The Malayali author's novel, 'Yellow Lights Of Death', is a murder mystery, a far cry from his best-selling 'Goat Days'
Photos by Albin Mathew
By Shevlin Sebastian
In 1502, Andrew Pereira, his wife Catherina, and son Diego embarked from Portugal, in the company of the famed explorer Vasco Da Gama and reached Kozhikode. Thereafter, Pereira decided to settle down in Kochi.
Initially, the King of Cochin appointed Pereira as a treasurer and later, as the chief trainer of the Army. Following the death of Pereira on January 9, 1520, his son Diego was given the same positions. In 1545, the King made Diego a 'Madambi' (a local chieftain). And he was the only Christian among 71 Madambis.
The Andrappers [a corruption of Andrew Pereira] married Portuguese women, but in 1786 Kochandy Andrapper married a local woman called Anna. It was then that the integration of the family to Kerala became complete. Over the years, some members moved to Pondicherry, Diego Garcia and Africa.
In 2005, Benyamin read, with rising excitement, the family's history in a Malayalam magazine. This became the spark behind the novel 'Manjaveyil Maranangal' or 'Yellow Lights of Death', which has just been published in English by Penguin Books.
In the novel, Benyamin does a fictional exploration of the history of the family. He also writes about the history of Kerala in the past 500 years, including the life of Thoma of Villarvattom, the head of India's only Christian dynasty in Udayamperoor.
At the same time, the book is a murder mystery. A killing in a restaurant in Diego Garcia sets in motion a series of events that has the reader gripped. “I had deliberately written a thriller, because I did not want to repeat myself,” says Benyamin, at his home in Pathanamthitta. “In every book, you should try a new style, theme and story.”
Benyamin's earlier book, 'Goat Days' (‘Aadujeevitham’) had been a big bestseller. It tells the story of a shepherd who lives like a slave under a cruel landlord at a farm in a desert at Saudi Arabia. “'Goat Days' was liked by many ordinary people, because it is a simple book,” says Benyamin. “Anybody could understand it. But 'Yellow Lights' will not be accepted by all.”
Nevertheless, the book has done well. Publication Manager AV Sreekumar of DC Books, one of Kerala's leading publishers, says, “The Malayalam version has already crossed 50,000 in sales. We are very happy.”
Interestingly, Benyamin says that the Malayalam edition has got a new readership. “The young generation has embraced this novel,” he says. “One reason is that I have written about social networks and other contemporary subjects.”
One great attraction about 'Yellow Lights', ably translated by media person Sajeev Kumarapuram, is the clear and lucid writing. Benyamin says that it is a deliberate decision. “This is the only way to lure people, who are hooked onto the visual media, to start reading,” he says. “The era of literary gimmicks is over. We have to attract a reader within the first five pages, otherwise we will lose him or her forever.”
Benyamin would feel the loss of readers since he is a full-time writer. Two years ago, he gave up a job in Bahrain, after working there for twenty years, and returned to Kerala.
Asked about his current life, Benyamin says, “It is much more pleasant being a full-time writer. For one I can devote more time to literature. Secondly, it has become easy for me to travel, as I am not working for anybody. I am able to attend a lot of literary meets in Kerala, and abroad.”
In November, last year, Benyamin went to attend the annual conference of the Literary Association of North America in New York. “The drawback is that there are a lot of literary meets which take place, and it is difficult to say no,” he says. “But truly the writer should be always at his desk writing.”
Today, Benyamin is doing research for a historical novel which will be set in Central Travancore, from the 1970s to the 90s. “For me, research is a basic tool of writing,” he says. “It is necessary to have historical supports for a novel.”
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)