Says author Benyamin after winning the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature (Rs 25 lakh) for his novel ‘Jasmine Days’
Photo of Benyamin by Albin Mathew
By Shevlin Sebastian
When it was announced that Benyamin had won the inaugural Rs 25 lakh JCB Prize For Literature for his novel, ‘Jasmine Days’ at a function in New Delhi, on October 24, he felt an overwhelming excitement. “I also felt surprised I had won even though I was on the shortlist,” he says.
The other books included ‘Poonachi: Or The Story of a Black Goat’ by Perumal Murugan, ‘Latitudes of Longing’ by Shubhangi Swarup, ‘Half The Night Is Gone’ by Amitabha Bagchi, and ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’ by Anuradha Roy. Not surprisingly when he went on stage, he said, “This is the most beautiful evening of my life.”
After the function, author Arshia Sattar told Benyamin, “From the time of the publication of ‘Goat Days’ [Benyamin’s best-selling novel], I felt you deserved a big award, so I am happy you finally got it.” A smiling Benyamin said, “It was a happy moment for me when she said that.”
Benyamin was also happy that a regional language novel was able to win this prestigious award. “Too many people abroad believe that Indian literature means Indian-English literature,” he said. “But my win has shown that there is very good work being done in the regional languages. I believe this will prove a boost for regional writers. People have the mistaken impression that we are not that good and do not communicate to a larger world.”
The novel, (translated into English by the New York-based teacher Shahnaz Habib), focuses on the life of radio jockey Sameera Parveen from Pakistan and how her life changes when a revolution comes to an unnamed West Asia country. The events described are similar to what took place in different countries of West Asia, following the Arab Spring of 2010.
“I lived in Manama (Bahrain) for over 20 years, so I had some knowledge of the area,” he said. “In Bahrain, people protested at the Central Square asking for democracy but in the end, it failed. So I thought I would write a novel about it.”
All these conflicts, as well as a rising fanaticism all over the world, is worrying Benyamin. “The power of religion is growing day by day,” he said. “Neighbours are becoming enemies. People are losing their tolerance and compassion. People say, ‘My religion and my belief are the right ones. Any other religion and thought processes are wrong’.”
The spread of technology is accelerating the divide. “In earlier times, if a person spouted hatred it was limited to a certain area,” he says. “Now, thanks to Facebook, Whatsapp and other apps, a man’s verbal poison can travel the entire world and infect so many people. In fact, sadly, too many people are spreading poison all the time. I fear for the future of societies when there is so much of hatred all around.”
Meanwhile, when asked whether there is a market for literary fiction, Benyamin says, “In every civilisation reading has not been a major pastime. In fact, it is a small minority that reads books, especially literary works. But I believe that, thanks to rising education levels, the number of readers has steadily increased, especially in Malayalam literature.”
(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)