On the desert sands of Arabia unfolds a gripping tale that’s meant to be read. SHREEKUMAR VARMA
Sitting back in a comfortable chair, opening a new work of fiction, we’re prepared for anything. We know the life of the imagination, heeding the poet’s advice to willingly suspend disbelief. We enter the mind and life of people we’ll never meet. That’s what fiction does to us.
And then there’s Goat Days .
This is the chilling account of extreme subjugation of body and mind, a journey into darkness that could easily lead to defeat or self-annihilation but for the existence of that third entity, the spirit. No one prepared us for this.
Goat Days is based on the real-life experience of a Gulf escapee in the 1990’s. Najeeb, a sand miner in Kerala, dreams of better times. His wife is pregnant, and he needs to sort out his life. “Perhaps the same stock dreams that the 1.4 million Malayalis in the Gulf had when they were in Kerala — old watch, fridge, TV, car, AC, tape recorder, VCP, a heavy gold chain,” he reflects, words that scorch with hideous irony when we later think back on them.
After a long wait in Bombay, he lands in Riyadh one evening with a companion. There’s no one to pick them up at the airport. It’s night when they meet their destiny, a shabby Arab in an old pickup. They journey almost endlessly, from bright city to dark desert, from expectation to despair. Najeeb is separated from his companion and dumped unceremoniously in a masara , a goat farm in the middle of the Saudi desert. From now on, he will live with his boss, his arbab , and a “scary figure”, a stinking, unkempt, long-bearded fellow who had “matted hair like that of a savage” and “the dirtiest of Arab clothes.” Starving and scared, Najeeb realises his dreams are set to fade away, and yet he has hope, faith and the innocence to imagine. The scary figure is the shape of things to come; during the course of the next three years this is what he will become.
Goat Days is about Najeeb’s life in the desert and his painful escape. It’s not what you’d expected to bring with you to that comfortable chair. The narrative is almost sparse, like a diary. And yet (or perhaps because of it), it’s one of the most gripping books you’ll read. An instant bestseller in the original Malayalam ( Aadujeevitham ), it fetched its author (Benny Daniel, a Malayali Christian living in Bahrain) the Sahitya Akademi award.
Trapped between burning sands and freezing nights, punished cruelly, wracked by loneliness, finding no way of escape — this isn’t the angst of the intellectual or the dissonance of diaspora; it’s the stunned response of an insect as you trample on it, the struggle for survival.
Pain and panic become routine. Najeeb survives by sticking his faith to a just God, by identifying with the goats, by seeing his loved ones in them. He names them after people back home. They become people: friends, son, relatives, neighbours, even lover. And he becomes them.
The depth of tragedy is brought home in the mutilation and death of a kid he identifies with his own unseen child. The horror of his situation strikes him when he discovers the bones of his predecessor buried in the sand. He grabs the chance to escape. The flight across the desert is painfully poetic. A companion dies, another disappears, he’s alone again. Finally, he reaches civilisation without papers, without identity, and gives himself up to the authorities. Jail is like heaven, and there’s the possibility that he will be picked up and sent home. Even here, there’s a shocker as he comes face to face with his arbab , but he survives to tell his tale and Benyamin will write it down.
One discovery after another
Struck by its sensitivity, I sent for the Malayalam original to see how it compared. Joseph Koyippally is a creative translator, retaining the rhythm and sense of the original; where the host language is unable to accommodate the richness of Malayalam and its linkages, he is judicious and forthright. The interior monologue holds us through discovery after discovery, enabling us to identify intensely with Najeeb, often substituting the desert, the oasis and the jail for that comfortable chair.