Benyamin: Flesh, bones and shadows

P Anima | Updated on August 28, 2020

Word builder: Benyamin has used the pandemic induced isolation to finish his new novel — Nishabda Sancharangal — on the journeys undertaken by the Malayali nurses   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The author’s new novel — Body and Blood — has the tenor of a thriller, but remains at heart a rumination on god, faith and religion

* Faith had been a part of Benyamin’s fiction before Body and Blood. And it may be so hereafter

* A a writer, he has held close the perspective of the small man

It’s a peculiar dedication — but makes perfect sense halfway through the novel. Body and Blood, Malayalam author Benyamin’s latest work to be translated into English, is dedicated to “those who have fallen into the trap of trust. And those who will”. The words appear omniscient as the novelist herds his characters through a story arc where believers and their faith are on a collision course.

The lines bear an air of inevitability as well; for even when a few walk away having witnessed the ugly side of organised religion — steered by greed and power — more faithfuls are bound to walk in. The sense of being trapped, of hurtling down a bottomless pit or being caught in a vicious loop is voiced by at least two characters in the novel.

Faith had been a part of Benyamin’s fiction before Body and Blood. And it may be so hereafter, too. Cooped up at home in Pathanamthittta district in southern Kerala for the fifth straight month, his routine disrupted by a belligerent virus, the 49-year-old author mulls over his equation with faith. In his head he has neatly delineated faith from religion. “I go to the church, though not frequently,” he says in a telephone interview with BLink. But belief is tricky, and Benyamin is candid about it. “I don’t know whether I’m a believer or not. I am in a state of confusion. I believe in spirituality, though.”

Body and Blood/ Benyamin/(Tr) Swarup BR / Fiction / Harper Perennial / ₹499


Body and Blood has the tenor of a thriller, but remains at heart a rumination on god, faith and religion. It airs the doubts that nag non-believers, the blind faith that governs insiders and the accomplices they become when they are sucked deep into the mire of crime and religion. The third person narrative grants a certain distance, but the author derives his comfort from his spirituality. “It might come from our mind, our silences. It is not related to religion at all. I enjoy spirituality; faith is blind.”

Churches for Benyamin are social spaces where community bonds are forged and nurtured. Religion and belief remain deeply personal. It is dangerous, he observes, when they grow beyond their realms and mix potently with politics and power. Even when the protagonists in Body and Blood sign up for faith, they quest something else — love, companionship, acceptance, financial assistance or career prospects. Sharira Shastram, the Malayalam original, came out in 2018, and though the subject was volatile — the nexus between organised religion and crime — it hardly ruffled any feathers. Is it too much to expect a piece of fiction to force introspection in mighty religious institutions?

Benyamin tends to think so. “A novel or a film may come out, but institutions remain untouched. They are way too strong and powerful.” This keen awareness — of the place of the small man in the larger scheme of things — resonates through the novel. Even when the protagonists unravel the deep-seated corruption that led to the death of a friend, they choose to retreat, to quit the city of crime — Delhi — rather than engage in a lopsided battle. Benyamin’s fiction that way remains rooted in reality, aware of the odds stacked in favour of the rich and the powerful.

But as a writer, he has held close the perspective of the small man. Aadujeevitham (Goat Days in English) ruptured the West Asia bubble when it was published in Malayalam more than a decade ago. Told from the perspective of a goatherd — the archetypal small man — it turned on its head the dominant perception of the Gulf as the ticket to prosperity.

It’s the apprehensions of an outsider which spurred Benny Daniel to adopt the pseudonym Benyamin when he took to writing. “Growing up in Pathanamthittta, I had little association with literature. In my village there were many who read widely, I was not one of them,” he recalls.

An engineer, his migration to West Asia for work introduced him to new habits such as reading. He would later secretly try to write. An unsure beginner, he wrestled with doubts, but didn’t give up.

“I would sneak in a line or two from what I had written in the cards and letters I posted. I was afraid to tell people that they were my words. I needed a shadow to hide, and that was Benyamin.”

His debut novel Aadujeevitham won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 2009 and has been reprinted over a hundred times. It’s currently being made into a big budget Malayalam film. Jasmine Days won the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature in 2018, while Goat Days was shortlisted for the DSC Prize. Benyamin, the writer, is now on a firm footing. “It is a good name to have on a book jacket. Any day better than Benny Daniel,” he quips.

Benyamin though remains intensely self-aware; he is at his craft like a carpenter meticulously chiselling and polishing his tools. “Improving myself as a writer is a constant process. I have to regularly upgrade my language, stories and style,” he says.

The pandemic-induced isolation was devoted to his new novel Nishabda Sancharangal [The Silent Journeys] on Kerala’s enduring export to the world — the Malayali nurse. “Kerala nurses have a long history of travel, in fact from World War II onwards. But their experiences and life in a new country have hardly been told.” It is a story that is close to Benyamin — his wife is a nurse in Bahrain.

The storyteller, however, places a certain onus on himself; as a writer he wants to engage with his reader so that they stay with him till the end of a book. “I may have worked on a novel for five years. But if the reader drops it after a few pages, what is the point?” he asks. He writes, for he has something to say. His readers — in Malayalam and English — have stayed so far.

P Anima

Published on August 28, 2020

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