Goat Days by Benyamin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Middle Eastern Arab states have always been a begrudging moral conundrum for me. Having grown up there and later on worked there for a while, I do appreciate the comforts and safety its relatively chaos free world provides. However, beneath the gleaming concrete odes to mankind’s progress lies an unmistakable and inescapable truth – the region is seemingly bound to a false sense of security and freedom. In truth, most people have no real powers or rights in the law of the land. That is controlled by the meager natural populations and the monarchies which have the financial clout to command the rest of the expatriate population who virtually run the land. Sure, this may be fine if you’re a white collar worker simply looking for a more comfortable existence or to raise finances to live in relative luxury back home. It may even be fine for some of the blue collar workers who make do with their lot in life and still have the freedom to choose to go back. But what about the rest? Those who arrive with stars in their eyes from the lower strata of the educational and social spectrum and whose desperation and naivete are taken for granted by an unforgiving system. In the Gulf we see them all around us, but mostly choose to ignore the blight to the ultra-modern landscapes. Does that make us culprits? Do we just wallow in our relative good fortune in a land serviced in a great deal by the unsighted and uncared for labor? Sure, this happens in a lot of the developing countries, including India, but the ‘Gulf’ is supposed to be different. The land of wealth, opportunities, peace and some of the pinnacles of artificial man made endeavors should be able to take care of its workers, shouldn’t it?

It is the plight of one of these unfortunates that Benyamin’s Malayalam novel (the English translation of which I read) deals with. What makes this bleak tale of survival and near-slavery even more astounding is that the author is supposed to have based this on a real life character’s experience. Even if it were not so, we know this story is not so far from truth.

Najeeb is an uneducated young man from Kerala who jumps at an opportunity when an acquaintance mentions a visa up for sale. With a young family to take care of and plans to expand his modest house, his dreams are par for the course for a lot of the people in his strata of society. He arrives at his destination via Mumbai with a fellow traveler. With no idea on who they have to contact and where they should go, they are whisked away from the airport after a long wait by an Arab in a beat up pickup truck. From here on in, the nightmare begins in earnest for Najeeb. Taken deep into the desert and dumped in a ‘masara’ he is forced to endure slave like conditions tending to the goats and camels in the farm. This ‘farm’ is a barren and bleak landscape where human contacts are at the minimum and where Najeeb works from dawn till dusk with just the bare necessities of food and water to survive. He is under the dictatorial eye of his ‘Arbab’ or master, and is beaten for small infringements and threatened with death if he tries to escape. His only companions being the goats he tends to, Najeeb forms intimate emotional bonds with them and lives his days mostly in an unending struggle to just survive. While the battered and barren vista of the desert lies all around him, he tries to shut out the memories of his lush, verdant village back home in Kerala and his loving mother and wife (and his child, who he has never seen). His faith in his God helps him survive his days with the disarming conviction of the simply faithful that everything is a test and the one above will pull them through this too. Sure, it may appear unconvincing for a skeptic like me, but Benyamin has done a good job in capturing Najeeb’s mind’s inner depths and we can empathize in his belief.

Irrespective of whether Najeeb escapes or not, it should be pointed out that at no point is Najeeb shown to be a superhero or a particularly resourceful protagonist either. He is simply an ordinary man thrown into a seemingly never ending nightmare, the sorts of which can befall any other person caught up in an unfortunate place and time. However, what Najeeb has is a reservoir of patience and determination to cling on in the face of obstacles which may have driven many a person to the point of no return and it is this determination for life that we should take away, ultimately, from this hard hitting book.

Benyamin does not ornament the prose or the story unnecessarily– this is a tale which will strike at you with its unflinching honesty and simplicity. While we complain about the problems in our relatively cushioned lives, it reminds us that there are stories like this happening all around and it laughs at our inability to rise above our own mediocre obstacles. It is also a story which is remarkably effective even in translation, something which not a lot of Malayalam novels manage to achieve.

It’s a relatively small book, but the impact it has on our psyche is anything but. Recommended for all readers, irrespective of where they are from.

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