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Thrill of the chase

Thrill of the chase

The most recent English novel by Benyamin (Benny Daniel), Yellow Lights of Death is an excursion into crime territory. The novelist originally wrote this in his native tongue, Malayalam, but given that he has acquired considerable readership after the success of Goat Days, it is fitting that an English translation of his novels be available to those who cannot understand Malayalam but still wish to appreciate Benyamin’s work. In spite of the fact that the inept translation has caused the writing to come across as choppy and clumsy, the plot engages the reader’s attention almost from the very beginning. However, readers will initially be somewhat confused as to whether the first person being referred to in the book is Benyamin himself or a fictional narrator; in point of fact it is both, since the novel is partly a narrative recounted by a fictional character (created by Benyamin) set within the framework of a series of episodes in Benyamin’s own life. One of these episodes involves Benyamin’s receiving the manuscript written by the protagonist.

Benyamin appears quite unapologetic about implicitly emphasising that on the level of meta-discourse the book is primarily about the art of creating fiction, and indeed he reminds one of this frequently. For instance his work is peppered with claims such as “From the hotbed of experiences I return to the writing desk. It could be that writers become weakened by the very intensity of their experiences. Like diseases, weaknesses, too, are in our blood.” Given the specific structure of the novel, both the actual and fictional writers may be forgiven a certain level of self-consciousness, though such a novelistic approach obviously departs from the safer, more traditional structure of crime fiction.

Set in Diego Garcia, part of an archipelago off the coast of south India, the action commences due to a mysterious manuscript arriving in Benyamin’s email account. It does not take the reader long to figure out that its writer zooms in on a crime that takes place at a coffee shop where he is chatting to a female friend. At a nearby table, a young man named Senthil is shot fatally in the chest and his body spirited away to hospital by a boat-ambulance. The writer, Christy Andrapper, scion of an important local family, seeks to discover more about the crime. However, he finds that virtually everyone, from the department of public security to the hospital staff, and even journalists and family members, believe that Senthil died of natural causes.

With dogged persistence Christy tries to track and investigate the crime, but is frustrated at every turn. However, rather than proving disheartening this provides him with the impetus to leave no stone unturned in getting to the truth of the matter. He starts to consolidate the story of his detective endeavours into several sections, and sends each section to someone he can trust. One of the recipients of a section of Christy’s manuscript is Benyamin himself. Eventually Benyamin and a group of his friends are inspired to collect all the sections of the story they can lay their hands on in order to find out the truth behind Senthil’s death as well as Christy’s own fate.

In an alarming turn of events, Christy disappears as well, but unlike as in Senthil’s case where there were eyewitnesses to the murder (most notably Christy and his friend Jesintha), there is no evidence to indicate that he has met with foul play. However, the intertwining of Christy’s narrative with that of Benyamin makes for engrossing reading. One eventually gets bits and pieces of tantalising information such as Senthil’s involvement with Tamil terrorists, Christy’s father’s affiliation with smugglers, and intimations that age-old mystical rituals are carried out in a sinister manner in places close to Diego Garcia. Ironically though, neither Senthil’s story nor Christy’s reaches a satisfactory or logical conclusion. The joy of reading the novel lies in the thrill of the chase and hunt, not in any solid denouements.

One may argue that crime novels do not require actual denouements in order to be successful, but unfortunately one would then be in a very foolish-looking minority. The purpose of reading a crime novel is precisely to find out whodunit, not to read accounts that peter out into historical and religious nebulae. That is precisely where Benyamin’s text fails: the appendix at the very end contains nothing other than a couple of quick explanations that actually create more questions than they answer. It would not be far-fetched to note that this leaves the reader feeling enormously cheated. While unsolved cases abound in the world of true crime, even most non-fiction books related to that genre offer one some plausible hypotheses that give a welcome closure to the texts.

Why Benyamin deprives us of this in his book remains a bigger mystery than Senthil’s death or Christy’s disappearance. One of the supporting characters, Meljo, explains why a certain ritual has persisted over the years in the district of Udayamperoor, but his account has little actual connection to either Senthil’s story or even Christy’s. Christy was briefly engaged to Meljo’s sister who died in an accident, but there is no evidence that the ritual has had anything to do with his ultimate fate. On the other hand, if certain points are left hanging, others in the novel are rather incongruous, to the extent to which they plainly appear to belong to a different book altogether. The history of the Andrapper family that originated in Lisbon and then eventually established themselves in South India is fascinating in its own way, but does little to further the plot of the book. Benyamin’s numerous forays into the history of orthodox Christianity, and the attempts of Archbishop Alex de Menazis to wipe out older Chaldean Christianity, would be better placed in a college history textbook as opposed to a story that has a sensational murder as its main feature.

This is not to say that Yellow Lights of Death does not possess some memorable motifs. The influence of figures affiliated with the Virgin Mary, such as the grimmer goddess Thaikkattamma, or a princess named Mariam who acts as a type of patron saint for women whose husbands are away from home, catches and holds one’s interest periodically throughout the story. Regarding the dour and forbidding aspect of Thaikkattamma the author notes: “There were plenty of candles and lamps lit in front of a statue — a woman adorned with garlands ... Anybody could have mistaken her for the Virgin Mary. But the skin tone was dark. The face didn’t display love or tenderness. It was full of fury.”

Benyamin’s frequent gatherings with his friends — referred to as Thursday market meetings — depict a moving camaraderie, and Christy and his eccentric grandfather (who hopes futilely to be crowned king of Diego Garcia) are also presences that will remain with most readers for a while. Nevertheless, in spite of Benyamin’s efforts to portray a sinister atmosphere, the novel never really succeeds in convincing the reader that genuinely serious crimes lie at its heart. Its characters often come across as wooden and undeveloped, and the writing gets to be genuinely painful at points such as when Christy notes that he “ran around the room like an angry cat.”

Certainly the novelist should be credited with being able to maintain the pace and momentum of the story for the most part; even though it is close to 400 pages it is a remarkably quick read. Great classic crime novels such as Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are so cleverly constructed that they beg to be perused again and again, even when one knows the identity of the murderer. The sad thing is that regardless of whether one had been provided with the identity of salient criminals in Benyamin’s book, one would most likely pass one’s copy to a used bookstore with a sense of relief at finishing it. This is not the type of crime novel that most readers may care to revisit, in spite of a few good moments.

The reviewer is assistant professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

Yellow Lights of Death
By Benyamin
Penguin, India
ISBN 978-0143420897

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