Of 'Jasmine Days' and revolution: Writer Benyamin speaks to TNM about art and society

The writer also comments on the intolerance that's on the rise in Kerala, with the most recent example being the withdrawal of Hareesh's novel.
Of 'Jasmine Days' and revolution: Writer Benyamin speaks to TNM about art and society
Of 'Jasmine Days' and revolution: Writer Benyamin speaks to TNM about art and society
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No, there is no Sameera Parvin; it is just a literary trick that is picking up. You see, right from the beginning to the end of the book Jasmine Days, you are led to think Sameera wrote it. That the original was in Arabic and that Benyamin, the writer we know as the author of Aadujeevitham, merely translated it into Malayalam. Now, Benyamin, attending a literary festival in Alappuzha, reveals that it is all a part of the fictional world. That he wrote the original, he created Sameera, a Pakistani expatriate in a Middle East country, witnessing a revolution. 

“It is a new style. Fiction begins from the cover page,” he laughs, like a man who has played a trick on you. Many readers end up thinking so, he admits. Even on Google, if you search for his book, some poor blighter has written about the original in Arabic, supposedly penned by Sameera. But then you brush that little joke aside. There is a much larger tale waiting inside the book.

 “It comes from my own experience of living in a Middle East country like Bahrain for so many years,” Benyamin says.  

He had often wondered how the people could live through a dictatorial government, and if they didn’t desire democracy. And then, the revolutions happened. The Arab Spring happened. However, in Jasmine Days, he doesn’t name a country. It is called the ‘City’.  

“It needn’t have a name, it shouldn’t be specific, for it can be any Middle Eastern country. And I wanted to write from two different perspectives of what goes on in a country in strife, in revolution.” 

He is talking about two books here. In Malayalam, they had come together -. Mullappooniramulla Pakalukal and Al Arabian Novel FactoryJasmine Days is only one part, from Sameera’s perspective, and has now been translated into English by Shahnaz Habib. The other part, that will be translated to English later, is from the perspective of a journalist and Sameera’s book will appear as a novel that is banned in the country. 

“They can be standalone books, but there is a connection,” Benyamin explains.  

Several of the characters in the book – Sameera's family that had settled in the City for many years, the youth in her office, and others – are based on real life people that the author has met. Sameera lives in Thai Ghar, where thai – her dad’s big brother - has brought his brothers and their families, given them good careers and comforts. Sameera, who comes from Pakistan, gets her dream job of an RJ. The employees there are divided. Sameera, a Pakistani, expresses her obvious dislike for India and in turn, a team she calls Malayalam Mafia lectures to her about their proud heritage.  

Benyamin is not worried that this could be used against him in this day and age when anything remotely critical of the country can bring you the label of an anti national, fiction or not. Later in the novel, he easily brings around the characters to show that everyone goes through the same pain and suffering, living in a country in strife. There is a touching scene when the Malayalam Mafia she had always been fighting with takes Sameera safely to her home on a day all their lives are in danger. 

It is not just his experience of living in a Middle East country that you see in the novel. Benyamin has studied a lot, done his research of history and politics. He writes about the centuries-long Shia and Sunni differences, what they suffer at each other’s hands, the friendships despite all this. Benyamin puts at the centre of Sameera’s life, a character called Ali, a young man she becomes very close with but one who cannot be comprehended at times. He is a Shia Muslim who had to suffer a lot from his childhood, lose his father and a brother. This has put some dents in his otherwise cheerful, music-loving burger-eating regular-youngster qualities. Some dents go really deep, Sameera later discovers. 

The revolution that is at the centre of the novel takes place in a square in front of Sameera’s flat. “It is mostly what I saw from my own flat in Bahrain,” Benyamin says. It has to be, it cannot be so realistic otherwise, through mere words. 

It was important to Benyamin that it came in the voice of a young woman. “Women go through the most terrible experiences,” he says, leaving the rest of the line incomplete. When anything goes wrong in a country, as it happens in a family, you gather. The chains, always at a threateningly close distance, will cover her up at the mere suggestion of trouble.  

It is women who are supposed to be hurt again, when in Kerala, a new controversy broke out about S Hareesh’s novel Meesha. Certain lines of a conversation between two people in Hareesh’s novel offended some. There came threats to his life, to his family’s lives, and Hareesh withdrew the novel that was being published chapter by chapter in a Malayalam magazine.  

“The intolerance that you see in the rest of the country is also coming to Kerala. It is not a particular section of people either. It comes from all sorts of communities and parties, one can’t just tolerate a stance that’s different from one’s own. We are growing backwards from the time Kerala saw the navodhana prasthanam (renaissance),” Benyamin says. 

He lists recent incidents like the row over Dalit artist Asanthan Mash’s body which was placed facing a temple, of the death of Kevin killed over an intercaste marriage, and of Manik Roy, the migrant Bengali accused of stealing a chicken and beaten to death.  

“In the case of Hareesh, the problem they found was that it was insulting to women. And so they react by insulting the women at his home. Look at the irony,” Benyamin says.  

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