Arabian Nightmare

Benyamin’s novel goes to the heart of the Malayali’s Mephistophelean tryst with the Gulf

Written by N.S. Madhavan | Published: July 28, 2012 3:16 am

Novel: Goat Days

Author: Benyamin

Translated by Joseph Koyipally

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 264

Price: Rs 250

Kerala witnessed two migrations in the 20th century that played a big role in the shaping of its mind. The first was horizontal,in the 1920s,from the south to the northern Wayanad hills. Trains of poor farmers trekked on mountain roads,in bullock carts and sometimes on foot,to colonise virgin shrublands and forests. Stories were written about how these pioneers tamed hostile acre after acre and how many of them perished to malaria and wild boars.

The second migration was much more momentous,both in terms of its impact and its sheer magnitude. Semi-skilled and skilled Malayalis benefited most from the oil boom in the sparsely populated Persian Gulf region,which was to be sustained through cheap South Asian labour.

About 2.5 million Gulf Malayalis have been sending home nearly $7 billion annually,lending the state a high HDI sheen that its domestic output could not have bestowed. There is an impressive corpus of studies on the Gulf migration and how it changed the way Kerala lives. Paradoxically,this important chapter in Kerala’s history is absent in literature.

The first south-north migration within Kerala produced some classic works like S.K. Pottekat’s novel Vishakanyaka. However,on the second migration to the Gulf,the Malayali is in denial. There is hardly any work on this epochal experience. Benyamin’s Aadujeevitham,whose English translation is Goat Days,is probably the first candid portrayal of a Gulf migrant in Malayalam literature. This doesn’t mean that the novel can be tied down to tags like émigré writing; it is universal in its appeal and written with great beauty and poignancy.

The Gulf Malayali is usually a single male. He works and lives under trying circumstances. With metronomic consistency,he sends home his small savings that elevate the lifestyle of the people he has left behind. It is a worker-ant life,feeding drones and queen ants back at home. The comicality of the situation has never been lost on Kerala-bound Malayalis.

It should not surprise us that,in writing and in popular art,especially films,the Gulf Malayali is usually portrayed as someone to be laughed at,for his pompousness and disconnect. In their work Migration,Money and Masculinity in Kerala,Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella point out that the Gulf migration in Kerala might have integrated into wider identity projects,giving rise to local categories like gulfan,a migrant who is typically an immature,unmarried male.

While Malayalis are laughing at gulfan,they are in fact self-deceiving. Amartya Sen and others have placed the Kerala model of development as part of a particular historical process,but,as of now,it is kept alive by money send by the Gulf Malayalis. The sweaty silver pieces that the Malayali earns come with a price; he has to barter his freedom. Wages of “unfreedom” — to use an Amartya Sen phrase — is silence. The ever-contrarian,slogan-shouting,eternally-dissenting,bandh-calling Malayali’s Mephistophelean tryst with the Gulf is what makes him in denial about the Gulf experience or to defensively mock at it.

Benyamin has gone straight into the heart of the matter: Goat Days is a novel more about unfreedom than about the Gulf. Najeeb,a sandminer from Kerala,lands in Saudi Arabia only to be shanghaied by an Arab. For the next three years,he is enslaved and made to work in goat pens in a nowhere place. Extreme loneliness and lack of sensory stimuli often drive him to see human beings in goats and other animals with whom he is corralled. Wallowing in his anthropomorphic fantasies about goats,at one point,he does indeed feel that he is happy. Effortlessly,Benyamin writes into the narrative issues of master-slave dependency and ethical questions about work-life balance.

Benyamin is a master of timing in telling a story. A particular lamb,which Najeeb has identified as his newborn son,is to be neutered by his master,the Arab. “Then,in the blink of an eye my Nabeel’s man-hood also fell on the ground,soaked in blood like that of many other goats… The day Nabeel lost his manliness,I too lost mine. I haven’t yet figured out that mystery — of how my virility vanished with that of a goat’s.”

In Malayalam,I used to revisit the book,to read some haunting passages like the ones about the rain in the desert that terrorised the Arab,the first sight of an oasis after three days of thirst,and the rise of hundreds of serpents from the sand like a wave. In the translation by Joseph Koyipally,the book loses nothing of its original elegance. The translator is able to capture the tenderly innocent narrative voice — at once helplessly infantile and haunting. Goat Days is a novel that has left behind many after-images in mind,even days after I had finished reading the book.

The book ends with an author’s note in which Benyamin mentions a true-life Najeeb,whose life he “didn’t sugarcoat or fluff it up… it is a real life story”. The primal fear of the Malayali in squaring up to his Gulf experience could be the reason for this apologia and abdication. Goat Days remains a full-blooded novel of an imagined life in an imagined land,brilliantly conceived and beautifully written.

N.S. Madhavan is an acclaimed Malayalam writer

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