Benyamin On Dissent, Democracy And Writing In An Age Of Fear

The award-winning writer on his newly translated ‘Al-Arabian Novel Factory’, the CAA protests in India and why writing is a political process.
A file photo of Benyamin.
A file photo of Benyamin.

More than halfway through Benyamin’s newly translated Al-Arabian Novel Factory, a passing character tells the novel’s narrator that he’s stopped eating mutton ever since he read a book about goats. For a casual reader, it’s a throwaway detail. But for anyone familiar with the Malayalam author’s writing, the reference to his most famous work is unmissable.

In Aadujeevitham, published in English as Goat Days, a sand miner from Kerala – and the novel’s narrator – follows the time-honoured tradition of Malayalis migrating to the “Gulf” for work and wealth, only to find himself enslaved in a remote corner of the Saudi Arabian desert, forced to work on a goat farm. The experience leaves him unable to ever eat mutton again, he tells us. The slim novel, unrelenting in both its horrific hardships and perceptive core of humanness, became a sensation in Kerala, now firmly ensconced in university and school curriculums and bestseller lists alike. It’s also been banned in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

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For Benyamin, tales of migration and belonging, particularly in West Asia, strike close to home. For 21 years, the writer lived and worked in Bahrain, one of millions of migrant workers in the country. It’s where he discovered a passion for reading, and eventually writing. The author, who returned to Kerala in 2013, has published 22 books so far, four of which have been translated to English.

During his time in Bahrain, he also lived through the uprisings of the Arab Spring, as waves of revolutions rocked established forms of rule in countries across West Asia and North Africa. Jasmine Days, which won the 2018 JCB Prize for Literature, holds the vagaries of revolution at its core. The novel is narrated by a young Pakistani radio jockey, Sameera Parvin, living in The City (strongly evocative of Manama but never named) as she comes to terms with her own identity within the beginnings of protests against the country’s Sunni monarchy. Not willing to miss a chance for a novelistic sleight of hand, Benyamin writes in the epilogue of Jasmine Days that the novel is a translation of an account written in Arabic by Sameera herself, titled A Spring Without Fragrance, and the only way he was able to translate it was by agreeing to write another novel, telling the story of Pratap, a Canadian-Indian journalist who finds the young woman’s manuscript.

“Imbued with a love for reading and the power of literature, Al Arabian Novel Factory is also an education in the universality of how protests, dissent and revolution can unfold in the face of a government intent on crushing them”

That novel, the twin of Jasmine Days – both being translations from Benyamin’s original in Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib – is Al Arabian Novel Factory, which is focused on life after a revolution has been ostensibly squashed but whose embers refuse to be put out. Pratap arrives at the City to find a country that is still very much in turmoil. The widespread protests may have died down, but the spirit of revolution remains alive, a force for either good or evil, depending on who you ask. In a country teeming with spies on all sides, the intelligence agencies are most obsessed with tracking down any copies of A Spring Without Fragrance. Sameera’s account of the Jasmine Revolution has, after all, been deemed too dangerous, in a way only books can be, and banned. “It’s when it takes the form of literature, that’s when people react, that’s when it hurts them and provokes them,” Pratap says at one point in the novel.

Imbued with a love for reading and the power of literature, Al Arabian Novel Factory is also an education in the universality of how protests, dissent and revolution can unfold in the face of a government intent on crushing them. As Pratap moves around the City, attempting to understand it, supporters of the government spout arguments that seem all too familiar. “They want to ruin the country’s reputation. And then destroy the economy. There is an international agenda behind all this,” a long-time Malayali resident of the City tells our narrator about the protestors, adding “if this were happening in India, they would all be dead”. The words are particularly chilling in the face of dozens of deaths in India amid nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

In an interview with HuffPost India, Benyamin spoke about dissent, democracy, outsiders and the blurry lines between fiction and reality. Edited excerpts:

Al Arabian Novel Factory continues what you did with Jasmine Days, playing with the idea of what is real or not – especially in terms of authorship. You write in the preface as well that “everything in the story is real and fiction”. What were you were trying to achieve with this structure?

The primary aim of my writing is to have people read someone like me. There are multiple things always tugging at our concentration and it is my duty to grab people and say what I want to tell them. That’s why I experiment so much in my style and writing – I always play with technique in my novels and this was another way to do that.

You’ve also inserted yourself into the story, where there is this fictional writer who is actually you...

Every writer is inside their novel. Our thoughts are there, our philosophies are there, our doubts are there, our fear is there. I put all of myself into my characters. But I also wrote that I got the ideas and the stories from other people and with that you can confuse readers about which of the characters are real and which aren’t. All of these are experiments to engage people with the story in a different way.

In the epilogue of Jasmine Days you write, “This is the novel I would have written if I had the guts to write it and I pitied myself for not writing it.” Was that a form of guilt that you were feeling while living in Bahrain – that your work was not being political enough until then? Was that a responsibility that you felt you had?

When I was based in the Gulf, it was not possible to say everything openly because of the government. I wanted the freedom to do that, to not have to cut my words. That’s why I never mentioned the name of the city in which the novel is set. It gave me the freedom of fiction because I could gather so many stories from around the Middle East into it, yet it was a limitation too. In the end I realised I couldn’t publish from there – Goat Days was already banned there. That’s why I came back to Kerala to finish writing here. I had to say everything I wanted to say otherwise it would not be real writing.

“I always think writing is a political process because writing as entertainment is over. That era is over. We have so many other platforms to entertain us. But writing remains political and we have to write about these things, even while we’re telling a love story.”

In these two novels, particularly Al Arabian Novel Factory, we get the point of view of multiple characters regarding the revolution and the protests, and their opinions vary widely depending on how safe or privileged their positions are. Was that something you were thinking about while you were in Bahrain during that time?

Yes, definitely. It was very interesting how people were reacting by looking at their own fates and were acting according to what would benefit them. They were never thinking about other people or the other side of the story at all. That’s when I knew I had to write about it. These novels are not about the revolution or democracy but the points of view of each person towards those – how people’s minds were working and their responses – that’s what fascinated me.

As a writer and a human being, from the first day that I moved there, I was constantly thinking about how other people and communities were surviving, how they were living in a kingdom without democracy. Because I had so many Arab friends that’s how I slowly realised their states of mind, their political ambitions. My life there gave me so many experiences to write about these characters.

'Al Arabian Novel Factory' by Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib; Juggernaut (2019)
'Al Arabian Novel Factory' by Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib; Juggernaut (2019)

I started reading Al Arabian Novel Factory just as protests began sprouting across India in response to the discriminatory citizenship laws rolled out by the government. And what’s happening around us right now is so strongly echoed throughout the novel – in terms of citizen protests, the idea of who is an outsider, how governments respond to dissent. How has it felt to see the translation coming out at a time that India is going through this? You’ve also spoken in the past about how it’s the responsibility of a writer to be political.

It’s so coincidental. Because I never thought this would happen in our country, I thought that we had all the freedom of a democracy. But all of a sudden the situation changed, and everything that I saw in an autocratic country is being repeated here. I’m so surprised by the reaction of so many people who are against democracy and seem to be thinking that an autocracy is good for us. I really wonder about that.

I always think writing is a political process because writing as entertainment is over. That era is over. We have so many other platforms to entertain us. But writing remains political and we have to write about these things, even while we’re telling a love story. In Al Arabian Factory Novel the politics are strongly visible. I don’t think this visibility should be in every novel, but it should speak about the politics around us. In this era, it is the duty of a novelist.

One of the characters also says that Sameera didn’t write the novel “to take revenge on anyone or out of hostility to this administration. She was simply expressing her dissent. But the administration does not understand that. That is why they are intent on destroying it. Is a world without dissent even possible?” Again, that’s something that we’re thinking about a lot – this idea of dissent, the power it can hold, and the freedom to be able to do so....

The beauty of democracy itself is disagreement with authority. If you are agreeing with everything, that is an authoritarian regime; it’s not a democracy. Nowadays our leaders are saying everyone should agree with everything they are doing. But we have different experiences, different ideas, different views about the same issue. That is why we are saying that our democracy is in danger. It is not acceptable – this fear that everyone has. Fear is from autocratic rulers, there should be no fear in a democracy. The space for disagreement has gone.

You talked earlier about how more and more people seem to think that an autocratic rule or a dictatorship is actually desirable, that a “strong” ruler is needed, which is the opposite of what your experience was during demands for change during the Arab Spring. Has that contrast been particularly strange to see?

Well...yeah! How can people say that an autocratic leader or something like fascism can be a good thing? Some people are openly saying we need another Emergency. Look at the rape case in Telangana where the police killed four people – many people have been supporting them. It’s the failure of democracy. If democracy worked well, this wouldn’t be the case. Our judiciary is very slow, our police system has problems. People in lower positions may have never felt that democracy is good for them. That is our own failure.

Goat Days is still banned in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Was the banning of your own book the reason why you started thinking about why governments do it in the first place and the life that a book actually develops after being banned? In many ways, that’s a question at the heart of Al Arabian Novel Factory...

Yes, because in an online world, the idea of banning of a book is itself a funny thing. In the times of print media, it might have been successful in some countries. But in the social media era, how can a government actually ban a book? That question is very interesting. The idea of banning is almost gone. Still governments do it. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is banned but it’s available everywhere. In the ’80s and ’90s it was not available at all. We would curiously and eagerly wait to get our hands on a copy and try and figure out ways to procure it.

The role of religion has always been there. They are afraid of books, I think. It’s interesting because there are so many comments of all sorts on social media but they are not afraid of those. But if it’s the same in the form of a book then it becomes a big problem for religion.

In Al-Arabian Novel Factory, Pratap says that reading Sameera’s Spring Without A Fragrance thawed his passion for reading, which had remained frozen for a long time. From what you’ve said in the past, moving to Bahrain is what did that for you. You weren’t really a reader before that…

When I moved there from Kerala, I was only a 21-year-old boy and I was not passionate about reading or writing at all. But when I got there, I started to ask myself, “What is my identity?” Am I an Indian? Am I a migrant?” In the Gulf nation, I don’t have an identity at all. From that point onwards, I started reading to find answers and to think. It was only 7-8 years later that I realised that I also have some stories – untold stories – in my head. It was very accidental.

Al Arabian Novel Factory also pays tribute in some ways to a literary canon that has sustained you – Roberto Bolaño, JM Coetzee, Virginia Woolfe, Franz Kafka, José Saragamo, Mahmoud Darwish – as well as a slew of contemporary authors. Their names are peppered throughout the novel, often showing up in long, breathless lists….

That’s because primarily, I am a reader. Being a writer is secondary. I read everything – current books as well as most classical authors in English and Malayalam. I know a little bit about literature – the writing styles and how they’ve changed. I read. And then I find time to write.

'Jasmine Days' by Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib; Juggernaut (2018)
'Jasmine Days' by Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib; Juggernaut (2018)

You also write across genres, not sticking to one particular style either. A character tells Pratap at one point in Al Arabian Novel Factory that detective novels and popular fiction are the “best way to understand the underground culture of a society”...

In the initial period of my reading, that’s what I mostly read. As I say in this novel, when we’re reading “valued” books it is a “higher” level of life and thought, but when it comes to real life and regular people, these are the books that give us a stronger idea of society. And you must eventually move forward and read those “valued” books also but these books should never be undervalued either.

I always write to satisfy my own mind. If I repeat the same style, it’s not satisfying for me. So I try to experience different characters, styles, genres, and areas.

This is your fourth novel to be translated into English, and you’ve been translated into other Indian languages also. How involved are you in the process of translation?

I’m not that involved unless there’s something that needs clarification. Otherwise, I try not to interfere because translating is another creative process and the translator should have the freedom to do that. It’s a re-creation of the text. I enjoy that other readers can access my writing but I like to stay away from the process.

You’ve written more than 20 books now, but many of them were written alongside your work in the Gulf. What is your routine like now, living in Pandalam, writing full time?

Most of the day I’m alone at home since my kids are studying in a convent school and my wife is working in the Gulf. So I do have enough time. But at the same time I speak at universities and participate in other functions. I’m in front of my computer whenever possible. I cook (for) myself, so I’ll go to the kitchen, prepare a meal, come back to the computer, type two sentences, then get up and finish some other housework. But I am mostly always in front of my computer until I go to sleep. I need unlimited time in front of me to write. If I know I have to go somewhere at 10 am, I can’t sit down at 6 am to write. I want large bits of time to be able to relax.

You spent 21 years in the Gulf and a lot of your stories are set there because of that. But now that you’ve been back in India, are you starting to leave that behind? Are you able to tear yourself away from stories from the Gulf, or do you have lots more to tell from there?

I don’t have anything planned for novels; these stories come automatically when I am writing a book. After I came back to Kerala, I wrote a book on Christianity and communism. Now I am writing another book about Keralite migration. It’s not about the Gulf but it’s about the migration of a Malayali community – we have a huge history of migration. I don’t know what and how interests me but the story will come in time.

The idea of migration certainly seems to be a constant…

Yeah. Because I can’t write anything that comes from very imaginary worlds. I do have a migration experience, our family has a migration experience so I do tend towards that. I see something from reality while writing and from that point I develop the story.

We return to the preface of the novel: “everything in this story is fiction and reality”...

Yes! Reality is the core and from that core, fiction emerges.