From the day he saw the revolutions in Arab countries, writer Benyamin, an expatriate from Kerala making a living there, had wanted to write a novel around it. When he wrote, it became two novels – 'twin novels' as he’d call it. There was too much happening to be put into one book. And he didn’t want one separated from the other so he tied a common thread around them. One novel – Jasmine Days – became part of the other – Al Arabian Novel Factory. The two, originally written in Malayalam, have now come out in English as well.
“One talks about the revolutionary period and the other, post-revolution period. I thought these two books should have some interconnection. A reader who reads the first book must read the second one too. So I worked around the main matter to bring about the connection. All that happened at the time of completing the novel. Novel writing is not a single-line process; it has so many layers and steps,” says Benyamin in an interview.
Jasmine Days, released last year, is about Sameera Parvin, a Pakistani expatriate in a Gulf country that’s mentioned in the book only as 'the City'. A radio jockey with a taste for music, Sameera experiences the strife and the pain it brings.
Al Arabian, the English version of which was published recently, is about a journalist going to the City for some research work and coming across Sameera’s book, which has been banned. So much that, every last copy is being traced and destroyed, while the possessors (of the book) get punished.
Pratap, a Malayali journalist living in Canada, is lured into the City by the desire to see his old lover, Jasmine. Benyamin makes her, Jasmine, an abstract presence, appearing in the thoughts of Pratap, or else spoken about as the old lover who came back to his life with her emails. He leaves it to the reader to decide if she is a person or a concept. “Each reader can have a different opinion. But then I made the name of the lover as Jasmine intentionally. Because, it is the name of the revolution too,” Benyamin says.
Pratap’s interest in finding his old lover wanes as he gets drawn to the lives in the City, protesting and fighting the establishment that cannot tolerate the slightest form of dissent. “The writer should be the voice of the voiceless. But I can’t be part of one side. Everyone has explanations. So I must portray both sides. But as a political man, I strongly protest the powers of a government that is forced on innocent people,” Benyamin says.
By the time Pratap reaches the City, the protests had died down. But there are stories waiting to be told everywhere. Pratap and a team of journalists are to find these stories for a novelist sitting elsewhere and writing about the protests in the Arab countries. Even in this team, there are different perceptions. There is one who is biased enough to immediately be suspicious of the single Muslim in the team. There is another who is willing to risk everything to save one of the members in their team.
Unlike Sameera, some of the other female characters in the story are written as dull and docile figures. Daisy, an old classmate of Pratap who has a crush on him, is often ridiculed by her husband for not being too bright. He’d send her off in the middle of a group discussion to get juice for the guests. At one point, he even complains to Pratap that Daisy has now begun spending her salary by herself instead of giving it to him. It gets a little irritating when there is no mention in the book to discourage such an attitude, or at least describe the husband as a chauvinistic man. It runs the risk of being read like the ideal state of affairs between a husband and wife.
"It's not like that," Benyamin says. “Such characters are available in both sexes. As there are in society, they are in the book too. It wasn’t my intention to make the women dull. It just happened to be a couple of women, but it could have been men too. Look at the character of Sameera and a few other women in the book. They are very political and strong,” he adds.
Benyamin’s writing, as he says, does not take sides. At one point he talks about the protesters who harm or kill their own to claim martyrdom and cruelties by the authorities. But on the other hand, he shows the merciless attacks by the authorities to shut those who speak up, like Sameera and her book.
The CAA connect
Co-incidentally, Benjamin's second book in the series, Al Arabian, holds relevance in today's context where thousands across India are dissenting the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act.
There is a scene when Pratap and another journalist visit the head of a terrorist organisation. Even as Pratap does not agree with the other's methods, he listens to his reasons. “I don’t have any empathy for religious fanatics. But we have to check who the state labels as ‘terrorists’. They may be the common people protesting for a genuine reason. Just see the current situation in India. People are protesting for a genuine reason,” Benyamin says, referring to the country-wide protests against the recently-passed Citizenship Amendment Act and National Registry of Citizens.
Benyamin goes on: “They are from various parts of the society. They don’t even follow the same ideology. But they all have a common reason for protesting. But see how the government categorises them. In their view, all are urban Naxals. In the same way, some are labelled terrorists. When we dig deep, we can understand that many of them may not be terrorists but common people revolting for a genuine reason. There are organisations driven by fundamentalists. We should be able to separate them from the people who protest for a cause.”
The writer says that when he watched these protests in another country, he never thought something similar was going to happen in his own country. “But unfortunately, it is in our doorstep. For the past few years, fear was the face of our country. Nobody had the courage to tell anything (critical) about the government and its leaders. If somebody shows courage, they are targeted. It was almost like an autocratic regime. But now the people have had enough. They have thrown caution to the wind and courageously moved to the streets to speak against the government. This is a positive sign. It shows the power of democracy.”
Benyamin feels that the government is still acting like an autocratic regime, trying to suppress opposing opinions and protests. “Internet is cut, police are shooting innocent people, students are being detained. This will damage democracy. They must listen to the common people’s voice and preserve their right to protest.”