The Evolution of Benyamin

Benyamin, one of Kerala’s most popular contemporary novelists, on his personal experiences with literature and how it may have shaped the kind of writer he has become today.

This story was first published on January 28, 2016 and is being republished in light of Benyamin’s novel Jasmine Days being awarded the JCB Prize for Literature.

Njaan avane konnu! (“I killed him!”)

That proclamation enraptured him as a child when he overheard an actor cry out the words. “It still rings in my mind,” says acclaimed writer Benyamin. Benyamin was just Benny Daniel then, waiting with his taxi driver father for his employer to return from a play he was watching. Unfortunately these were the only words he heard. Even today, Benyamin still wonders – who killed whom, and why?

This is one of his earliest memories of getting acquainted with art, with storytelling. Other than a few such instances, the former mechanical engineer-turned-writer of the acclaimed Aadu Jeevitham (translated into English as Goat Days) claims to have had a very non-literary background. It was only after he won the Padma Prabha Literary Award in 2015 that he began consciously probing his past for influences that may have nudged him towards the literary success he has attained today.

Benyamin spoke about how the habit of reading came to him late, consumed him, and how it influences his writing, at an event organised by H&C Readers Forum at Kochi on January 23.

Also read: Malayalam Writer Benyamin’s ‘Jasmine Days’ Wins JCB Prize for Literature

Having left to work in Bahrain, the 21-year-old engineer found himself with more free time than he knew what to do with. That was when he found a refuge in books. “I suppose it may have been quite unusual,” he told us, “for a young man not to be excited by movies and other forms of entertainment.” But that’s the way it was, and Benyamin spent his 16 non-working hours a day feverishly devouring one book after another. “On going through the diary I kept those days I learnt that I had read over a hundred books a year in that period!”

He recalled writing letters to his friends and family from Bahrain. In the letters, he often talked about the books he was reading and quoted for them memorable passages from them. “I was very careful to mention that the passages were not my own,” he says sheepishly. A lot of these friends were bigger readers than him back in the day and Benyamin seems over aware and almost bashful about his own success and fame. In fact, that was one of the main reasons he chose to publish under a pen name rather than his birth name Benny Daniel.

Today, Aadu Jeevitham is credited for heralding a second wave in Malayalam literature, as well as for introducing a lot of the younger generation to the reading life. Benyamin is humbled by the letters he receives from young readers, a large number of them asking him one question – what should I read next? Reading, he says, is a bit like climbing a staircase. We all grow as readers with every book we read. A book that didn’t agree with us the first time round might have become really meaningful if we had read it at a later point in our lives. “Let Aadu Jeevitham only be the first step,” Benyamin usually tells them.

The writer spoke at length about books that left a deep impression in him at different stages of his life as a reader. Orhan Pamuk has caught his fancy recently and he is waiting to read the latest book that was gifted to him by Penguin publishers when he visited them.

Based on a true story, Aadu Jeevitham is the heart rending true story of Najeeb who migrates to Saudi Arabia and is unwittingly enslaved by his abusive employer (an alarmingly common phenomenon). Three years later, he wrote Manjaveyil Maranangal, which has been described as, somehow, a Dan Brown-esque crime novel. The book was translated recently into English as Yellow Lights of Death by Sajeev Kumarapuram and published by Penguin India.

“Some could say it’s a weakness,” Benyamin said light-heartedly about his inability to stick to one genre, “The one thing my readers can stay assured of is something new every time.” Perhaps a reader as adventurous as him cannot but be experimental with his styles. After all, as he said, his writing is but an extension of his reading. Or perhaps this this is when we find out “who killed whom, and why”.