Benyamin, author of the best-selling Aadujeevitham, on the book and his writing. Goat Days, the English translation of the book, was published by Penguin
Benny Daniels created a sensation with the publication of his first book, Aadujeevitham, which was eventually translated into Hindi and Tamil too. Recently its translation in English, published by Penguin, was lapped up by readers. Benny, whose pen name is Benyamin, became an overnight sensation with the publication of this hard-hitting story of Najib, a Malayali who went missing in West Asia. Based on a real-life story, Aadujeevitham chronicles how Najib is forced into a modern version of slavery in an alien country. The book won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award and soon Benyamin became one of the top sellers in Malayalam.
In an e-mail interview from Bahrain, where Benyamin has been working since 1992, he says he feels exhilarated about the translation. “It gives me immense pleasure and creative satisfaction that my novel is being read in a new language.” Translated by Joseph Koippally, Goat Days (as it is titled in English) has won Benyamin a new group of admirers. “Joseph’s excellent translation has ensured that the spirit and soul of the novel were not lost,” adds Benyamin.
Recounting his meeting with the real-life Najib, the author reminisces: “I have been living in the ‘Gulf region’ for the last 20 years and have been writing for the past 10 years. Usually we only hear of stories of success. But I wanted to talk about the many who lead lives of suffering and pain.”
He feels that the media often dismisses news about such men to “single-column news” that breezily states that a man believed to be missing was found in the desert. The fact that there is usually no effort on the part of the media to investigate why and how that man reached there is unsaid in Benyamin’s words.
Benyamin decided to meet the man who had endured so much and never lost hope that some day he would gain freedom. He emphasises that a story based on Najib’s life was the last thing on his mind. “But when I heard his tale, I knew this was the story I was waiting to tell the world and I knew this had to be told.”
The reluctant Najib who wanted to forget his past had to be coaxed to recount his story. Although the Malayali diaspora is one of the largest and the oldest in the Gulf, literary works based on their lives there are not quite the stuff of best sellers always. Agreeing that life in Bahrain may have sharpened his sensitivity to the many lives of Malayalis there, he says: “Their money is the strong backbone of the economic growth of Kerala. Yet, their struggle, issues, feelings, emotional upheavals… have never been given the space or importance in our popular discourse. As a writer from this disappointed community I have to focus on them. I have to raise their issues through my writing.”
Replying to a question about chroniclers of the Indian diaspora such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukerjee and Chitra Divarkarunni, Benyamin points out that many of their stories deal with issues of Indians living in North America. “Moreover, many of their stories deal with cultural conflicts of the second generation in the diaspora,” he adds.
After the stupendous success of his debut novel, Benyamin lived up to the expectation of his readers by coming up with riveting themes in his latter works. Pointing out that asking him to choose his favourite book would be akin to asking him to choose his favourite among his children, Benyamin says that each book has its own role and importance. “For instance Manja Veyil Maranangal [his latest book] is based on life on an island. Every story of mine is different from the previous one. I try to deliberately change the terrain, language, style and story. I detest repeating myself. I write entirely for my satisfaction. And repetition will not give me any satisfaction in writing. I believe that repetition of any form spells the end of a writer,” he says.
He adds: “As a writer living in this technology-based world I have to keep a constant watch on trends in society. We know that social networks and communities have made a great impact on the new generation. Every thing is instant and readily available. I tried to use those tools to narrate the story. It has attracted readers, especially the younger generation because they can instantly connect with such things.”
Moved by the plight of the protagonist in Aadujeevitham, filmmaker Blessy had announced that he would be making a film based on the book. However, all is silent on that front.
“We are still in the discussion stage. Our plans for a film had to be postponed when we realised that its production cost would not be feasible for a Malayalam film. Now we are planning something on a larger scale,” says Benyamin.
Immersed in the process of writing a new novel, the writer says he is still in the “reverie stage”. “I have started collecting material. I will announce the details as and when the novel gets a shape. I always hope my next novel will be the best. That is what keeps me going,” says Benyamin.
Benyamin as your pen name
I am a late comer to writing. When I had the urge to write something, initially, I was confused and doubtful about my ability. I was embarrassed to tell the world and my friends that these stories were written by me. So I planned to camouflage my identify. I didn’t want anybody to recognise or pass judgment on my writing. The name Benyamin was actually the mask.
A voracious reader of Malayalam and English, he is an admirer of Nikos Kazantzakis. “His writings have influenced me. But my all- time favourite book is Jean Christophe by Romain Rolland. My literary hero is Orhan Pamuk.