Benyamin (also known as Benny Daniel) holds a day job as a project coordinator at a construction site in Bahrain. But, as it happens, he also enjoys the distinction of being one of the finest contemporary Malayalam writers. His novel, Goat Days (Adujivitam), was first published in 2008, and won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009. Translated into English by Joseph Koyipalli in 2012, it was received with great acclaim by a wider readership, and reached the longlist of the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012.
Goat Days tells the story of Najeeb, a Keralan who goes to the Gulf in search of a better life but ends up becoming a slave to his ruthless and uncomprehending Arab master. Having endured a life of extreme hardship and violence, Najeeb tries to flee, but fate puts several impediments before him, sending him on an unforgettable journey across the desert that nearly kills him. Although reminiscent of Biblical morality tales of suffering and fortitude—of the trials of Jonah and Noah—Goat Days is ultimately redeemed by the unshaken core of hope and faith that its protagonist cherishes in his heart.
One of the participants at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, Benyamin spoke to Mint at length about his life and writing. Edited excerpts:
At the end of Goat Days, we learn that the character of Najeeb is based on a real person. How did you meet him?
I met Najeeb through a friend. At first I thought he was one of the many Keralites in the Gulf who have suffered misfortunes. But as I kept meeting him, I got interested in his story, and I felt this was something I could tell.
When did you first start writing?
My first story was published in 1999. Initially, I was mostly writing short stories, and a collection of those appeared in 2000.
Are you generally drawn to shorter forms of fiction?
My latest novel is about 350 pages long. By the standards of Malayalam novels, it is quite long. So was Goat Days. But compared to other languages, much of my writing perhaps qualifies as short fiction. My canvas has broadened over the years, and I am trying to write a longer novel now.
Goat Days teeters in the grey area between fiction and non-fiction. Did you consciously choose this in-between form?
Initially I had thought I’d write it as a non-fiction narrative, but I ended up with fiction. Fiction gives you a lot of freedom. It liberates the imagination, and allows you to bring materials from other areas of life into the narrative. You can merge characters and landscapes and create new entities. It was my intention to tell a tale through one character that would have a universal resonance.
While reading Goat Days, I felt there was a strong religious, or perhaps spiritual, element to it.
I’d say there is a strong element of faith in it. While religion is more about society, faith is something that comes from the depths of one’s heart. Each time Najeeb goes through a crisis, he keeps hope alive in him. He prays more for his own strength rather than to get something for himself.
Since when have you been living in the Gulf? Have things improved for expatriate Indian workers there?
I have been living there since 1992. The situation may have improved for expatriate Indians over the years, but horrible things are still happening. A couple of months back when I went to Qatar, I was told that at least 120 cases of missing workers have been reported to the Indian embassy. Mysteriously enough, these things don’t stop people from still wanting to go and work there. Mr. Najeeb, for instance, is still there after all his trials.
What kind of books do you read?
Between 1992 and 2000, I read voraciously in every area and language. I remember one year I read about 160 books. I didn’t think of writing at that time. It was only until much later that I thought had something to tell. I read Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe (1903-1912), when I was 24. It is a 10 volume, 2000 page saga, and I enjoyed it tremendously. I also read a lot of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky.
How has the reception of your work been in Kerala?
It’s been great. The original Malayalam version of Goat Days has gone through over 50 editions. It is a recommended textbook in schools and universities. There are plans to translate more of my books into English. My latest novel, which is yet to appear in English, is called, loosely, Yellow Lights of Death, in English. It is based on island life. It combines a great many themes, from the landing of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in 1498 to the world as it is in 2012. It is a thriller that has sold over 20,000 copies.
What are you working on now?
Another novel set in the Gulf, though not specifically about expatriate life.
Would you have started writing had you stayed on in India?
I think my move to the Gulf actually facilitated my writing, though I do plan to come back to Kerala and settle down there.