“There are no tricks in plain and simple faith,” says Brutus in the Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar. But faith, whether complete trust or strong belief, has a way of working through the minds of humans. There are sometimes cracks you feel, and cracks you see. It is this beguiling trap of trust and betrayal of belief that Benyamin, author of the highly acclaimed Goat Days, sets to explore in his new novel.
Benyamin’s literary spreadsheet for Body and Blood spans seven Indian cities, from Delhi to Chennai and Pune to Bilaspur. The places form an unsettling axis with its people to lace a narrative about the discord between faith and fellowship. First published in Malayalam two years ago under the title, Sharira Shasthram, the novel revolves around the lives of four young friends tied together by their choices.
Rithu, Ragesh, Sandhya and Midhun are all employees of separate MNCs in Delhi. They are also part of a fellowship that assembles for prayers every weekend. There is another important job they must do: the social work that brings more members to the fellowship. The fellowship is run by Pastor Sam Philip, a messiah of love who came from humble beginnings. There was a specific purpose to the fellowship, to find accident victims, the needy and the lonely.
Benyamin’s new novel starts in a Delhi hospital where Midhun is admitted following a road accident. As his friends wait for him to recover from the seemingly minor injuries, his condition worsens. Soon the doctors declare him brain dead, leaving his grieving relatives to take the crucial decision to let him go. Midhun’s organs are donated to six recipients in an ultimate gift of compassion.
Beginning with a loss of life, the novel staggers from one character to another—and many new ones in between—as they confront the circumstances of Midhun’s death and their scruples of conscience. Like his 2011 novel Yellow Lights of Death (Manjaveyil Maranangal in original Malayalam) where Benyamin dealt with murder as an instrument of enquiry, Body and Blood centres on a death to examine the dark corners of humanity.
Once the seeds of suspicion are sown in their minds, Midhun’s friends have to tread a treacherous path to the truth. That is a journey where every bend hides a secret or an invisible aid. Rithu, a native of Goa, discovers Pastor Alvares, a high priest who had walked away from the church after questioning its dictatorial behaviour. She tries to make sense of her own world of belief by translating the texts about the priest in Portuguese language for a project of her father. Pastor Alvares was a high priest in Goa a hundred years ago who cared for the abandoned victims of a contagion. But instead of honouring him, the Portuguese authorities tortured and excommunicated him.
Sandhya retreats to her village in Kasol, Himachal Pradesh, where its calm orchards lend her a therapeutic bed for the memories of Midhun. Ragesh returns from Delhi to his parents in Chennai where he remembers Kiran, his roommate while studying at the Delhi University. He recalls the genius of Kiran, who killed himself in their lodge. While the four friends escape Delhi, the epicentre of their tragic loss, they begin to receive pieces of information pointing to Midhun’s accident, sending them into a race for truth.
It is in this slippery race where the novel loses its bearings. Benyamin’s mastery in gathering a host of oddities to inhabit his fictional universes in such novels as Jasmine Days and Yellow Lights of Death and dissect human conflicts abandons him here. If ensemble characters were a strength of his earlier works, they become a liability in Body and Blood. Even as they pretend to offer insights into good and evil through Goa’s saintly Pastor Alvares or genius and the unknown in Delhi’s Kiran, many characters of the novel are a distraction rather than an affirmation. The real places—Delhi, Kasol, Chennai, Pune, Bhopal, Bilaspur and Goa in the novel—too deliver no customary comfort on a crowded stage.
Its rickety quest for truth and self-belief hits the wall somewhere in the novel’s ardour for exploring the leap of faith and separating the spiritual from the material. In all earnestness, the route Benyamin takes is a tough one. The aim is clear though: follow the sins. While the novel skims the sins off the surface, it fails to fathom the depth of darkness in the souls. We can only forgive the grand design.
Body and Blood
Benyamin; translated by Swarup BR
Pp 229, Rs 499
Faizal Khan is a freelancer