'Jasmine Days' review: Letters to the city

'Jasmine Days' review: Letters to the city

Politics and religion is a heady combination. A disastrous one at that. Weaving an interesting story around these two notorious elements can be quite a challenge. A challenge Malayalam writer Benyamin has very successfully surmounted in his latest, Jasmine Days. Set in the Arab Spring of 2011, Jasmine Days narrates the story of Sameera Parvin, an immigrant in the City, in the Middle East. Yes, City is what Benyamin likes to call the place the novel is set in. But, we know the place our dear author is referring to. Bahrain. The only country in the Middle East that was witness to violent protests during the Arab Spring. It is also the country Benyamin lived till 2013, before returning to his home town in Kerala.

Narrated in an epistolary form, we are introduced to the revolution that rocked the City through the voice of Sameera, a young Pakistani radio jockey at the radio station, Orange Radio.

Living in the City with her father and her extended family, she loves her job for the freedom it affords her in a world where men make all the rules while women are not even allowed to have Facebook accounts. Her world revolves around her job and her workplace. While she is with the Hindi station, the Malayalam station is manned by immigrants from Kerala, and every day is a fun day with fights over dominance that is almost always won by the Malayalam mafia. As life proceeds thus, she bonds over music with one of her colleagues, Ali Fardan, a guitar-playing, burger-eating, Jimi-Hendrix-loving, ‘second-class’ citizen. Yes, a ‘second-class’ citizen in the City because he is a Shia, and also of Iranian origin. Very soon, we have the ‘second-class’ citizens rallying against His Majesty, the Sunni ruler. The City is divided. Between Sunnis, the ruling majority, and Shias, who feel discriminated against in their own land. Caught between these warring factions are the immigrants who are employed by the Sunni ruler to “defend the country”.

Sameera, a novice to such divisions, is clueless. She had never given a serious thought to her religious identity, or what it would mean in the world outside -— “I had no idea who Shias were and what they believed in. Till I came to this country, I had not even heard of such divisions. I was Sunni by birth but had never given it any thought.” As an outsider, it is difficult for her to make sense of the revolution. Her conversations with Ali are always on topics ranging from religious identity and freedom to discrimination and injustice. In Ali’s words, “But do you know, many of us are not counted as citizens and do not have even basic fundamental rights because we are Shias? We are not allowed to leave the country. There are professions that are completely closed to us. There are defined limits to what a Shia can achieve in this country.”

As the revolution rages, nobody is spared. Even doctors, nurses and musicians start taking sides. A shocked Sameera slowly traverses through the revelation of how sectarian differences pit one against another, and how violence in the name of religion is justified. Her angst is voiced in her questions to God — “Why do we fight in your name and call each other kafirs? If there is one truth, why don’t we all follow that one truth?”

As the Jasmine Revolution blooms, propaganda becomes news, and people in power dictate what needs to be told. As a youngster who has firm opinions on what’s right and what’s not, Sameera struggles to comprehend the workings of media politics. Her tweet, “When there is no freedom of press, rumour becomes news”, is her way of coming to terms with the happenings around her.

At home, it is no different either. The politics of their adopted land brings out the worst in each and every family member of hers. What is the way out? But, is there even a way out? Well, Jasmine Days has all the answers.

First published in Malayalam in 2014 as Mullappoo Niramull Pakalukal, Jasmine Days is a touching tale of how innocent immigrants are forced to fight battles that are not their own, and, in the process, get sucked into a vortex of despair. Narrating true stories of hapless victims of revolts in the form of fiction, it leaves the reader breathless thumbing through the pages. If there’s a book that’s relevant in today’s world that’s torn apart by religious strife, power politics and immigrants’ dilemma, then Jasmine Days it is. In short, a thought-provoking work that leaves a lasting impact.

Shahnaz Habib, in her translation, streers clear of verbal wizardry, allowing the story to unfold in a realistic manner. Her language is Sameera’s. There’s no attempt to overawe the reader with the clever use of language, which is quite a rarity in translated works.

All in all, it’s a good read.

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