From the conference hall, a familiar face emerges. An all-smiling, pleasant and absolutely humble Benyamin speaks patiently to the many who come greeting the author. On someone’s request, he goes back to the hall to fetch the man who made him famous, the man whose story he told in one of the first books he wrote and won many, many accolades for — Najeeb of Aadujeevitham (Goat Days).
That is perhaps the easiest way to identify him, the man who comes from a book. Aadujeevitham told not just his story, but also the many unheard tales of men who went to Gulf countries seeking jobs and money to send back home, and instead got trapped in inhuman conditions they couldn’t escape from. “I can’t even talk. I am feeling so happy, meeting so many great people, all because of Aadujeevitham,” Najeeb says, filled with emotion, sitting at the Legislative Complex in Thiruvananthapuram, where the two-day Loka Kerala Sabha — a gathering of Pravasi (non-resident) Malayalis — is going on. Najeeb is speaking at one of the conferences, so is Benyamin.
“It is a time when a lot of Pravasis are returning home. We want to know how the commoners among them will be rehabilitated.
Najeeb wants to ask what his job opportunities will be when he comes back home next year,” Benyamin says. Yes, Najeeb had gone back to the Gulf again.
After Aadujeevitham, you can’t help asking him if he was brave enough to go back to the place that had taken everything out of him years ago. “I was home for a few years but I had to look after the family,” he says. This time there was a brother in Bahrain and a free visa, to give him the courage. It was not going to be as bad as Saudi Arabia, where he led a slave-like existence as Benyamin so powerfully writes in his fictional account.
“Fiction is the way to describe the unending loneliness of a man trapped in such a situation — his pain and his suffering. If it was only an account of what happened, it would have ended in four or five pages. A reader would not have understood what people like Najeeb went through,” Benyamin says. It is partly his life too. He too had gone away and lived as a Pravasi engineer for a while, before the loneliness drove him to reading and then to writing. For 21 years, surviving the loneliness and the heat of the Gulf…” he breaks off.
He has a few suggestions to pass on at the Loka Kerala Sabha - one, all the skills of the Pravasi returnees could be used when they come back home. They should be given jobs in universities and institutions, to pass on the knowledge to students, regardless of their educational qualifications; and two, to give the Gulf returnees job opportunities in small-scale units, in the Kudumbashree model.
Even after writing so many books, Benyamin is still most known for his Aadujeevitham, which has been translated into eight languages across the world, including Nepali. “That’s because of the story it tells,” says Najeeb. He is the one who received it at the time of its release. That's when the family read it for the first time and learnt of the extent of hardships Najeeb went through. “My wife would cry and ask me why I never told her all this,” he says.
The book has brought awareness of a different level. “It made the youth who dream of going abroad and making money aware of the risks involved — to check the authenticity of the company, the sponsor, to check if it is an authorised agency giving them visa. They will think twice before planning to go abroad,” Benyamin says. He remembers meeting a mother in Kozhikode once who told him about her son who had been fighting with her to go away to a Gulf country.
“She told me she spent Rs 120 to buy him a copy of Aadujeevitham and he has stopped fighting, and lives happily, selling fish in his homeland,” Benyamin says, before he leaves, still smiling. He did not write another Aadujeevitham, he knew one was enough. But his ‘Al-Arabian Novel Factory’ talks of the Arab politics, the dictatorship of decades. There are clearly many more stories to be told, and Benya min shall keep writing them.