Goat Days | Benyamin
At the end of Goat Days, a small, perfectly crafted nightmare of a novel, a surprise awaits the reader. “One day, my friend Sunil told me a story about a person called Najeeb,” writes Benyamin, here translated into English by Joseph Koyipally. “I thought it to be one of the typical sob stories from the Gulf. I didn’t take it seriously.” But Benyamin (the pen name of Bahrain-based Benny Daniel) does meet Najeeb, a “simple man” who tells him a harrowing story. Goat Days, a translation of Aadujeevitham (2008), is Benyamin’s retelling of that story.
The perpetual war of attrition between fiction and non-fiction usually becomes evident to readers only when the non-fiction encroaches too far into fiction’s territory. In the crudest terms, we disavow lies masquerading as truth. Fiction, on the other hand, leaves us more at ease. We already know that all stories are nourished by fact.
So it is, on most levels, with Benyamin’s extraordinary novel, winner of the 2009 Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, now translated into English for the first time. Indeed, part of this novel’s power is that we don’t doubt its grounding in reality for a moment. Goat Days is the story of a sand miner from Kerala who decides to go to “the Gulf”, the end of the rainbow for generations of Malayalis looking for employment and prosperity. In search of modest riches of the gold-watch-and-2-in-1 variety, Goat Days’ protagonist, Najeeb, suffers a mishap of fate. Promised honest hard work, he finds himself stranded in Saudi Arabia, at the mercy of an unintelligible Arab arbab (literally, saviour, here “boss” or “master”).
Immigrant stories from the Gulf are famously replete withworking-class horrors: exploitative employers, inhumane living conditions, and the continual repression of negotiation, solidarity and rebellion. Yet Najeeb’s story is breathtaking in its violence. We encounter him in the book’s opening pages, trying to have himself arrested by the Saudi police, anticipating not only deportation, but also the morbid comforts of jail, regular mealtimes and human company.
“Compared to what I had endured,” says Najeeb in the soft, uninflected tones of a trauma that has surpassed shock, “that narrow cell was heaven to me.” Between airport and prison, Najeeb has spent a shocking amount of time in the desert as his arbab’s hostage, forced to tend goats, an occupation that his life and expectations have left him entirely unprepared for. He is beaten, starved, denied almost all human contact. The desert, with its unfamiliar landscapes and cruel climate, becomes an effective prison.
The goats repel Najeeb, but we understand that the work is not the tragedy: It is the fact that Najeeb is no longer a worker at all, but a slave.
Told quickly and crisply in first person, his narrative is poetically unaffected, structured simply and elegantly, although I wish the translation had taken some risks and allowed the English to flow more naturally. From the flattened Najeeb of the Batha prison, we are beckoned backwards into the familiarity and comfort of his working-class life in rural Kerala, which he comes to look upon with joy during his time in Saudi Arabia.
As in countless legends, the desert is the great transformative landscape of Najeeb’s life. But while gods and prophets undergo penance to come into full knowledge of themselves, Najeeb’s life shrivels, his humanity sapped in much the way the body dries up without water. In this torment, Najeeb longs for water—to drink, to wash, to do anything he took for granted in his poor but nurturing riverside home.
There is dark—very dark—comedy in Najeeb’s narrative, nourished by the survivor’s trick of learning to live from day to day. His faith in God and eventual love for the herd of goats allows him someone to talk to, even if neither party answers back. He escapes, eventually, in a death-defying adventure through the desert. When we leave him, he is watching his fellow passengers at the airport, hustled into the plane like so many goats.
Goat Days is the first major entrant into the English-knowing Indian mainstream of Kerala’s “Gulfie” stories, which burdens it with an unhelpful responsibility. Its quiet clarity will make it liable to be viewed as the axiomatic Gulf narrative of an innocent abroad, crushed by unaccountable foreign cruelty. In reality, Goat Days is extraordinary, not only in the making but also in the telling. Malayalam culture has reflected emigrant disquiet with considerable range and dexterity—think, for example, of two of Sathyan Anthikkad’s cult classics from the 1980s, both written by Sreenivasan, both exploring male “Gulfie” anxieties. In Nadodikkattu (1987), migration is the beginning of a rollicking comedy, where the protagonists are cheated by an unscrupulous visa agent and end up in Madras instead. In Varavelppu (1989), repatriation breaks a hopeful young man, struggling to run a bus service in Kerala with his hard-earned Gulf money.
Goat Days is not about the educated, impoverished heroes of Anthikkad films, nor indeed about men like Benyamin, a Manama-based novelist, or Koyipally, a university lecturer who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia. Its events do not unfold in Kerala villages or bustling alien cities. The desert is a location unmediated not only by society, but also, in a sense, by fiction itself. It is the province of legend, or conversely, of documentary. Benyamin evokes both these forms beautifully. Utter starkness of detail paints Najeeb, not in the full colour of a novel, but in the black and white of newsprint. Which fictional protagonist would be uncomplicated enough to allow fate to lead him so completely? Yet the simplicity of his voice has a classical resonance in the way it responds to catastrophe, with its small, touching delusions, its loneliness, its yearning for home.
And so to turn the last page and discover the author’s note, stating that the story is based on the experiences of an actual Najeeb, is to swallow a complicated pill. Goat Days is so supple that it allows us to applaud Benyamin’s literary ability unreservedly. But it is in fiction’s nature to equivocate between the personal and the universal. To know that Najeeb is one man, and that literature appropriates his story for the world, provokes a more complicated set of responses. A translator can only give us a book, not its context. The author’s note reminds us that even good novels cannot answer all our questions, nor should we expect them to do so.