Malayalam writer Benyamin sprang into the spotlight in 2008 when his book Aadujeevitham (Goat Days), chronicling the real-life experiences of a Malayali who goes to the Gulf in search of work and gets accidentally pushed into becoming a goat-herder, was published to widespread critical acclaim. His lucid style of writing brimming with a fervent emotional depth immediately connected with Malayali readers, both within Kerala and the diaspora, and it was no surprise when it helped the debut author bag the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 2009. The book is now being developed into a full-length Malayalam feature film starring actor Prithviraj Sukumaran.
In 2014, his book Mullapoo Niramulla Pakalukal, later translated into English as Jasmine Days, was awarded the inaugural JCB prize for literature, considered India’s most valuable literary prize for fiction. The prize has firmly established Benyamin, who spent long years as an expatriate engineer in Bahrain before settling down in Kerala, in the country’s literary landscape.
The 49-year-old writer spoke to indianexpress.com on the sidelines of the Kerala Literature Festival (KLF) in Kozhikode about his process of writing, his affection for the marginalised and the dwindling importance of the Gulf for Kerala.
You’ve been a regular visitor to KLF since its inception in 2016. What makes it stand out from other literary festivals in India?
It’s very regional. Readers of Kerala are intimate about reading. Other than literature, we can discuss politics, social issues and others. It’s an open area. It’s by the sea so anyone can enter and participate in the conversations. It’s quite popular and open.
You’ve been an expatriate for a long time. When your first book was released, writings from the diaspora were an unexplored territory. Has it changed?
Millions of people have been going back and forth to the Middle East over the last 40-50 years. Each person has a different story. I prefer to choose one or two stories, but many are still unwritten because they may not have a vocabulary to tell their own stories or share experiences. Many of the stories are lost. If we can find letters that they (expatriates) wrote to their families back home, there are a lot of stories of their sufferings and their sustenance.
In your book Aadujeevitham or Goat days, you chronicled the real-life experiences of a Malayali going to the Gulf and accidentally pushed to become a goat herder in the desert. When you wrote the book, did it surprise you that such an account was never documented before?
There are so many reasons it was not accounted for. As I said before, many of them (expatriates) may not have the language to write about their own experiences. They go to the Gulf for their livelihood. Also, the government there is quite strict and many are afraid to write about such experiences. That’s why it was not written. In Kerala, many are also not willing to reveal the kind of life they lead there. They don’t want to disclose. Even in my book, Najeeb never told his family the kind of life he led there. He revealed it to me. Only after the book was published did his family know about the conditions of his life there. They want them (families) to believe that they lead a good life there.
The Gulf has always held a special position for the Malayali. It has been a source of immense economic opportunities. But now, we see hordes of people from Kerala returning from Gulf countries as a result of various factors including job losses and low oil prices. Can we say the Gulf dream is officially over?
Almost set to be over. First of all, the wage scale in the Gulf is still stuck in the 80s-90s period. But the cost of living in Kerala is probably double or triple. A person may get a good pay if he works here so many are not willing to go to the Gulf. Secondly, many of our younger generation are well-educated and therefore not suited for the job there. They (Gulf countries) want (unskilled) labourers whom they find from countries like Nepal and Bangladesh.
How do you think Kerala can sustain the return of such a large expatriate community?
We have to create more jobs. The younger generation is focused on information technology and the internet. The Technopark (in Trivandrum) is a good example. Such facilities must be created in other places too. The youngsters are also willing to go to other countries, not necessarily those in the Gulf. They are going to Canada, Ireland, England and Australia. Migration to these countries is also happening though it’s not on a large scale. I think we would be able to find other destinations for work. (laughs).
You’ve once said that you consider yourself a humble ambassador of the marginalised. What makes you attracted to the marginalised?
I went to the Gulf as an engineer with a private firm. I’d never thought I would become a writer. In my time there, I had a lot of experiences while working with the (unskilled) labourers. Then I thought to myself that such experiences never found a position in our literature. That’s how I started writing about them. I practice Christianity. In the Bible, there’s an important question to man, ‘Where’s your brother?’. In every story, I wish to search for the brother. When you search for the brother, you realise that they have not been accounted for and remain very much marginalised. They are ignored. This is my duty to write about them.
You think and write in Malayalam. But interestingly, the English translation of your book Jasmine Days won the JCB prize for literature, considered India’s most valuable prize, in 2018. Were you surprised when it happened?
Yes, it was a surprise. The major awards in the country usually go to the Indian English writers. Nowadays, regional writers are getting a lot of attention, in the last decade. The readers know that regional writers have an essence. If you want to know about India better, its villages and the lives there, you have to go back to regional languages. The JCB prize increased chances of translation from not just Malayalam but other Indian languages. The Indian publishing world now understands that there’s a lot of good literature in regional languages.
What’s the process of your writing? Long hours? Uninterrupted writing? Is the process frustrating?
Getting an idea (for a book) may be annoying. Once it is stuck in my head, I start thinking. It will start troubling me. The plot will develop very slowly in my mind. I will start collecting material for the novel. I determine the length of the story and its multiple elements or layers. It may be a long process, sometimes one or two years. Writing is only the third stage. I don’t necessarily write from the beginning. I can start from anywhere. I know which direction to take and how to rearrange all the chapters. Since I write on a computer these days, it’s basically writing and editing until I feel a sense of satisfaction. I enjoy writing, but the frustration is also there. There are barriers. Some situations may be hard to write. When I overcome such situations, I feel satisfied. Since I don’t have a full-time job, I write through the day. I cook as well. I write mostly through late-nights.
Aadujeevitham (Goat Days) is now being made into a Malayalam movie. Are you involved closely with the project?
I’m always with them. The screenplay is written by the director, but he discusses it with me. I sometimes make certain suggestions or corrections. Whenever each scene is shot, I and the director finalise the dialogues. That’s how much I am involved with the project. Cinema is a different medium and has a different process. People who don’t like to read books can watch the film. I give full freedom to the director. I always say the connection between the book and the film would be like between water and steam.
There are protests taking place nationwide against the citizenship law. Your thoughts on the protests and also on the silence from large sections of the literary world in India.
For the past 2-3 years, the country has been ruled by fear. Nobody was willing to say anything against the government. But now, our youth are out on the streets, protesting. People are now getting the courage to speak. I wish to salute the youth because they have a good vision of how to lead the country in the future. This is a very dangerous situation but I’m positive that we will overcome this. Many of the writers still continue to fear the government. But it’s our duty to speak courageously. Otherwise, we would regret it later. This is the time to respond.
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