It was the common dream of an average, economically weak Malayalee that drove Najeeb to also forsake all the little that he possessed, to borrow heavily from his kith and kin and to leave for the golden desert sands of the Gulf. Yes, he dearly loved his verdant green patch of land back home, the daily dip in the clear, flowing water of the village river, his Umma’s freshly cooked homely food, his wife Sainu, his group of friends, the simple basic joys of life in the countryside. Marriage, the beginning of a new family and its added responsibilities spurred Najeeb to opt for just a few years in the Gulf and then come back to his village and his folks.
Waiting expectantly, in a milling crowd of hopeful workers like him, at the dusty Saudi airport, watching the different arbabs pick the respective workers onto their new workplaces, noting the crowd gradually dwindling, losing hope, getting despondent, Najeeb at last observes a rickety old vehicle drawing close to him in a cloud of dust, an extremely shabby person alighting, walking up and down the airport a few times, most impatiently, then examining Najeeb’s passport and finally commanding him in brusque tones in Arabic to get into the vehicle.
In that almost unending, bumpy , dusty ride, lasting several hours, across the desert, with not a sight of a single human person in the road, we watch Najeeb’s hopes gradually change to a clammy fear of the unknown. With his passport confiscated, with not a soul other than the arbab driving the vehicle to god knows where, he realizes he is trapped irrevocably.
Najeeb’s maiden journey in what he now sees as the mirage called Gulf, ends in a horribly stinking, filthy goat farm, with hundreds and teeming hundreds of goats for company, with not even the basic necessities, let alone comforts, of life. Najeeb’s simple dreams of a new life in the Gulf get shattered one by one. We watch his gradual acclimatization with the new life, his forced foregoing of the daily routine back home, the sheer, inhuman hours of hard physical labour done even while being exposed to the killing heat of the desert sun during the days and the bone chilling cold during the nights, the minimal food with minimal water, with no human soul to look at and the punishing torture meted to him by his master at every step.
Najeeb’s undying love for life and his desire to live brilliantly shines through, even as he sinks into this dismal hopeless abyss. The typical Malayalee sense of humour gives Najeeb the strength to try and make light of the hopeless trap he has gotten into and helps him in his efforts to learn the new tongue and a smattering of Arab words. Above all, his absolute, steadfast faith in the Almighty at every step after faltering step of this punishing life he lives, gives Najeeb an indefatigable strength to pull on and never admit defeat.
Benyamin’s Malayalam novel Aadu Jeevitham, translated into English as Goat Days, unfolds the story of Najeeb and his life in the goat farm, in the middle of nowhere, and is a shocking revelation of the lives of the likes of several unknown Najeebs living animal lives in similar farms. Benyamin was awarded the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009 for this novel. Goat Days makes one ponder on the abject economic misery of a certain group of our own brethren that force them to migrate, of the absolute unscrupulous nature of the agents in our own country that lure such innocent people and throw them into immeasurable scales of suffering in some foreign land. The novel questions us and our complacence that make us turn ourselves away from the knowledge of the actual existence of such inhuman farms of labour. Should such slave farms be permitted to function? Do such similar places exist in our own country? Joseph Koyippally, who has done the translation into English, deserves a special word of mention for bringing this stark, bleak account of an astounding protagonist to a global audience.
Author: Benyamin, Translated by: Joseph Koyippally
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: June 2012
Reviewer: Uma Rao has a Ph.D. in English Literature with a PG Diploma in Journalism, works for the State Bank of India, and is fond of books, music, theatre, cinema and travel.