Benyamin, who recently made it to the Man Asian longlist, tells Fehmida Zakeer why it took him several years to write his stories.
For someone who started writing only in his late twenties, Benyamin today has five novels, three story collections and two non fiction books to his credit. He has received more than 15 awards including the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, the last one for his novel, Aadujeevitham. The translation of the same novel went on to make it to the 2012 long list of the Man Asian Literary Award. Though he’s a recipient of many awards, making it to the Man Asian longlist came as a surprise to him. Benyamin says that he never expected to be included in a list along with writers like Orhan Pamuk, Hiromi Kawakami and Jeet Thayil.
According to him, getting recognition in the literary field is very important because readers choose books based on writers’ names and awards, and accolades ensure recognition, “Readers know only the name of a few writers.” Going back to his evolution as a writer, he says he was not at all confident of his writing initially mainly because he did not have a literary or educational background. It was this diffidence that made Benny Daniels, an engineer by profession, choose a pseudonym to publish his stories. Many of his friends were serious readers and he didn’t have the courage to come out as a writer in front of them. But what he had was the urge to write and that’s what he did. After his stories were published to good reviews, he found himself comfortable with the pseudonym and decided to keep it.
On asked about how he manages to find time for his writing, he opines that finding time is a problem faced by everyone. “How we utilise the 24 hours in a day depends on our priorities.” Though his work as a project coordinator means long working hours, sometimes stretching from ten to 12 hours a day, he makes it a point to take out at least four to five hours from the remaining time available for reading or writing. He tries to write at least one line every day. His first story was published in a literary supplement of a prominent Malayalam newspaper. This was followed by a string of stories in various Malayalam literature weeklies. Then came his debut book, a collection of short stories titled Euthanasia which came out in the year 2000. The book promptly went on to win the Abudhabi Malayali Samajam Award. After that, he did not have to make rounds looking for publishers, rather they approached him with requests for his work. A voracious reader who read pulp fiction as well as classics, he spent many years reading books before wielding the pen to write his own stories.
Speaking about the inspiration for his novel Aadujeevitham, he says that the Indian diaspora in the Gulf region is one of the largest in the world, yet many stories from this region remain untold. Even though millions of lndians were employed in the Middle-East, many were illiterate labourers or people from technical backgrounds who were unable to relate their experiences to a wider audience because of their inability to use language. But a change began after the 1990s when people from different streams started migrating to these countries. As a result more stories began coming out from the region, mostly success stories.
The region has another face which is not immediately visible and it had always been his dream to weave a story against this unrepresented background. When he first came across Najib’s unfortunate experience, his first reaction was shock that such practices still existed in the modern world. He knew immediately that it was something that needed to be written about. Having said that, Benyamin also points out that the novel is not a biography of the main character, rather he used real life events and mixed it with fictional elements culled from his long stay in the region. Aadujeevitham or Goat Days as it is titled in English relates the experiences of a hapless soul who was abducted from the airport on arrival and made to work in torturous conditions without respite for a long period of time in an alien country.
Expressing his happiness at the translation of his novel, he gives full credit to the translator for an excellent job. Lamenting the slow trickle of translations from regional languages to English, he says, “Most of the best English works are being translated into regional languages. But the reverse is not happening. Foreign readers and publishers are eager to read regional stories but there is a lack of good translators.” According to him, there is a need for professional translators who can ensure a wider audience for regional language literature.
Benyamin writes both short stories and novels and says that both forms of storytelling have their own strengths and beauty. As a writer though, he prefers novels for the comfort and flexibility they allow. When asked as to how he decides whether to turn an idea into a short story or a novel, this is what he says, “Ideas can pop up anytime, if it is a unique spark which needs to be told, I take it up. When I’m developing an idea, I check the possibilities of expanding the story by adding characters and situations. But some stories have their own limitation and will not go beyond a certain extent. Stretching it beyond this point would not be satisfactory and then it would end up as a short story. On the other hand, when an idea has a vivid range, adding characters and situations may increase the strength and beauty of the story and that one would go on to become a novel.”
Benyamin cites Romain Rolland’s Jean Christophe as his favourite novel and names Nikos Kazantzakis, Jose Saramago , Marquez and Orhan Pamuk as his favourite writers. Following their footsteps, he is making plans now to take up writing full-time soon.
Benyamin is a participant at The Hindu Lit for Life in Chennai.