Benyamin :: Cattle-class Mercedes

From the Mayalalam--

Benyamin (b. 1971) is the pen-name of Benny Daniel, an Indian novelist and short story writer in the Malayalam language. Born in the south Indian state of Kerala, he spent several years working in Bahrain. For his work he has received the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award; he was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 and for the DSC South Asian Literature Prize in 2014.

Benyamin: An Introduction

 Benyamin is one of the few writers from Kerala, India, who have written about the experience of the Malayali diaspora in the Middle East. His 2008 novel Aadujivitham [Goat Days], about a migrant worker who ends up herding goats in the Saudi desert, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.

 The following excerpt is from Jasmine Days, one of a twin novel set in which Benyamin explores the interlacing lives of various South Asian diasporas in an unnamed Middle Eastern city in the aftermath of popular protests. The protagonist of Jasmine Days is a young Pakistani woman called Sameera, who works as a radio jockey. 


Cattle Class Mercedes

Our office vehicle is a Toyota minibus that can seat sixteen people. We called it the Cattle Class Mercedes. There could be no better name. It was practically a bullock cart. Although it looked good from the outside, the inside was a different story. If it was not a good day for your zodiac sign, the air-conditioning didn’t work.

Yunus, our driver was a sweet man. “Madam, it’s a new vehicle. But the engine seems to be acting up…” He always had excuses.

I had to reach the studio at 6.50 every morning for my 8 AM live show. Yunus would give me a missed call from the street outside my house. He would wait for exactly one minute and give me another missed call. If I didn’t get into the car by then, he would leave. I couldn’t blame him. By the time we reached the studio after going around hundreds of streets with him making missed calls to all the radio jockeys and surviving all the traffic jams and waiting at every signal in the city at least twice, it would often be past eight. Kapil Bhai or Asif Bhai, whoever was at the switchboard, would be covering for me with a song or an ad. I would run in and get on air, breathless. A scolding from Imthiaz Sir was a daily ritual.

The afternoon was similar. By the time I got home after finishing the morning show and circuiting the city, it would be four or five. I was among the last to get dropped off, with only one other person, a Sri Lankan man who worked in IT, after me. Several times, I had proposed, very reasonably, that since I was the first to get picked up, I should be the first to get dropped home. But the Malayalam Mafia stood as one against my appeal. Once or twice a month, as a big favor, they would let me get dropped off first. In return, I had to buy them juice or samosas along the way.

Around the time I had joined, Cattle Class was completely dominated by the Malayalam Mafia. As soon as I got into the bus, I could hear their annoying babble, voices that sounded like stones in a tin can. They were careful about speaking entirely in Malayalam, without using even a single word of Hindi or English, so that the rest of us couldn’t even guess at what they were saying. I would beg for some silence. “Aren’t you guys tired of exercising your tongue all day? Why not give it a rest now?” They would retort, “That was for the public, this is just for us.”

There was a staff member from Morocco who complained that the Malayalam Mafia was talking about him constantly. Eventually it made him quit the job. This was how the Malayalam Mafia operated, I realized later, when they wanted to smoke out someone they didn’t like. They managed to send three others packing since I joined the studio, but their pranks did not work on me.

Also in the bus were two Filipinas, Joanna and Irene, who worked in Admin. The Malayalam mafia had nicknamed them Sasikala and Pushpalatha. They had no idea. As soon as they got on the bus, Irene and Joanna would put on their headphones and lose themselves in music. Once their music was on, even if the Malayalam mafia turned the bus upside down, they didn’t care.

But I just couldn’t sit there listening to music amidst all that cacophony. My ears would tune into the conversations, even without my permission. At first I tried reasoning with them that all Cattle Class conversations should take place in a common language and that I, too, had a right to enjoy their jokes. But the Malayalam Mafia paid no attention. Once in a while when they broke off to speak in Hindi or English, there would be some taunts in there for Shahbaz and me. Young and hot-headed, Shahbaz wouldn’t let it slide. He would lash back completely out of proportion, and Hasan, our translator would join him. Then it was a free-for-all. At first I would simply listen to these quarrels but slowly I joined the Shahbaz-Hasan faction. Not so much because I agreed with them, but because I wanted to disagree with the Malayalam Mafia.

Maybe Pakistan had lost a match to India that day, or maybe our border forces had fired some shots into the air, or maybe one of the two countries had sent up a missile. Or there was a terrorist attack somewhere in India. Or perhaps either of the foreign ministers had made a controversial statement. I had to take responsibility for whatever it was. How could I take something like that lying down? Before we knew it, the bus would turn into a battleground. Some days I would try to ignore them. But you know how some kids will stick their hands down a dog’s throat so they can get themselves bitten? The Malayalam Mafia was like that. They would drop some controversial topic into the conversation, casually, deliberately, knowingly, to taunt me. Viju Prasad, the news coordinator of the Malayalam Department was especially good at this. Ya Allah, he was something else. He was convinced that India was the most amazing country in the whole world. India invented rockets! Airplanes! Internet! Cellphones! Even test tube babies! Poor Shahbaz and Hasan would gape numbly as he boasted. But not me. I know my history. I did not listen open-mouthed to this crap.

The most annoying of Viju Prasad’s many brags was that India was the only country that had never attacked another in the last 5000 years. At first, I would pretend I didn’t hear this. Then one day, I got back at him. Yes, it’s true that India has not invaded anyone in the last 5000 years. You know why? I asked. Because India didn’t have the time. You Indians were too busy attacking other Indians. Kill everyone inside before killing those outside – that was your clever strategy. That shut them up. Grudgingly they acknowledged that I could hold my own. Those days were such fun, with our silly arguments and debates. The hours in the bus passed quickly.

But yesterday when I climbed into the bus after the show, there was a melancholy mood in Cattle Class. The happy, heated conversations were over. There was no noise from arguments and counterarguments. Everyone was silent. Instead of Yunus, there was a new driver. It seems Yunus had quarreled with someone and simply walked out, never to return. No one knew where he was. And the front seat, where Hasan used to sit and support me in my battle against the Malayalam Mafia, lay vacant. Shahbaz had lost his spunkiness. Joanna had taken leave and left the country during the revolution and she did not return. And without anyone to fight them, the Malayalam Mafia too had lost its gusto. They spoke in soft voices, perhaps out of sympathy for me, perhaps in mourning for Hasan, perhaps worried about Yunus. Or maybe they were simply wondering about their own place in this country.

 --Translated from the Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib

Shahnaz Habib’s fiction and nonfiction have been published in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Elsewhere, the Guardian, Caravan, Afar, and the Brooklyn Rail, and is forthcoming in Agni. She received a 2014 Fellowship in Nonfiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is an editor at Laundry, a literary magazine about fashion.