A version of this was in Outlook
For over half a century, the ‘Gulf’ has been Eldorado for the people of South Asia, particularly Kerala. As the narrator in Al Arabian Novel Factory reflects, “God blesses some small Arab country with petrol dollars. And then a tiny sliver of land far away gets to enjoy some of those blessings… There was a long and lonely road between the two lands, and it could tell many stories of sacrifice.
It is these stories of sacrifice, toil, humiliation, deprivation, loneliness, despair and alienation of the ‘Gulf Malayali’, and the wider immigrant community, that Benny Daniel — who writes as Benyamin — chronicles in much of his writing.
Over the years, especially in Malayalam, there have been books and films on the Gulf immigrant experience. But few of these capture the granular details of immigrant life in the region with authenticity. And it’s these granular details that Benyamin writes about with authority, perhaps because he was, himself, a Gulf Malayali for over two decades.
With almost a score of books across genres to his name, Benyamin explores a world that is familiar to Kerala, but also alien, especially the darker side of that world. He received widespread recognition with his award-winning 2008 Malayalam novel Aadujeevitham, translated into English as Goat Days, and soon to be a Malayalam film. Since then, he’s returned regularly to his known turf — facets of immigrant life in the Gulf and the complicated relationships that entwine the locals and the ‘guest’ workers who keep Arab nations ticking.
At first glance, Al Arabian Novel Factory seems to have a simple narrative. Pratap, an Indian-Canadian journalist, travels to a West Asian country known only as the ‘City’, ruled by an authoritarian regime. He’s ostensibly there to helm a research project. But his real objective is to reconnect with Jasmine, his onetime lover, who lives in the City and is an elusive but constant presence through the book. In the City, his life tangles with the lives of his team members and also with the tortuous journey of A Spring Without Fragrance, a mysterious manuscript written by Sameera Parvin, a radio jockey who once lived there.
But appearances can be deceptive: Though a standalone novel, Al Arabian Novel Factory is also a companion volume to Benyamin’s Jasmine Days (Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal in Malayalam). Positioned as Jasmine Days’ sequel, it could just as easily be a ‘prequel-sequel’ hybrid. So intensely interwoven are the narrative strands and devices that connect the books that it does get a little convoluted at times.
Both novels though, are set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, with this one focusing on the period immediately after. It captures the immigrant experience, but the immigrant here is mostly the comfortably off one. The sort who sings praise songs for the City’s despotic ruler while hosting a workshop on ‘socialism-driven freedom in Kerala’; the immigrant who is a ‘socialist’ at heart, but lives a capitalist life.
Translated from the Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib, the book also tackles other themes including freedom of speech, thought and action; minority rights; and women’s rights. And looming over everything that happens is the all-seeing City, a character in itself. Habib’s translation is always competent and occasionally exquisite, capturing the nuances and cadences of the original; I must confess that I could occasionally visualise the original Malayalam line as I read the English version.
Sometimes, in factories, things can go out of kilter and so do things in this novel factory — not seriously awry, though. The narrative tends to meander occasionally. Also puzzling are some sections, particularly those in which Pratap behaves somewhat naively despite his journalistic experience. You could attribute it to the pangs of love, but one method he explores to trace Jasmine is far-fetched, stupid even, if not downright dangerous. Perhaps it was intended as a narrative device, but it seemed rather off.
What is disconcerting is the depiction of some female characters. They’re portrayed as unaware of and uninterested in little beyond their immediate surroundings and passions. Knowing the many informed, opinionated and worldly-wise women around us, even among the demographics presented in the novel, this characterisation seems baffling. This, even as several male characters, at times, appear misogynistic.
Perhaps, it is all a pointer towards one of the book’s takeaways — that we are all flawed beings. Or that glittering facades often hide messy secrets and disguise dreary, grasping lives where self-interest reigns supreme. As Pratap says: “I have always been curious about the City, how it rose out of dust like an enchanted land in a fairy tale.” More than anything else, Al Arabian Novel Factory reminds us that there are no fairy tales.