Jasmine Days by Benyamin wins inaugural JCB Prize for Literature
Benyamin was announced as the winner of the first edition of the JCB Prize for Literature. Distinguished by superior writing and profound contemporary relevance, Jasmine Days was the unanimous choice of the jury. The book was translated from Malayalam by Shahnaz Habib.
The winning author received 25 lakhs, India’s richest award, as well as a magnificent trophy, created by Delhi artist duo Thukral & Tagra, entitled Mirror Melting. The winning translator collected an additional prize of 5 lakhs.
Benyamin has written close to 20 books across multiple genres – from short stories to novels to memoir - and is already one of the leading literary voices of our time. The innovation and experimentation of his Malayalam novels masterfully demonstrate the inherent ability of regional writers to grapple with contemporary issues and lived realities.
Benyamin migrated to Bahrain in 1992 and returned to his native state of Kerala in 2013, two years after the revolution. “I loved mathematics. I did not take literature seriously until I reached Bahrain,” he says. Having already picked up the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for the hard-hitting Aadujeevitham or Goat Days, his latest winning novel is equally uncompromising and morally complex, confronting some of the difficult questions of our time. Jasmine Days is a story of a young woman in a city where the promise of revolution turns into destruction and division. It is around the Jasmine Revolution that sprang up in December 2010 and was quelled in the Middle East by January 2011. Benyamin calls his novel “a metaphor for the world today, full of fanatics.”
The judges were also impressed by Shahnaz Habib’s skilful translation of the Malayalam novel. Born and raised in Kerala, Shahnaz now lives in New York, teaching writing at Bay Path University and consulting for the United Nations. Given Benyamin’s profile, Shahnaz attracted much attention when working on the translation, declaring that translating Benyamin was “as a first-time translator, both auspicious and intimidating in equal measure.”
Members of the esteemed jury were unanimous in their praise for Benyamin’s Jasmine Days:
Vivek Shanbhag, chair of the 2018 JCB Prize for Literature judging panel, comments:
“The courage shown by Benyamin in Jasmine days in examining some of the most important conflicts of our times is exceptional. The novel provides powerful insights into the violence associated with change. It
also raises profound questions about the relationship between crime, punishment and forgiveness. A brilliant and intense novel.”
Priyamvada Natarajan, theoretical astrophysicist at Yale, comments:
“Jasmine Days captures the essential and active tension between inner and outer lives that pervades the diaspora, while dealing with the larger and deeper moral questions of our times. It renders beautifully the small acts of unanticipated defiance negotiated by individuals trapped in oppressive circumstances, and their various paths to personal freedom.” Arshia Sattar, leading translator and author, comments:
“With courage and clarity, Benyamin's Jasmine Days points to the complex moral issues that define our times. Through its characters and situations, the book raises uncomfortable questions, but leaves it to the reader to answer them.” Rohan Murty, Harvard University fellow and founder of the Murty Classical Library of India, comments:
"Benyamin's writing is deeply moving. He weaves a heartfelt story, while touching upon contemporary themes on immigration, labour, freedom, and human rights. And at the end of it, he will leave you in a better place than where you started."
The winner’s trophy, “Mirror Melting” was designed by Thukral & Tagra, with its polished, yet rippled surface both reflecting and transforming the world. The sculpture, like literature itself, comes alive because of its relationship with the world around it. The distinctive trophy will be presented each year to the winner of this prestigious literary award. Thukral & Tagra reflected:
“We were very happy when the JCB Prize for Literature approached us about this trophy, and we wanted to make something to represent the abstract effects that words and stories have on us. ‘Mirror Melting’ is like a mirage in metal. When you look at it you may see the organic form of a human body, or some future biological engineering, or just many reflections of yourself. This is not like a sports trophy. True to literature, it is otherworldly, like a dream.”