We have all lamented at the state of our affairs at least once in the past few days, possibly over spilled coffee or a bad day at the office. What we do not realize is the relative bliss we live in and the comforts of modern life that we take for granted. Imagine for a second there that you were a sand miner in the tropical rivers of Kerala who, by one of the maleficent workings of fate, ended up as a slave worker for an animal farm supervisor in the remotest parts of the less than kind Saudi Arabian desert herding goats and having to live like one for over 3 years. That is the heart-wrenching tale of ‘Goat Days’ by Benyamin (translated to English by Prof. Joseph Koyippally). The worst thing, however, is that it is based on real-life events. Yes, that’s right! There is a real life Najeeb (the protagonist).
Goat Days, set in the 1990s, tells the story of a Malayalee (a person hailing from the Indian state of Kerala) worker, Najeeb who yearns to work in the Persian Gulf like many of his fellow Keralites in order to secure a better life for his family and to rid themselves of the debt and poverty looming over their lives. He finally secures a job and travel documents and makes his way to the land which he believes to be his bridge to a better life. Najeeb is accompanied to the Gulf by his compatriot young Hakeem and they are left tensed on arrival at the airport as they wait for an alarmingly long time for their ‘Arbab’ (the local person who they are supposed to work for and is the sponsor of their visas). After a rather nerve-racking wait, they are taken by an Arbab, who we later come to know was not their intended master, with a distinctive odor that foreshadows the terrible fate awaiting the two. The story follows the life of Najeeb in the goat farm in this desolate desert and his eventual escape. Benyamin is keen to express the rather mundane details of what Najeeb sees and experiences in order to provide a narrative that accentuates the plight of Najeeb while lacing it with dark humor in order to inject gravitas to the unfortunate soul’s situation.
The beauty of this novel is that it highlights the smallest of things that we fail to appreciate in our daily life which is missing in Najeeb’s dreadful days at the farm. The luxury of human company and personal hygiene is stripped from Najeeb and his only human interaction is with the supervising Arbab and that consists of expletives coupled with lashings from his belt. This compels him to make peace with the only other flicker of life around him: the goats. Thus the goats become his solace, his friend, his confidante, his son and at one instance of desperation, his pleasure. This transformation is the core of the story and hence gives the book its rather unique name. Life was cruel to Najeeb and his escape from the clutches of the Arbabs was not a simple task either. Najeeb, Hakeem and their Somali guide had to endure the perils of the desert, with Hakeem succumbing to its wills, before making it to the oasis of freedom.
Goat Days is a reminder of the atrocities that are levied on humans and showcases the pinnacle of human suffering. There are many layers to the story and Benyamin creates a compelling narrative with his limited array of characters and clever personifications. Most importantly, it tells us to cherish the ‘mundane’ and ‘boring’ for there are people out there for whom these pleasures are equivalent to heavenly bliss.