Benyamin is an Indian novelist from Kerala who writes in the language of that region, Malayalan. Jasmine Days is about families who have emigrated from Kerala to live in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, probably based on a city in Bahrain, where he lived for over twenty years.
The story is told through letters written by Sameera, a young Pakistani ex-pat living with her father, his brothers and their wives and children in a house called Taya Ghar. The background to the story is the Arab Spring and through Sameera, we learn about the political, religious and cultural differences that lead to the Jasmine Revolution.
Sameera works as an RJ (radio jockey) and through her job comes into contact with different nationalities and is influenced by their ideas and opinions. She was already an independent, lively young woman not content to stay at home with all the ‘aunties’. However, she was rather innocent and naïve and, as events unfold, she is forced to question some of the beliefs and actions of her family.
She is an engaging narrator, who takes you with her on her journey of discovery, giving a good insight into the reasons behind the uprisings at this time. Politics, religion and gender roles can be tricky subjects for a novel, but Benyamin has handled them well in this novel, which has been well translated by Shahnaz Habib. Habib is also from Kerala, although she now lives in the US and this was her debut translation.
The book won the prestigious Indian book award, the JCB Prize in 2018. The prize is awarded for a work of fiction by an Indian writer working in English or translated fiction by an Indian writer. Both Benyamin and Shahnaz Habib won awards.
I really enjoyed the book and liked Sameera’s character. The other characters were not so well developed but this did not spoil my enjoyment. Each one was there for a purpose, to give more depth and understanding to the political situation. Don’t be put off by the idea of a novel about politics, religion, conflict etc – although the subjects are not treated lightly, it is a very easy book to read and one that could be enjoyed by a book group.
Maddy Broome 4/4
Jasmine Days by Benyamin
Juggernaut Publication 9789386228741 hbk May 2018