The JCB Prize for Literature 2018 was awarded to Benyamin’s ‘brilliant and intense novel’ Jasmine Days, which is translated from the original Malayalam into English by Shahnaz Habib. A Guardian 20 special.
The author of Jasmine Days, Benyamin, was declared the first winner of the JCB Prize for Literature at a special event held in Delhi on 24 October. The book, originally written in Malayalam, is translated by Shahnaz Habib. The author received a cash prize of Rs 25 lakhs, as well as a trophy, entitled Mirror Melting, created by the Delhi-based artist duo Thukral and Tagra. The translator of the novel was also given an additional prize of Rs 5 lakhs.
Jasmine Days is about the lives of South Asian migrants in the Gulf. It centres on the story of a young woman in a city where the promise of revolution turns into destruction and strife. The novel presents a fictionalised account of the Jasmine Revolution that began in the region around December 2010 and was quelled by January 2011. Benyamin calls his novel “a metaphor for the world today, full of fanatics”.
Speaking to Guardian 20, Benyamin says, “The basic idea I got was from this the incident that happened in the Gulf countries a few years back. I was there during that time and I have a lot of personal experience about that. I also had so much information about it from my Arab friends. I thought I have to tell about the world about the conflict inside the community, inside the religion. That’s why I decided to write the book.”
It was not a single person or single incident that inspired the author to write this book. He says, “Across the street, where I was living I was seeing events happening on the road from my flat. It was a series of incidents that inspired me to write this book,” adds the author.
Benyamin has written 20 books across multiple genres ranging from short stories and novels to memoir. He is one of the leading literary voices of our time. The innovation and experimentation of his Malayalam novels masterfully demonstrate the inherent ability of regional writers to grapple with contemporary issues and realities.
According to him, the most wearisome scene to write was the death of the father of the book’s protagonist, Sameera Parvin. He says, “This was the most difficult scene to write because when we are writing about some saddest thing it is the most difficult part but as a writer, and I had to write it.”
Benyamin migrated to Bahrain in 1992 and returned to his native state of Kerala in 2013, two years after the revolution. He talks about his interest in literature. “I loved mathematics. I did not take literature seriously until I reached Bahrain,” he says. Having already picked up the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for the hard-hitting Aadujeevitham or Goat Days. His latest award-winning novel is equally uncompromising and morally complex, confronting some of the difficult questions of our time.
There were a few challenges the writer had to face on the way to establishing himself as a well-known author. He says, “I was not bothered about how many people are reading my work. In the initial days, many of my stories were rejected by magazines, so I wrote them again. But later, they accepted me as a writer. Now I am one of the bestsellers in the Malayalam language. My books are translated into so many different languages, such as English, Tamil, Thai, Oria and Nepali among others. It was a slow process for the last 20 years. Now I am happy!”
The literary director of the JCB Prize for Literature is the novelist and essayist Rana Dasgupta. All members of the jury read all novels which were nominated for the prize, and then jointly selected a longlist of 10 books, a shortlist of five novels and finally a winner.
The 2018 jury comprised novelist Vivek Shanbhag, Yale University astrophysicist and writer Priyamvada Natarajan, entrepreneur and scholar Rohan Murty, and author and translator Arshia Sattar.
The judges were also impressed by Shahnaz Habib’s skilful translation of Benyamin’s Malayalam. Born and raised in Kerala, Shahnaz now lives in New York, teaching writing at Bay Path University and consulting for the United Nations. Given Benyamin’s profile, Shahnaz attracted much attention when working on the translation, declaring that translating Benyamin was “as a first-time translator, both auspicious and intimidating in equal measure”.
Vivek Shanbhag, chair of the 2018 JCB Prize for Literature judging panel, said, “The courage shown by Benyamin in Jasmine Days in examining some of the most important conflicts of our times is exceptional. The novel provides powerful insights into the violence associated with change. It also raises profound questions about the relationship between crime, punishment and forgiveness. A brilliant and intense novel.”
Arshia Sattar, a leading translator and author, said, “With courage and clarity, Benyamin’s Jasmine Days points to the complex moral issues that define our times. Through its characters and situations, the book raises uncomfortable questions, but leaves it to the reader to answer them.”
Founded in 2018, the JCB Prize for Literature celebrates distinguished fiction by Indian writers. It is India’s richest literary award. The prize aims to enhance the prestige of literary achievement in India and to create greater visibility for contemporary Indian writing. With a special focus on translation, it also aims to introduce readers to works of Indian literature in regional languages other than their own. All shortlisted writers received Rs 1 lakh.