Tuesday 5 September 2017

Yellow Lights of Death, by Benyamin

A few thoughts on Benyamin’s Yellow Lights of Death

Every school student in India learns that this is an ancient country with a heritage and a very complicated history. We take it for granted, yet never think of it as marvellous - it just is. Perhaps it’s because we were taught that the dates of the Battle of Panipat and the exploits of Shivaji/Laxmibai are the sum total of our history. The nooks and crannies that make up the really interesting bits are never explored - until we get to books like Benyamin’s Yellow Lights of Death.

But it’s unfair to treat YLoD as a dry history book. That’s like calling The Da Vinci Code a textbook on Christianity and on Leonardo Da Vinci. The difference is, while Da Vinci Code veered off pretty quickly into fictional cults and secret code, Yellow Lights of Death has an almost entirely real background, with maybe only the lead characters fictional. There are two main historical threads that Benyamin incorporates into his narrative. The first is the history of the Christian Church in Kerala, and how it’s evolved to have its own rituals, customs, and even secret cults and Gods, not to mention it’s intersection with Hinduism. The second is the South Indian diaspora - not limited to Kerala - and the strange story of the tiny island nation of Diego Garcia close to Mauritius. Googling this place on the net talks only of how the place is a secret military base, but to read Benyamin it’s as if this is a relatively prosperous small country with boats used for transport and any number of people resettling from Kerala to there and vice versa. Goodreads reviews talk of Benyamin’s details as mostly correct, down to the Andrapper family that he’s made the central figure of the book. This blog post even has someone from the family and vouching for several details! The intersection of all these details - the religious and the historical - turn YLoD into an engrossing book, very difficult to slot into a genre.

To make things worse, there are two other metafictional angles to the book. The top-level story is narrated by Benyamin, the writer, himself - how he gets a partial manuscript by an unknown writer, and how he then pieces together the whole manuscript while figuring out the truth of the story. Benyamin has a circle of friends who help with this exercise. The book goes from a few pages talking of Benyamin and his interpretions/reactions/investigations of the manuscript, and then a few pages of the manuscript.

The manuscript is actually written by someone of the Andrapper family. Hang on, we aren’t done yet. The manuscript is structured like a crime investigation! At least to start with, until it veers off into murky historical plots and potentially a love story, or is it a conspiracy thriller?

I’m probably doing potential readers an injustice by talking of the historical facets of the book - they aren’t discussed in detail until some way through the story. However, everything mentioned on the back cover of the book is fair game for reviews :).

Is this the best book ever written? Well, no. For one, the suspicious ease with which both Benyamin and the Andrapper character meet the right people takes some of the fun out of it. You don’t expect every piece of the puzzle to come to you from random guys you meet on the street who happen to classmates from a dozen years ago. Think of it as “plot compass”, something like Plot Armour. Had Benyamin read a few dozen thrillers beforehand, he’d have some more ideas to advance the story, and maybe have made it harder for the characters.

On the other hand, was that really the point of the book? You have to wonder. If all the author wanted was to talk of the dichotomy between migrants and natives (yes, I too have heard of his previous book Goat Days), then the criticism is invalid. But the mechanism to deliver the point is so rich and distracting that most readers are just going to care about that part.

A note about the translation. While smooth overall, there are little bits where it becomes clear it’s a translation - some places, this is good (such as the endearing Malayalam practice of using people’s names in third person even when talking to them directly), and some others it feels like the translation slipped. You’re also left with no appendix to explain the family relationships. With a passing familiarity with Malayalam names, I could navigate it, but I can see at least one reader from a different part of India cribbing about this on Goodreads.

You know what? Ignore this long rant. Just go read it, this book is an amazing example of the range and diversity of Indian Fiction if you go beyond IWE.