Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 25, 2019

Jasmine Days, by Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib

I don’t know who to thank for my discovery of Jasmine Days written by Benyamin, (Benny Daniel) and translated from the Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib. The book won India’s new JCB Prize for Literature, awarded annually with 25 lakh INR (about $54,000 AUD) to a distinguished work of fiction by an Indian writer working in English or translated fiction by an Indian writer.  It’s funded by a manufacturer of earthmoving and construction equipment.  (Yes, you read that correctly.  Can we imagine any of our Australian mega construction companies funding a literary prize?  No, we cannot, more’s the pity.)

Apart from the story itself, the other thing that’s interesting about Jasmine Days is its publisher.  Juggernaut Books is a two-year-old mobile venture.  On the back of my hardback edition, next to the barcode on the dustjacket, there’s a QR code.  You use it to read this book on your phone.  Do look at their website to see how Juggernaut market their books, it’s quite unlike the publisher websites we’re used to, offering books under various headings such as Readers Club New Releases, Quick 15-minute reads; Secrets of Parenting, Grow Your Vocabulary and the Fit India Movement.  At the back of Jasmine Days on the last page there are the QR codes for both Android and IOS Apps to read their book, concluding a 9-page section spruiking the Juggernaut App for Indian Readers, and their fresh, original books tailored for mobile and for India.  Starting at 10R. That is about 20c, I think…

Anyway…

Jasmine Days features the Pakistani diaspora in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.  Sameera Parvin is a feisty young woman who joins her father and other relations while her mother stays home in Pakistan with the other children.  While she waits for her certificates to arrive from Kerala, Sameera starts work as a radio jockey.  She’s a natural chatterbox and she thrives in her job, though there are times when the internal politics trouble her.  The station broadcasts in two languages, Hindi and Malayalam, and the two teams practice mutual hostilities with exclusion tactics such as speaking in the language that the other doesn’t understand. It takes the collapse of society for these internal divisions to resolve.

Jasmine Days is a metaphor for the Arab Spring.  (Benyamin lived in Bahrain from 1992 to 2013).  Discontent erupts in this unnamed country where ‘second-class citizens’ (the Shia minority) have no legal status in a Sunni dominated autocracy. Sameera’s friend Ali represents the hopes and dreams of many in the Middle East—and he is jealous of the people of Iraq:

Source: Wikipedia, public domain

I imagine the excitement and energy they must have felt when they ran into the square, [Firdos Square in central Baghdad] knowing that after years of waiting, the door to freedom was finally open. Will I ever be that lucky? (p.61)

However, an Iraqi refugee overhears their conversation and warns them that, while it is important to rebel against dictators, it can be worse afterwards than before if the people divide along sectarian lines.  [As we have seen in Iraq]. As a Sunni Muslim who lived in a Shia-dominated area, he faked a Sunni ID to avoid the violence but was then attacked by fundamentalist Sunnis looking for people of their own sect leading fake lives. And it’s not just Iraq, he says, there’s the lesson of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya where—in the name of democracy—fanatics have introduced Sharia Law.  He is wary of what he’s seen of democracy.  Don’t forget, he says, that Hitler, Saddam, Hosni Mubarak and Gaddafi also came to power through elections. 

‘Either the permissive societies of the West or the extremism of Muslim fundamentalists—there are only two poles on the earth right now.  There should be a middle way between these two.  But till that middle path becomes possible, it’s better to let the dictators rule.  Otherwise your life will become even more terrible. A person who can think for himself cannot as easily bid goodbye to the twenty-first century and go and live in the seventh century.’ (p.97)

This is a challenging perspective for those of us who’ve grown up in democracies, believing as Churchill did that democ­ra­cy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those oth­er forms that have been tried from time to time.

Sameera just wants to do a job she loves, hang out playing her guitar, and get out and about with her friends.  From time to time she gets lectured by her uncle and aunts about modest female behaviour but anything she does is pretty tame by western standards.  But she’s headstrong, and when her curiosity takes her too close to the demonstrations in the Square of Pearls, she sees violence that terrifies her.  Things escalate out of control, and foreign workers like them become targets too.

In Part 4, ‘Weekend God’ the city descends into chaos, the urgency and confusion cleverly depicted by government edicts in bulletins, and a Facebook feed full of rumours, real time facts, and activists sharing survival advice.  The radio station, meanwhile, continues to play popular music and censored news bulletins because of orders ‘from above’.  Samera tweets that ‘When there is no freedom of press, rumour becomes news’…

Benyamin also explores the radicalisation of young men like Ali. An old activist tells Sameera, who is shocked by Ali’s betrayal:

‘He grew up in a family without men because they were all in prison.  He grew up wild without anyone to show him the way. He learned about life from his friends on the street and about religion from madrasas full of hate. When we were young, we had good leaders.  They taught us to fight a good fight.  They taught us that anger, resentment and the desire for revenge would not take us very far.  We learned to use our judgement, we learned to be impartial.  Our generation knew how to spend ten or twelve or twenty years in jail but emerge with our spirits intact.  But Ali’s generation grew up differently. Their leaders taught them to throw a bomb at the slightest provocation.  Like a child insisting that onions make you beautiful, Ali’s leaders kept telling lies till they became true.  And like a child convinced that eating fish makes you a good swimmer, he grew up thinking that killing a policeman would help overthrow the government.  That is why he behaved as he did. (p.233)

The time comes when Sameera has to choose sides, weighing up her own self-interest against principle and personal friendships.   I really like the way this author has depicted her coming-of-age as a strong young woman who refuses to be intimidated.

You may also enjoy this article about the book and its author at Publishing Perspectives.

Image credits: Statue of Saddam being toppled in Firdos Square: Wikipedia, public domain.

Author: Benyamin (Benny Daniel)
Title: Jasmine Days 
Translated from the Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib
Publisher: Juggernaut, 2018, 258 pages, not including the Translator’s note, the preview chapter of another book.
First published as Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal in 2014 by DC Books
ISBN: 9789386228741
Source: Personal library.  Purchased secondhand from AbeBooks, $26.70 (including postage).  Thanks to Jenny S for finding it for me!

You can buy it from Fishpond, but it’s $46.25. Jasmine days

 


Responses

  1. I thought JCB was an English company? Not sure what ‘spruik’ means, but context suggests ‘promote’? Good to hear about this publishing venture and writer. Language as a political tool featured, oddly enough, in my last post about Norway, which also had (and has) its oppressed minorities and secondary status

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  2. JCB? It might be. It’s probably global, the way so many are. Whatever, I approve of their philanthropy:)
    Yes, to spruik means to sing the praises of, to advertise something. I just looked it up at Wiktionary, it’s apparently an Australianism — its etymology is “unknown, likely Germanic. Compare Dutch spraak (“speech”), spreek (“speak”), spreuk (“saying”), sprook (“a story, fiction, tale, or false idea”). First recorded in the late 1890s and early 1900s, suggesting a possible derivation from Afrikaans (i.e. brought back by soldiers returning from the Boer War). With the exception of a few early uses of sprook, the word’s spelling has been fixed since it first entered the language. The uncommon digraph provides further evidence for an Afrikaans or Dutch origin”.
    Re oppressed languages, today I read something that (not entirely convincingly) argued that writing in a very plain, very simple form of English was a way of decolonising language. I think this means that we’ll be attacked as racist if we complain that it’s childlike and dull…

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    • Thanks for clarifying that point. I just looked up JCB: it’s a British multinational, founded by JC Bamford, whose son is still chairman. He’s a notorious supporter of the Tory party and the Vote Leave (EU) campaign – a real charmer. This language matter is complicated; English as a lingua Franca globally, or in former colonies like multilingual India, is a constant reminder of an imperialist past. It’s a minefield…

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  3. It’s an odd sponsorship match for a company that specialises in construction equipment but welcome nevertheless. I’m not surprised the publishers are focusing their efforts on providing books via mobile phones – just surprised other publishers havent already cottoned on to the idea. Mobile usage is enormous in India and cheap. It’s giving people in small villages access to services that would be near impossible otherwise,

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    • Yes, it looks like a good initiative.
      I also think that the theme of this book, while it’s set in the Middle East, is relevant to Pakistan as well.

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  4. Oh ouch! A Tory Brexiteer!!

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  5. Just caught up on Mariella Frostrup’s Book podcast from BBC Radio 4; after about 15 mins she interviews a guy from the JCB prize committee about the ethos of the prize. Fortuitous, eh? Here’s a link to the programme:
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07mk7w3
    And yes, I’m afraid the JCB chair has campaigned vociferously to leave the EU, and insists that companies like his will only benefit from Britain’s ‘taking back control’. Right, let’s see how that works out. Seems odd, with that kind of xenophobic mindset, why the company got involved in such a prize, designed to bring attention to less mainstream writers in India. Must be a marketing ploy…

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    • Thanks for the link, Simon, it was interesting to hear their reasoning for it, and I like their emphasis on translation.
      As to the motivation, well, call me suspicious, but I’m inclined to revise my opinion about it being philanthropic.

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  6. I put this my pending folder so I can look up Juggernaut Press when I return fom travelling. What an interesting publisher (and book). I really do need to get out more!! With my books that is.

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    • I had a reply tweet from Vishy (who blogs at Vishy the Knight) and he says Benyamin is *very* popular in India!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Not quite to the point but Seven Media is owned by a Caterpillar dealership, not sure if they sponsor any WA literary prizes.

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    • I won’t hold my breath while you find out!

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  8. […] Jasmine Days by Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib, see my review […]

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