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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Book review: The Mystery of the Missing Writer

A lean, mean multitasking whodunit about authors, history and stories.

Written by Abhirami Sriram |
Updated: January 23, 2016 12:59:21 am


Book: Yellow Lights of Death/Manjaveyil Maranangal

Author: Benyamin

Translated from Malayalam by Sajeev Kumarapuram
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 387
Price: Rs 399

Benyamin’s Yellow Lights of Death is a lean, mean multitasking whodunit. Even as it demands to be strung together, clue by clue, chapter by slender chapter, it also pulls the author into his own web of intrigue, right at the outset.
The book opens in medias res at the portals of an ancient Christian bastion in Udayamperoor, Kerala. Benyamin, the writer, and a friend arrive at Valyadethu Veedu in search of the elusive Christie Andrapper. Their inquiries only serve to muddy the already murky waters. A brief flashback reveals a couple of anonymous emails from one who claims his life is endangered and persistently requests that Benyamin read and retell his life-story. Cut to Diego Garcia (the very name somehow redolent of Kerala’s twin Latin-American obsessions: football and fabulism), land of lagoons, melting pot of multiculturalism.

Twenty-eight-year-old Andrapper is just another author manqué bent under the weight of familial expectation and writer’s block — until he witnesses a bizarre accident in public one day. A shootout at a coffee shop kills a man (whom Andrapper later recognises to be a former classmate, Senthil) and yet, moments later, it’s as if nothing had happened. There are no telltale trails, no police or medical records, nothing to prove anything. Erasure couldn’t have been more complete. Just as you begin to wonder whether it’s all happening inside his head, there ends part one of the story-within-the-story.

Benyamin turns to kindred spirits at the Thursday Market, a wonderfully cantankerous adda such as can be found debating life and literature outside every second chaaya kada in Kerala. Anil, Salim, Achachan, Sudhi Mashu, Biju and Saju alias Nattapranthan, “friends in reality and fiction”, dive right in and take turns to look high and low for clues that will take the story forward. (The solitary writer locked up in his study is clearly a fossil of the past.)

Thus crowdsourced, leads are ferreted out faster, possibilities discussed and debated, and all dots joined between myth and mystery. Benyamin also revels in the shared camaraderie of cyberspace — Orkut scraps, Facebook timelines, blogs and steganography all part of his great plot-puzzle. Andrapper’s story surges on in eagerly-awaited instalments; his quest to make sense of a death by daylight will lead, incredibly, into a dark spiral of family secrets and later, as far back as the first Portuguese footprint in Kerala, the slow-arm wrestle of Latin over the native tongue, and the silent dwindling away of a faith, an entire way of life.

In Yellow Lights of Death, forgotten chapters of history are fleshed out, geography tweaked around (Diego Garcia becomes a branch of Kerala, almost!) and a fistful of romance too added, for good measure. The only glitch, to my mind, is that Andrapper/Benyamin seem to strew their clues a little too easily, too obviously. Rather than a jigsaw puzzle that needs to be painstakingly pieced together, the plot often feels disingenuous, like a pre-solved exam paper. Classmates, even cousins of acquaintances, keep popping up on cue to ask Andrapper, “Do you remember me?” But when the most crucial clue of them all is shown to appear as a revelation in a dream, and the Kerala road map conquered with no sweat thereafter, it is tough to suspend disbelief, willingly or otherwise!

In the end, storytelling takes all. Yellow Lights of Death is as much about writing, and reading, as it is about hidden histories and cryptic clues. The “hotbed of experience” turns Andrapper’s gaze inward and helps overcome his writing block at long last, even as Benyamin himself maintains that “stories are not penned by those who experience them, but by those who listen to them. Only they can write stories.”

Abhirami Sriram is a Chennai-based writer and translator

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