Malayalam writer Benyamin’s new book in translation takes us back to the Arab Spring
'Jasmine Days' tells a powerful story about the dilemmas of immigrant lives
In 2011, the Arab Spring came to a Shiite-majority country. Inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as by burgeoning anti-government protests in Iran, young people hit the streets in Bahrain to criticize the country’s Sunni monarchy. Retribution was swift and bloody, ushering in norms of repression that continue to this day. Earlier this year, an opposition activist received a five-year sentence for “insulting national institutions" on Twitter. Bahrain’s constitution now permits protesting civilians to be tried in military courts.
This is both prologue and coda to Benyamin’s Jasmine Days, published in Malayalam in 2014. It is the first English translation of Benyamin’s work set in Manama, where he worked for several years. Or not quite: the story takes place in an unnamed city (“the City"), in a history slightly at odds with that of our own world. Neither the sultan nor his opposition is named. Nor, poetically, is Mohammed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor whose suicide sparked the street revolution in Tunisia. We know it anyway. Call it plausible undeniability.
Disorientation is a great theme in all of Benyamin’s novels that have appeared in English: the psychological force as well as the narrative engine of each story. In Jasmine Days, its victim is not a poor man enslaved in the desert, as in the now-classic Goat Days, but a hip young radio jockey. Sameera Parvin comes from a family of “good" Pakistani immigrants —good enough that the Sunni sultan ruling this kingdom full of disenfranchised Shias prefers to hire them to fill the ranks of his security forces. “Their job was not to defend the country from foreign invaders," she writes. “It was to protect His Majesty from his own people."
Sameera’s job at the radio station leads her to meet other immigrants, including a comical plague of Malayali managers. She also befriends Ali, the guitar-playing young man with a tragic past and a hot temper. Ali is Shia, a distinction that renders him a second-class citizen. The two bond over music and fight about politics like young people everywhere. Then the streets start to stir in protest, led by the fragrance of the Jasmine Revolution spreading through North Africa and West Asia. A good immigrant has no reason to fight, but a citizen yearning for his country to be on the right side of history wants nothing more than to fight.
In cutting down sweeping, news-making narratives to an intimate, even youthful story (or as youthful as an adult can remember to be), Jasmine Days reflects on two major arcs of history. The first is the Arab revolutions and the seeds of despair they carried even in their high-hearted early days. The second is the relationship of men and women from the subcontinent to these foreign shores.
Back home, the relationship is uniformly portrayed as a tragedy of exploitation. But powerlessness is not a uniform experience. Ali, outraged at the use of foreign security forces to control the kingdom’s citizens, spits at Sameera that Indians have always been the “coolie soldiers" of this region—bodies shipped in to guard imperial interests against local aspirations. Sameera has never heard this history, and knows nothing of the Indians who defended the British empire on its eastern front against the Ottomans and local uprisings in World War I. Only later, as she examines her family’s role in the crackdown, does it occur to her that good immigrants, far from being neutral observers in the fight for power, become instruments of this fight themselves.
Benyamin lets all this flow over our heads as it does Sameera’s, in great leaps of plot and monologue. The novel is told in first person, but it isn’t really concerned with interiority: it’s the great knock-about events of the story, its gasping pace of riots, deaths, family feuds and mourning, that imbalances our senses. We struggle to keep up with the events of the revolution, but we are also left grasping about for Sameera herself. An unabashedly sentimental figure, her narrative tells us everything about her world, but doesn’t quite let us enter into it.
In keeping with its air of haste and half-completeness, Benyamin writes a note at the end of the novel about its provenance: it is an epistolary work called “A Spring Without Fragrance", which he, Benyamin, only gains the right to translate in exchange for another literary service. He must write a book called “The Al-Arabian Novel Factory", about the City, for an Indian-Canadian man named Pratap.
This can all seem dizzying, especially since Benyamin actually did write Jasmine Days and Al-Arabian Novel Factory as companion novels (the latter will be released next year), and Jasmine Days’s translator, Shahnaz Habib, has appended a preview chapter of Al-Arabian Novel Factory to this book (whew). This trickery is a Benyamin habit. In all his work translated into English so far, he has never yet been satisfied with telling a single story in a straightforward way. The books are always documents within documents; true stories told as fiction, rendered into emails, historical records, hearsay and so on. Benyamin the novelist must have a mind as busy as the streets of the City.
All his translators so far have not only rendered him into English, but into the sort of English Indians speak—over-correct in tense, colloquial in ways different from British or North Americans, slightly verbose. Habib, who recreates Sameera’s voice in warm, sometimes high-pitched urgency, does the same. If there’s something a little too pat about Sameera—a little too naive, too clever, too ready with the right questions for freedom-loving rioters and nosy aunts alike—it must be because of her distance from her literary-minded, middle-aged author himself.
Still, “Stories are not penned by those who experience them, but those who listen to them," as a character says in another Benyamin novel. Jasmine Days is, essentially, about Sameera, the talker, who learns to listen. It is an argument for Benyamin’s own literary preoccupation with the role of listeners.