Benyamin, undoubtedly the most widely-read contemporary
Malayalam writer, has written 15 books, including six novels, and short story collections. His
novel Aadujeevitham was a spectacle unto itself that has now reached 100
editions. It won numerous awards, including the Kerala Sahitya Academy award.
The English translation (Goat Days) was shortlisted for the DSC prize in
2013. The book’s Arabic version was banned by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. His latest novel, Al Amin Novel Factory, which has
the Arab Spring as its backdrop has also been banned by the UAE.
I was a latecomer to the world of literature. My initiation into serious literature happened during my pre-degree days at Pathanamthitta Catholicate College. Of the books I read in that phase, I think Anand’s Marubhoomokal Undakunnath is the one which has had a lasting influence on me. During my polytechnic days, and after I migrated to Bahrain for work, reading became an integral part of my life. Cricket and books were the two passions that kept me going in that period where I had to deal with the solitude and monotony of long boring hours.
There was a private library in a Bahrain street. It was from here that I got to know most of the classics in Malayalam and world literature. I was also fortunate to have friends who used to send me books. But even then I never thought of writing anything other than the long letters I used to write to my friends, most of which were about the books I used to read and the effects they were having on me. Looking back, I suppose those letters were the first steps I took as a writer.
Then I started writing diary notes which have now been published as Irunda Vanasthalikal (Dark Forest Spaces). So when I think about my evolution as a writer, it is the evolution I have had as a reader that I often end up thinking about.
And then, the writer evolved too. You started out with short
stories at a time when highbrow stylistic experiments in fiction, especially in
short story, were in vogue in Malayalam. Now we have a literary space where the
emphasis is more on achieving a connection with the reader through a direct way
of storytelling. Having been an active participant through the duration of this
transformation phase, how do you track the trajectory of this change?
I was in my late twenties when I started publishing short stories in the early 2000s. In the Nineties when I was just a reader, it was the period of post-modernism in Malayalam literature, an inevitable consequence of globalisation. The world had suddenly changed, and the tools of high modernism of the previous era were woefully inadequate for expressing this new world. Then, with the communication revolution, even those tools of post-modernism have become obsolete.
The way I see it, the maze of visuals fed by television and cinema on a daily basis, and unlimited access to knowledge and information through theInternet, are the two major challenges a creative writer now faces. That’s why I think today’s writers prefer a more direct approach to storytelling. The more uncomplicated the narrative, the greater the chances of pulling the reader to the book.
In the modern world where there are so many other easier options, getting the readers back to literature is no easy task. My own writing has changed accordingly, and readability of my work is something I now place great emphasis upon. I am a firm believer in being in sync with, and receptive to, the times I am living in. What is the point in clinging to the ways of literature of a world that has already disappeared?
No Malayalam novel has achieved the kind of success of Aadujeevitham
(Goat Days) had. It is not just your definitive work, but also that kind
of rare book which goes on to become a spectacle in itself. From a fifth standard
student to a 90-year-old woman, the book has had an immense reach. It also
fetched you numerous awards including the Sahitya Academy award. Now when the
100th edition of the book is about to be published, how do you look back on the
book and its incredible journey?
Though it was Aadujeevitham that made me popular, it did not happen overnight. Before Aadujeevitham, there was a long period of 15 years that I had spent reading and writing and honing my craft. I had already published two short story collections and three novels, and there were a few who used to read me keenly even then.
When I met and heard the life story of Najeeb, the protagonist of Aadujeevitham, I was intrigued by the fact that despite having a long history of migration to the Gulf countries from Kerala, there was hardly any work of literature that explored the life of those who went to work there. It could have been because literature was not a pressing concern for a culture based on economic migration: to start with, there is hardly any time to work on literature even if there are umpteen experiences to be written about and shared. There was also the issue of censoring to be dealt with. I know for a fact that labourers were under strict observation, and that must have created a lot of fear that prevented them from writing their experiences.
Through Najeeb’s story, I found a way to explore these experiences. I think the success of Aadujeevitham owes mainly to this uniqueness of the story, and the readability of the text. And though the subject was rare and till then untold, the cultural milieu of the novel was easily accessible. Since the novel primarily dealt with the struggle and survival of one individual, it also had a universal connect: who doesn’t connect with stories of struggle and survival?
The spiritual dimension of the novel and the spark of inspiration its message seems to provide to the younger generation also seem to be factors behind its success.
One criticism against Aadugeevitham is that you have
merely chronicled Najeeb’s life and made little use of your fictional
imagination. You yourself have said that since Najeeb’s story was so powerful,
you chose not to embellish it any further for the sake of ‘literature’. How do
you respond to such remarks that Aadujeevitham is not an ‘artistically
engaging novel’ or that you had merely written down what you had heard from the
prototype of your protagonist?
As a reader, it is the blurring of the lines between fiction and reality that I see as the unique feature of Aadujeevitham: a reader is kept in the dark about where the fiction ends and where the real begins. That effect is certainly not an accident, though I would prefer to keep the magic behind it to myself. In more theoretical terms, I would say this is the age of fictional realism, and I think Aadujeevitham is a classic example of fictional realism.
As for criticisms and critics, one of the saddest things about our criticism is that it is such a slave of the dogma. Our critics still live in the hangover of modernism. That is why they are so insistent on a pretence of blindness to the concerns and issues of the world around them, preferring instead to cling to the perspectives of a very distant past. That, I suppose, is also why most of them have not bothered to engage with the major socio-political issues the novel deals with. Nor have there been attempts to investigate critically the widespread popularity of the novel.
And what about the other major criticism that the novel
portrayed Arabs in a bad light? Especially in the context of the book being
banned by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE?
Once the Arab edition was published, most Arab academic reviews of the book highlighted it as one of the most important books on the Arab world. The bans were expected, and to a large extent, underline the power of the book even more. My focus was on providing as accurate a portrayal I possibly could of the life there. It is not as if the common people of these countries don’t know about the kind of life I have narrated.
This criticism was raised mostly by Malayalis in those countries who were a bit panicky about whether the Arabic edition would affect them adversely.
How has the massive success of Aadujeevitham changed
you? What has been its effect on your subsequent novels?
For starters, the book has brought me to the mainstream world of literature. The relative financial security it has given me has played a part in my decision to leave my job and become a full time writer. Having said that, I would also say, all that financial security would not have mattered if I hadn’t had the drive to commit fully to literature. It is not as if Aadujeevitham has freed me from all my troubles.
As a writer, the effect on my subsequent novels has been more at the level of the choice of subjects. Since the English translation of the novel too was well received, I am mindful of the fact that I can’t be a local writer anymore. I now have international readership, and I want the subjects I chose to be acceptable to them and have a universal appeal.
Even great Malayalam novels have not had the kind of success
Aadujeevitham had in English. It is often said that too many nuances of
the language are lost in Malayalam. Yet Aadujeevitham has not had to
suffer much on that front. In addition to the universality of its theme, do you
also think mainstream fiction in contemporary Malayalam is mostly written in a
more universal dialect where there are very little chances of nuances getting
It is a fact that most new fiction prefers to avoid colloquial dialects. And as a very obvious consequence, the process of translation has also become much easier. But having said that, no matter how good the translation, it can never be as good as the original.
What do you think are the give and takes between
contemporary literature in English and literature in regional languages?
My assessment is that in coming days, regional language literature will garner more attention from a universal readership since it deals with a lot of unknown and unexplored subjects. On the other hand, exposure to a global literature world will benefit the regional writers in terms of cultural exchanges. For instance, since the English translation of Aadujeevitham, I have attended various literary festivals around the world, and have learnt a great deal about the meticulousness with which contemporary writers around the world approach the preparation of their work, the kind of research they do, etc.
With novels like Aadujeevitham, K. R. Meera’s Aarachar
(Hangwoman), and T. D. Ramakrishnan’s Francis Itticora, there is
a trend of writing about spaces beyond the geographical and the cultural landscapes
of Kerala. What do you think could be the reason behind it? Do you think
Malayalam as a language is now less concerned with its local/regional cultures?
One has to accept that our readers have changed a lot. They are not local readers anymore. They are well aware of what is happening in other languages. The regional language writer will be inevitably measured against the writers of other languages. So no regional language writer can now be just a local writer. To be an international writer is no more a choice; it is a compulsion. This is one reason I think we are now seeing an influx of such strange and ‘rare’ subjects in Malayalam fiction.
For a new generation reader, geographical and cultural landscapes of Kerala are no more of any significant interest. Such typical Malayali geo-cultural landscapes are now just export commodities to English writers of Malayali origin. And why not? They are likely to be best sellers with such backdrops.
You have always explored spiritual aspects of human
existence from your earliest works. Your books are replete with Biblical
references. Najeeb’s trials in Aadujeevitham, for instance, resonates so
much with the trials described in the Book of Job. How much of an influence has
the Bible been on you?
The Bible has been a major shaping force of my life right from the days of childhood. So it is only natural that it will be reflected in my books. Apart from the Bible, I have always been an avid reader of books that explore human spirituality. St Augustine, Thomas a Kempis, John Bunyan, Osho, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Kazantzakis and Yathi are writers I often go back to.
Since Aadujeevitham, you have shifted your focus
almost entirely to novels. There have been very few short stories in this
As someone who did not have a formal literature background, I had to search for and experience many forms and genres to arrive at my final destination. So I started out with short stories. Then I realised that my themes, landscapes and timescapes are not suited to the aesthetic framework of a short story; that they are apt only for novels. So of late, my focus has been almost entirely on novels. As a writer of short stories and novels, I think there are two Benyamins.
The Arabic edition of Aadujeevitham was banned by
Saudi Arabia and UAE. Now your latest novel Al Arabian Novel Factory which
has the Arab Spring as its backdrop has also been banned by UAE. In the present
context of frequent assaults on freedom of expression, what are your takes on
It is certainly a great source of comfort that some of our works can provoke governments. What is the point in writing if you want to please everyone? If you are living in a democracy like India and in a culturally advanced society like Kerala, you are in a way morally bound to speak uncomfortable truths to the powerful.
I have always been in awe of writers who had the courage to challenge dictatorial regimes through their works. They remind me of the dangers of refusing to come out of safe zones. Writers, I believe, have to be permanent citizens of danger zones.