Literary Review

Was it a murder or not?

Yellow Lights of Death; Benyamin, Penguin Books, Rs. 399  

Benyamin’s Yellow Lights of Death (translated from the Malayalam by Sajeev Kumarapuram) is a post-modern crime novel, faintly reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s meta-fictional If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller. However, it is nothing like the latter in terms of execution. Trying-hard-to-be-clever plots rarely make for a good reading experience and this novel is no exception.

Srilata K.

The structure of the novel is that of nested boxes — a novel within a novel. Benyamin himself is a character in the novel, a writer who receives a mysterious email from Christy Andrapper, another wannabe writer based on the island of Diego Garcia. Christy sends Benyamin the first part of his life story. The remaining parts, he informs Benyamin, are with different people, all unnamed. At the heart of Christy’s novel is the murder of Senthil, his former schoolmate, and intertwined with this is the complex history of the Andrapper family vis-à-vis Diego Garcia’s. Christy is witness to the murder of Senthil, a murder that everyone, including the police, refuses to acknowledge as one. At the time of receiving this email, Benyamin is in the middle of writing Nedumbassery. Gradually, he gets more and more absorbed in the life story of Christy Andrapper, a story that needs to be pieced together from different sources.

“Where could I get the rest of his life story? Whom should I approach for it? After having written the opening section so well, what fearful thing had happened to stop him? Had the police stopped him?” Questions such as these and others plague Benyamin. Soon he and his group of friends (they call themselves The Thursday Market) plunge into the task of contacting the people who have a piece of Christy’s story. This is clearly a story about the process of writing a story.

Benyamin and his friends become involved in the task of tracking Christy’s life, a face that is not made easy by the fact that he seems to have vanished. Before they know it, this has become an obsession with them. The “characters” in Christy’s novel become “real people” for them (indeed, the blurring of that distinction is partly the novel’s philosophical goal) and they are drawn into the text called their lives.

Since this is a writerly novel, there are plenty of references to the lives and habits of writers. These are among the pleasurable detours of the narrative. This excerpt is in the voice of Christy Andrapper:

“Every now and then, I’d take a break from the writing and walk around the room. I also stopped to observe my face in the mirror behind the desk. I’d take out a comb and fix my hair, and make sure I looked handsome and pleasant. While writing the lengthier chapters, this behaviour might be repeated several times.”

“I wrote my first draft on ruled paper, using a pencil, a short one, as I could never stand a longish, upright pencil. I wrote only on one side of the paper, leaving the other side blank.

There are also some cameo appearances by other real-life writers, apart from some spot-on insights about the rivalry among writers. Christy writes about an award ceremony for rival writer Mohandas:

“Many authors from various language backgrounds were present. Malayalam was represented by Perumbadavam, and Tamil by Thoppil Mohammad Meeran. Romesh Gunesekera from Sri Lanka and Richard Kunsman from South Africa were among the dignitaries.”

I felt jealous. I hadn’t thought Pentasia This Month could organize such a brilliant function, else I would have made the effort to submit a novel to the contest.

Mohan introduced himself to every guest writer present. I, too, wanted to acquaint myself with them. But who was I? How could I present myself? As someone who was working on a novel? They were all famous.

In the end, the novel within the novel remains a work-in-progress, its creator a failed writer.

There are two landscapes in the text: that of Diego Garcia and that of social media, the virtual world. Much of the search for Christy takes place via Orkut and Facebook, in tandem with a real world search that takes Benyamin and his friends from Diego Garcia to Pondicherry. The metaphor of the missing person is obviously central to the tale: Christy Andrapper goes missing and so does Senthil, the character/person whose murder Christy investigates in an obsessive though scatter-brained sort of way. Christy’s life is, in turn, investigated by The Thursday Market.

While this is a nice little touch, it does nothing to alleviate the tedium of having to disentangle multiple narrative threads from the island history of Diego Garcia to the dark rites of Thaikkattamma as practised by the Valyedathu Veedu family (Melvin, Christy’s dead love-interest, belongs to this family). These detours may be purposeful on Benyamin’s part but they are way too contrived and altogether too much to deal with. Does one forgive Benyamin this on the grounds that much of the novel may have been intended as a post-modern spoof on the genre of crime novels? On the whole, no. Yellow Lights of Death has flashes of brilliance. But the fact remains that one wants it to end way before it does. And that, surely, is not a good sign.

Srilata K. is a poet, fiction writer and Professor of English at IIT Madras.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 11:55:59 AM |

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