Jasmine Days | Benyamin | Book Review

Jasmine Days Benyamin

PLOT: 4.5/5

“You know how it is when you arrive in a new place and feel like you don’t belong there? That hesitation to recon with a new geography. That knowledge that this place is not mine, these ways of talking are not mine, these silences are not mine, this etiquette is not mine.So many new things to absorb.” ~ Benyamin, Jasmine Days

My Musings

I have never been more excited for any other literature prize as I have been for the JCB Prize for Literature. I seriously don’t know the reason for this but it is so.

Last month I took a mini-resolution to read all the books that were shortlisted for the JCB Prize and so far my score is a dismal 2 out of 5.

I will soon pick up the other ones but since this review is going to talk about Jasmine Days, let’s just get on with the task on hand.

Jasmine Days was first published in 2014 in Malayalam as Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal. It was later translated into English by Shahnaz Habib.

Continue reading to know more about my thought on this book.

What to expect?

Benyamin’s Jasmine Days is a book that will appeal to serious readers. What it sometimes lacks in pace is more than made up by its beautiful story and setting.

Since the book is set in the backdrop of the Arab Spring of 2011, it can essentially be called a socio-political drama. Expect a lot of family drama and some great perspectives coming straight out of those who are sometimes caught in the whirlwind of a revolution that they never asked for.

Font size, style and ease of readability

One major reason for the book’s strong appeal to the reader is its gorgeously alluring cover. The book jacket is just beautiful and the hardbound cover makes it a collector’s item.

The quality of the pages is good and the font style, font size, page margins and alignments together make for a comfortable read.

About the author

The author writes using his pen name, Benyamin. He is an Indian author from Kerala who writes in Malayalam.

His first book, Aadujeevatham (later translated as Goat Days) was published in 2008. Since then he has written 20 books and his books have been translated into multiple languages. He has also won the Kerala Sahitya Academy award.

Born in 1971, he later shifted to Bahrain in search of employment. Two years after the Arab Spring revolution of 2011, he shifted back to Kerala and currently lives there.

About the translator

Shahnaz Habib was born and brought up in Kerala. She later shifted to the United States and is currently a consultant for United Nations. She also teaches writing at the New School and Bay Path University.

The storyline

Jasmine Days by Benyamin tells us the story of a young Pakistani girl, Sameera Parvin who migrates to an unknown city in the Middle East. The city remains unknown throughout the book and is referred to as just that – The City.

Sameera shifts there because her Baba already lives there along with many of his relatives. These relatives of hers have been there for years and have made the city their home.

Sameera soon takes up a job as a radio jockey. Just as she is getting successful at building a life for herself in the city, and getting comfortable with people around her, there comes the Arab Spring of 2011, a revolution that will change everything around her.

Slowly, Sameera finds that everything that she ever dreamt of about her life in this world, will soon turn to dust. The winds of revolution will change the very face of the city, and the future of the people who live in it.

This is the story of Sameera, her friends, relatives, colleagues, all of whose lives are caught in a revolution that they never asked for.

Let’s talk about the characters

What I love about the characters of this book is how they come from such different backgrounds and have so many stories to tell.

Each of them, because of who they are and where they come from, offers a unique perspective. They are Indians and Pakistanis and Arabs, Shias and Sunnis, the rich and the poor, the natives and the migrants, the ruler and the ruled, Hindus and Muslims – all of them contributing something to the rich tapestry of the novel.

What about the author’s writing style?

Benyamin uses a language that is easy and simple to understand.

The magic in his book lies not in his writing but in his characters and their stories. I also love the way he confuses the reader about how much of the book is fact and how much of it is fiction? This style of writing is called Flaubertian Realism and is used by many authors from time to time.

When you pick this book up it appears that the story is actually penned by the character of Sameera (who might be real or fictional, we don’t know!) and through a complex exchange of hands, lands in the lap of the author.

The only thing that the author has done here is written Sameera’s diary-like story in the form of a proper novel. Now again, this can be true or not. But who knows? This is what Flaubertian Realism is and the author seems to have incorporated it well.

Jasmine Days also banks upon the emotional appeal of its characters – a poor migrant Pakistani girl in a foreign city, braving the hostilities that sometimes comes with being a migrant – these are just a few examples where the characters appeal to the reader.

What did I not like?

I picked up Jasmine Days because I wanted to read all the novels that were a part of the JCB Prize for Literature shortlist. I first read All The Lives We Never Lived and was spell bound by the way the author writes. Anuradha Roy’s writing is simply magical.

I was kind of hoping for the same sort of magic, to have me spellbound but Benyamin’s writing is much simpler. His writing is unpretentious and modest as opposed to richness and eloquence of Anuradha’s writing.

This was kind of disappointing but I guess it was only because of my high expectations.

What I absolutely loved?

Readers who know me know that I am a history buff and I love to devour anything that has a historical significance.

Reading Jasmine Days was like a lesson in history itself because I got to know so much about the Arab Spring of 2011. What I also got was a general idea of the modern-day Middle East.

I literally googled every single political or historical reference that I came across. And yes, it was wonderful that I got to learn so much from a 280-page novel.

Was the climax good enough?

Jasmine Days has a climax that is satisfying but not as great as the novel itself. It brings a decent conclusion to an otherwise electrifying story. What I missed in it was a dash of rebellion, an untamed spirit that was otherwise characteristic of its main characters.

After the book ends, we have a section which talks about the author’s notes and thoughts. I think that the section is an interesting read and one should definitely not miss it.

We also get to know that in 2019, we will see a twin novel of Jasmine Days which will be called Al Arabian Novel Factory and which sounds as exciting as its counterpart.

It all boils down to the entertainment quotient

When it comes to the entertainment quotient, Jasmine Days has no dearth of it. It is easily one of the most engrossing books that I read in 2018.

The multitudes of characters, a vast variety of subplots and the interesting political backdrop easily get you hooked to the story. That’s the reason I found the book absolutely unputdownable.

Pick up the book

  • If you want to read award-winning Indian literature. It won the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature.
  • If you want to know what good Indian writing really feels like.
  • If you want to learn about contemporary middle-east (well, at least a part of it) through an interesting story.
  • If you enjoy translated regional literature.
  • If you want to know how the life of a migrant in the Middle East is really like.

Skip the book

  • Benyamin‘s Jasmine Days has a socio-political backdrop and accordingly a lot of socio-political drama. If that’s not your thing, I suggest it will be better to stay away from the book.

Can’t wait to read it? Buy your copy of Jasmine Days using the link below.


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