Benyamin brings freshness to Malayalam literature
"Benyamin comes like spring thunder over a summer sky in the arid landscape of Malayalam literature; his writing is a sign that we are finding our feet again" - a young author finds high praise from one of Malayalam's finest writers, N S Madhavan.
Benyamin's seminal work Aadu Jeevitham, winner of the 2009 Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, has recently been translated into English as Goat Days.
In an engaging conversation with Madhavan at the Kovalam Literary Festival today, Benyamin read out a passage from the translation and spoke about his much-acclaimed book.
The novel portrays three-and-a-half years of the slavish and barren life of a labour-class Malayali in a Saudi Arabian goat farm which is virtually cut off from the rest of the world. The story is inspired by a man whom Benyamin met accidentally some years ago.
"I found it difficult to extract his story at first. But when he revealed his mind, I knew I had to write it down," he said.
"Malayalis have been living and working in the Gulf for decades now, but I think few have spoken the truth about their lives there. It is always romanticised - in real, in writing and in films. As a Pravasi Malayali, I thought I had to tell the truth." Madhavan calls this collective denial a 'Faustian guilt'.
"The vocal, rights-aware, bandh-calling, freedom loving Malayali effectively sells his soul when he travels to the Gulf to slog away in the desert for his livelihood. They cannot or are not able to speak ill of life there, which is probably why no one ever has ever written about it in this way. Benyamin is the first writer to break this unspoken taboo." Benyamin said many people who have not had the Gulf experience do not even have a notion of what a desert is like. "I can tell you it is not barren; it is a whole different world, with an identity and life of its own. But despite its poignancy, and the struggles described in Goat Days, Benyamin said it is far from being defeatist.
"It is essentially a human tale. We may believe in God and in many other things; but it is important to have faith in fellow human beings, in love and compassion." He said the vividness of his book is the prismatic effect of having the life of Najeeb (the protagonist) pass through his own memory and imagination of life in the Gulf, and come out at as a novel.
Madhavan, whose own debut novel translated as Litanies of Dutch Battery has received much critical acclaim, said writing a novel is far less challenging for him than writing a short story. He has published several collections of short stories and a collection of plays.
"A novel is like test cricket where you can have a couple of bad overs,' he said. 'In a short story you can't miss a ball. The framework of a short story does not give you space for bad passages." About the writers' block that dogged him for nearly a decade, he said it began when he first left Kerala in the early 80s. In the absence of communication technologies then he lost touch with Malayalam.
"I was seen as a promising writer. But in those years I practically lost the language. When I came back I was in a big linguistic confusion. It took me one or two years to get my bearings back." Madhavan also believes that many Indian writers in English miss out on the feel, texture and nuances that local languages can provide to an Indian setting.
"I write in Malayalam because I write with my ear. If you travel across India, sounds change from hamlet to hamlet, from man to woman. I can only bring this dialect to life is when I write in Malayalam. My excellent translator tried very hard to capture the cadence and rhythm of the language spoken in Kochi, but some of it was still lost in translation." The discussion was anchored by journalist Sabin Iqbal.