Beyond the Arab Spring: The book that launched a silent revolution
Malayalam writer Benyamin’s sequel to ‘Jasmine Days’ is a gripping novel of political intrigue and the human cost of the Arab Spring
At the end of the English translation of his novel Jasmine Days, which won the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature in 2018, Benyamin’s publisher, Juggernaut Books, included the first chapter of the book’s sequel—a novel called Al Arabian Novel Factory—as a teaser. But it wasn’t just a publicity exercise. Rather, this excerpt offered an intimation of the complex metafictional universe that the Malayalam writer likes to weave around his work.
Out this month in Shahnaz Habib’s beautifully fluid English rendering (she has also translated Jasmine Days), Al Arabian Novel Factory plunges the reader into a dizzying labyrinth of suspense and intrigue. Set in an unnamed Arab city, the novel is rooted to the world that is conjured up by its predecessor. Pratap, a Malayali journalist living in Toronto, is sent off by his boss on a mission to an unnamed city in West Asia. He is joined by three others—Edwin from the UK, Vinod from India, and Riyaz from Pakistan—united by their aim to get information about “authentic life experiences in the city".
Employed by a best-selling writer of international repute who refuses to divulge his identity, this motley crew is mandated to fish out private and confidential stories from the residents of the city, especially their feelings towards the ruling class. The format is similar to the practice in the days of yore, when kings used to venture out in disguise among hoi polloi to sense the pulse of the people. The testimonies need to be retrieved in confidence, without making the real purpose of the project evident to anyone, and the material must be passed on to the anonymous writer.
If the set-up smacks of a 007 novel, Benyamin perhaps intends it to be so. At least twice in Al Arabian Novel Factory, characters wonder aloud if double agents outnumber ordinary people in the city. Even the research team realizes that they cannot fully trust anyone, not even one another, as they have come to the city for their own vested interests.
For Edwin, it is his family’s connection with oil money that draws him to this part of the world— it’s also fortuitous that he meets a woman on the flight and gets engaged to her eventually. Vinod and Pratap come in pursuit of old flames, though the latter’s feelings are deeper and more sincere than the cavalier flamboyance of the former. But Riyaz is the oddball, inscrutable about his goings-on and inspiring a visceral hostility in Vinod, who reacts to him more out of a sense of historical enmity than unbridled Islamophobia. The only clue that ties the Pakistani to the place is a copy of a banned book among his belongings, written by an immigrant Pakistani radio jockey called Sameera Parvin, who worked in the city before vanishing mysteriously one day.
Readers of Jasmine Days will remember Parvin and her infamous novel, “A Spring Without Fragrance", chronicling the unfolding of the Arab Spring protests in the city, which then became the basis of Benyamin’s own novel. This mirroring of fact and fiction continues in Al Arabian Novel Factory as well. From the moment Pratap lays his eyes on a pirated copy of Parvin’s book in Riyaz’s room, he is desperate to read the forbidden text. In another sinister turn, Perumal, the husband of Pratap’s college friend Daisy, who lives in the city, confides in him his own brush with the law over the very same book. A thick fog of conspiracy shrouds the plot, as every page of Al Arabian Novel Factory turns into a minefield of surprise.
Al Arabian Novel Factory may feel a bit sprawling—there are some loose ends —but Benyamin manages to control its disparate strands by narrating the story in brief episodic bursts. With the mad goose chase of the mysterious book at its centre, the story begins to shoot wildly in other directions. The everyday rhythm of life in the city, for instance, is captured in sharp, realistic vignettes. In a striking moment, Pratap and his companions are shocked to see a boy throwing an amateur explosive device at a police car waiting for the traffic lights to change, before he jumps over a wall and disappears. “The bottle exploded, but the jeep was unharmed and the policemen simply ignored the incident and kept driving," Pratap observes.
In another telling episode, Perumal meets Pratap in secret to ask him to sever all contact with Daisy because Perumal suspects she is in love with Pratap. The fear of losing his wife is compounded in Perumal’s mind by the looming threat of social media, which has the potential to liberate women from the fetters of convention. “These social networks are dangerous places," he tells Pratap, “They are like devils whispering in women’s ears that there is a universe of happiness waiting for them beyond their husband." This sentiment is shared by the political leaders, who are just as keenly aware of the power of the internet in influencing their electorate to choose democracy and overthrow their dictatorial regime.
Such details are offset by a collective rumbling of discontent echoing through society, ruthlessly suppressed by the secret police and government forces, but imploding in sporadic episodes of violence. The moral compass of the movement becomes horribly skewed when doctors at a hospital begin to smuggle ammunition into the building to launch a gruesome rebellion. In a terrifying show of defiance, they kill their patients by deliberately poisoning or infecting them to claim the dead as martyrs of the revolution. In contrast to such mindless mayhem and disintegration of values, there are groups which don’t necessarily endorse the ruling family but are also reluctant to unthinkingly embrace Western models of democracy.
Al Arabian Novel Factory bristles with ideas of revolution and social justice—and the ways in which these impulses are harnessed by realpolitik. It exposes the toxic schisms within Islamic society, where the struggle between Shias and Sunnis has led to a bankrupt humanity. Benyamin’s inspiration for Jasmine Days and Al Arabian Novel Factory goes back to the years he lived and worked in the Gulf, he says in an email to Lounge. Initially through his friendship with Arabs and later by becoming a witness to the revolution, he gathered material for these twin novels.
“I experienced the struggle they faced, I knew about their political vision and democratic ambitions, I saw the lack of freedom of expression in their country," Benyamin says. “Some of these concepts may be alien to us living in India. So I decided the write these books."
Although Benyamin doesn’t draw any direct correlation with the political situation in India, the themes of both novels resonate strongly with the times we live in. The banning of books, minorities marching the streets demanding their rights, the wobbly ethics of journalism and the fight by a few to rise above corporate control—these realities have now become inseparable from the political life of South Asia.
Benyamin lists George Orwell, Nikos Kazantzakis, Orhan Pamuk and Gabriel García Márquez among his literary heroes. In the footsteps of these writers, he too takes on the responsibility of speaking truth to power, through a body of work that feels at once urgent and timeless.
FIRST PUBLISHED14.12.2019 | 11:20 AM IST