The young Benny Daniel was an engineer in the middle-east. Far away from home and having nothing much to do after work, he took to reading. The next 8 years he kept reading. He also wrote a lot of letters to friends back at home. Little did he know that this habit of letter writing is someday going to make him win the first ever JCB prize for Literature. That’s the story Benyamin, the author of ‘Jasmine Days’.
Benyamin says that his friends loved reading his letters and that encouraged him to pursue writing. So, Benny Daniel became Benyamin and went on to write 25 books out of which 3 have been translated. Benyamin had worked for 31 years in the middle-east before he finally quit his job five years ago. This prolonged stay in a land which is considered the second home for Keralites formed the inspiration for his stories.
During the years when he was reading, Benyamin realized the authors he read wrote only those stories from Kerala. No one had even attempted to capture the life of the men, women and families that spent almost a lifetime in the middle-east amidst numerous struggle. Someone had to tell their story and Benyamin was their man.
The moderator for the discussion was Nandita Bose and she asked about those huge houses that can be seen in the villages of Kerala and the wealth that comes into India from the middle-east. Benyamin said those houses aren’t a symbol of prosperity, but of struggle that none knows about. It’s a common thing in Kerala that when you ask someone about what their son is doing, the answer would be, “He is in Gulf”. Most parents would not know what his job is in “Gulf”. The men who show off their fashionable clothes back at home would only have bought them the day before they started for Kerala. All their hard earned money would then go into those wealthy looking houses in the village. Such are the lives of men in the middle-east.
Speaking of his book, ‘Jasmine days’, he said it is a twin book in Malayalam. One of them is written from the point of view of a Samira, the female protagonist of his story, who happens to be a Pakistani. This version is now translated to English. The second book is written from the point of view of Pratap, a Canadian journalist. The translation of this book is slated to be published next year. Benyamin also explained how Indians live as brothers with Pakistanis and share food and shelter with them. Their lives are always intertwined and that is the inspiration behind the Pakistani heroine for his story.
Benyamin also spoke about his writing process. He said he does his research first and writes a good part of the story in his head. When he sits down to write them, he would never write it chapter by chapter. He writes those chapters that come to him and later compiles them to fit into the narrative. When asked if the JCB prize for literature has changed his life in any way, he said it did not. He always treated awards and criticisms alike. He believes his duty is to write a book and he only keeps dreaming about his new book. So, he is already thinking about his new book and in his next book, he wishes to write about the history of Kerala in the 18th century.
About the Author – Jeevanayagi Ganapathy is Founder Editor and Writer at Bookstalkist.