This was a second-hand recommendation. It was posted on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page by Michael Walkden, who said he’d recently met Natasha Soobramanien, a writer of Mauritian descent, and asked her to recommend a book for his project (intriguingly, he didn’t say what his project is – if you’re reading this, Michael, I’d love to hear more). She’d suggested Benares by writer and film director Barlen Pyamootoo and he thought he’d pass the tip on.
I was doubly grateful for the recommendation when, on researching the novel, I discovered that it was very short. So short, in fact, that in most editions it is published with another novella, In Babylon. This would certainly help to keep me on target to read one book every 1.87 days. In fact, I reckoned I could probably read the whole thing in a single journey to work.
The doors beeped shut on the East London line and I plunged into Pyamootoo’s tale of two men who set out to find a couple of prostitutes in Port Louis to bring back to their village of Benares for the night. Driven into town by trusty friend and former mill worker Jimi, the pair meander around the red-light district, paying visits to several formidable madams before finally managing to engage two women to accompany them home. As the car takes them back through the benighted landscape and the men and women sound each other out through small talk, a wider discussion opens up about identity, companionship and the loss of the old ways of life.
Pulling out of Canada Water station, I made a note in the margin about the details that bring the narrative alive: the brothel with the beds with concrete bases, the narrator’s friend Mayi’s eyes ‘rolling and blinking like a wanted man’s’, the lights of smugglers’ boats flashing out at sea.
These give Pyamootoo license to dwell on ostensibly simple and even mundane exchanges, using them to chart the minute shifts in dynamics that keep the drama and tension in the scenes. This only breaks down once – when the narrator stops the car to go into a restaurant and buy some cigarettes. Here, the flat transaction feels like an unnecessary interlude, although it may serve to point up the subtle transformation taking place in the car.
This, as I realised while changing lines at Highbury & Islington station, concerns the slow seep of the background into the foreground. While the descriptions of the billboards and buildings sites around the capital start off as almost incidental details, the development and commercialisation of much of the island at the expense of its poorest communities – as evidenced by the closure of Benares’s mill – come to underpin the novella.
Each of the characters gradually reveals vulnerabilities and insecurities that derive from the breakdown of the old structures. The only way to bridge these gaps is to tell stories, as the narrator discovers when he embarks on a wistful account of his journey to the other Benares, a sacred city in India where many Hindus go to die in the hope of attaining paradise: ‘I thought to myself that stories must be what we travel for, to have something to tell the people we love’, he reflects.
Pyamootoo’s writing about this ‘feeling of opening up to the world, of becoming part of some sort of network’ is so compelling and seductive that I finished the last 10 pages of the novella sauntering along the pavement away from King’s Cross, oblivious to the commuters shoving past me. I hadn’t expected the story to be so beautiful and so surprising. It made me sad to turn the last page. If only every journey to work could be like this.
Benares by Barlen Pyamootoo, translated from the French by Will Hobson (Canongate, 2004)