Bahrain-based Malayalam author Benyamin tells Catherine Rhea Roy about how expats in the Gulf choose the tyrannical lives they live
When Benyamin shattered the sense of entitlement that comes with English, he used the broken shards of the language, to say: “Every writer should write in the language they dream in — besides, I don’t know any other language. It was like playing the game without knowing the rules; I just started writing and chose my own language.” Benyamin wrote the Kerala Sahitya Academy Award-winning novel, Aadujeevitham, translated to the English Goat Days by Joseph Koyippally. And if one insisted, “You could romanticise it and call it my connection with Kerala,” says the author, who has lived in Bahrain since 1992.
Glitter of watches and glasses
His novel Goat Days tells the true story of a young man, Najeeb, who goes to the Gulf to find a better life. He is taken away at the airport and forced into slave labour and a subhuman life in the Arab desert, looking after goats for three and a half years. In his process of reconciliation with his life there, Najeeb begins to identify himself with the goats and believes he is one of them. The book goes on to chronicle his escape from the tyranny of the arid landscape. “Most expatriates are hiding their lives, and people back home don’t even know what job their husbands or sons are doing out there. They only know the glittering part with expensive wrist watches and cooling glasses,” says Benyamin, who was in Chennai for the Hindu Lit For Life 2013.
The Gulf boom of the 70s found jobs for thousands of unemployed youth from Kerala. The phenomenon went on to drastically change and challenge the social and cultural contours of the state and converted it into a money order economy. “Over the last 50 years more than 50 lakh people have lived there and most of them are sad and frustrated, but we do have a home to come back to. We are expats; not in exile, like the people who have lost their homes because of calamities, or riots, or war. Expats choose their own life; they always have the option of going back home.”
But what are the sorceries of that land that keep calling people back? Even Najeeb who suffered and survived went back to the ‘promised land’. “That is the mysterious part and still people continue to come from Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam. It is the mystery of the Gulf… you are always attracted to it; you might leave but life will call you back,” he says. His day job as a project code maker in a construction site allows him to mingle at length with the labour class and get an inside view of their hardships. “I am not sitting in an air conditioned office,” stresses Benyamin, who becomes a writer when he goes home.
The story of one person in the desert was the idea and Najeeb’s story was the intention. The author met Najeeb, interviewed him and started to write the novel by incorporating his own thoughts, views and research. “Goat Days is the experience of Najeeb and thinking of Benyamin. It is like light passing through a prism, Najeeb’s life is the light, and Benyamin, the prism.”
Benyamin was born Benny Daniel and adopted a pen name early in his writing career. “In the beginning I was not comfortable with my writing. I read a lot and am aware of what good literature is, so it was the conflict in me to write, versus the lack of confidence of how well I will write that forced me to hide my reality behind a name that nobody will recognise,” he says with startling honesty.
Benyamin is also a writer of short stories. “Sometimes the story has its own limitations; short stories are comprehensive and unique. With novels you have a lot of freedom and space to move around. I cannot predict if it will be a short story or longer, I leave it to the story to unfold and find its own form.” But the promise of Benyamin is that he never writes the same story twice — a tall claim but a reassuring one. “In effect I am making a mould for each and every story and once it is told I break the mould and make a new mould for a new story; that is my ambition as a writer.”
Benyamin has many more stories to tell about life in the Gulf. “I am working on a story about an Arab’s life, but right now it is still in my ideas and notes.”