a day after he is admitted to a hospital he takes a turn for the worse and dies. Subsequently, his organs are donated to six people.
Midhun’s friends Ragesh, Sandhya and Rithu, who work in multinational companies, are part of a Christian fellowship group run by Pastor Sam Philips.
“The story is about how pastors draw people into their religion and how the priests are also connected with organ trafficking,” said Benyamin. “Accidents are deliberately staged, so that people are injured, taken to a hospital, put into a coma, and their organs are harvested.”
The trio feels suspicious and starts their investigations. The middle of the book has the tautness of a mystery novel. One character, Aunty Jovana explains, with simplicity, the reasons behind the racket: “What is important to everyone is money. Belief is just a cover. It is sad that my Xavier also fell into the net.”
It is a smooth read. Sentences are lucid and crisp thanks to an excellent translation by brand consultant Swarup BR. Many chapters are only two or three pages long. The story is not confined to Delhi but moves to Goa, Kasol in Himachal Pradesh, Bhopal, Chennai and Pune, where some characters have their hometowns.
Along the way, Benyamin throws off lines that make you pause and ponder:
- “Life is a football game between dreams and fate.”
- “Who am I? Why am I? How am I? How long has man been asking this to himself and God? It is unbearable that every generation ends up asking the same question. It’s time God gave up his silence.”
- “This is the age of tele-evangelists who travel the world in their private jets, charging crores for a one-hour session on TV. What business does that poor carpenter from Nazareth have here?”
- “Every question has two answers. The right one and the polite one. The person who asks must decide which answer is required.”
- There is no point in knowing the secrets of powerful people. Even if we try to know them, it will be in vain — they will remain secrets forever.
Interestingly, some readers have told Benyamin that the book seems to be an inspiration for the Malayalam film, Trance, which was released on February 20. In the film, actor Fahadh Fasil plays the role of a Christian pastor named Joshua Carlton who performs hoax miracles. “Many scenes seem to be lifted straight from the novel,” said Benyamin. “However, the link to organ trafficking is not there.”
Confined to his home because of the coronavirus pandemic, Benyamin is not worried that his book has been released during it. “I believe people are reading more these days because they are stuck at home,” he said. “They are buying books through the digital format since it can be accessed so easily.”
But Benyamin admitted that the stamina to read large novels is dwinding. “This is more true among youngsters. They do not want to read a book beyond 250 pages.”
Times have changed. Benyamin remembers reading the novels of Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie. “The plot starts only after 50 pages,” he said. “Rushdie talks about a lot of things before he reaches the story. I don’t think that type of writing will be accepted now. People want the story to move forward quickly. They have been influenced a lot by the visual media.”
The winner of the inaugural 2018 JCB Prize for Literature for Jasmine Days added, “The era of literary gimmicks is over. We have to attract a reader within the first five pages, otherwise we will lose them forever.”
To work harder on his prose, Benyamin has become that rare species: the full-time writer. In 2014, he returned from Bahrain after working there for 20 years, and settled down in his hometown.
Asked about his current life, Benyamin said, “It is much more pleasant being a full-time writer. For one I can devote more time to literature. Secondly, it has become easy for me to travel, as I am not working for anybody. I can attend a lot of literary meets in Kerala and abroad.”
For example, last year, he attended the Berlin International Literature Festival. “The drawback is that there are a lot of literary meets which take place, and it is difficult to say no,” he said. “But the writer should always be at his desk writing.” Not surprisingly, his next novel is about travel. “I am collecting material on it,” he said.