The opening story in Benyamin’s collection, Márquez, EMS, Gulam & Others, reworks one of the most famous opening sentences of all time. “Gregory George Mathews, the young journalist, woke up one fine morning from a rather sweet dream, realized that he had transformed into none other than Márquez, and was lying on a bed in a hotel room in Mexico.”
This is a spin on the opening line of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The genius of this allusion is that Benyamin’s story is about the follies of literary obsession, the damage a person can cause while in the throes of “artistic inspiration”. Benyamin’s Gregory is obsessed with Gabriel García Márquez—but the young Márquez was obsessed with Kafka. Read Márquez’s early stories, like Eyes Of A Blue Dog and A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, and you can see Kafka’s handprints all over. By choosing Kafka, Benyamin is hinting that Gregory’s issues (he pretty much abandons his wife and children while writing his “masterpiece”) are also Márquez’s, thereby creating an infinite chain of “the price that literature extracts”.
Márquez, EMS, Gulam & Others (translated from the Malayalam by Swarup B.R.) is an enjoyable puzzle box of a collection, full of light-bulb moments where the author connects the mundanities of everyday life with the larger, grander scheme of things, one that involves politics and/or literature. Like he did with his novels Goat Days and Yellow Lights Of Death, Benyamin blends high-brow themes with a genre-fiction-adjacent style, keeping readers glued.
The Postman has reminders of R.K. Narayan’s The Missing Mail from Malgudi Days. In some ways, it is a “rewriting” of Narayan’s story. Narayan’s conscientious postman, Thanappa, withheld a letter about a death to ensure a wedding wasn’t postponed. Benyamin’s postman withholds letters, but are his reasons righteous or is it a God complex?
Examples of Benyamin the experimentalist abound. The Enemy, all of two pages long, is an allegorical story, a prose poem almost, about mob psychology. A Chapter From My Red Sea Books is a historical fable, told intimately, about the arrival of Christianity on Indian shores. As the author writes in the foreword, some of the stories came about as a result of his experience of working for 11 years at an American military base. Hence you have the short, sharp shock provided by Two Soldiers In Yet Another Arabian Tale, an anti-war story with no winners, only degrees of suffering.
The most subtle, and my favourite, is EMS And The Girl, set in the US amidst Malayali immigrants. Jose, the story narrator, is surprised one evening by a young girl hiding in the back of his car to escape a forced marriage. Pacquiao Sayang, the teenaged Hmong girl, proceeds to blackmail him—either he offers shelter at his home or she will call the cops and claim Jose tried to rape her. As the story proceeds, Jose learns that Sayang’s version of events may not be the most reliable.
In his blurb, Mohammad Hanif calls Benyamin “the best Indian writer of our times”. And while I am not fond of superlatives in literary criticism, Hanif sahab is not far off the mark here.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.