Monday, September 10, 2012

Hardscrabble days in the desert

‘Goat Days’, a best-selling novel by Benyamin, highlights the life of a Malayali worker in Saudi Arabia. An English translation has just been published by Penguin Books 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, Malayalam author Benyamin received a phone call. It was from an acquaintance of his, Saji Markose. He was calling from the duty-free bookshop at Frankfurt’s international airport.

“Saji informed me that in the entire bookshop there was only one book in Malayalam,” says Benyamin. “That was ‘Goat Days’.”

Sometime ago, the Bahrain-based Benyamin had gone to Dubai. There he met a woman who told him that her 19-year-old son had died in a bike accident in Kerala. “But it was only after reading ‘Goat Days’ that I could get over the sorrow,” she told Benyamin. “It was a catharsis for me.” Another 70-year-old man from the USA wrote and told Benyamin that he wanted to touch the hand that wrote the book and have coffee with the author.

In the small world of Malayalam publishing, ‘Goat Days’ has sold a boggling 40,000 copies, and has won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. It is also a prescribed text in schools and colleges. Recently, Penguin brought out an English translation by Dr. Joseph Koyippally, an associate professor of the Central University of Kerala.      

The spark for the novel was an accidental meeting by Benyamin with a man called Najib Mohammed. “Najib was working in a farm located in a desert in Saudi Arabia,” says Benyamin. “The owner treated him brutally, and hardly gave him food and water to drink. He was like a slave and Najib began to relate to the goats he was looking after.”

Here is an extract: 'Without any mercy, the arbab dragged Nabeel [name of goat] out and commanded me to raise his hind legs. Then, in the blink of an eye my Nabeel’s manhood 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.'

After speaking at length with Najib, Benyamin immersed himself in the character that he had invented in his mind. “I tried to imagine the thought process of a person who lives all alone and has no contact with other human beings,” says Benyamin. “There is a danger of losing one’s language.”

Benyamin says that the majority of Malayalis working in the Middle East have bad experiences. “In the labour camps, located near construction sites, they are treated inhumanly,” he says. “But nobody will speak it aloud.” So Benyamin decided to write about Nabeel’s experience.

After his job as a coordinator in an electro-mechanical company in Manama, Bahrain, would end at 6 p.m., he would go home and work from 7 to 11 p.m. Then, if his wife, Asha, a nurse, was on the night shift, he would have to look after the children, Rohan, 8, and Kezia, 5. But he plugged on steadily and finished the novel in two years.
When it was released Benyamin was worried about the reaction. “I had a fear that people would say that the book is an exaggeration,” he says. “But in the end the novel was embraced whole-heartedly by readers in large numbers.”

Asked for the reason behind its success, translator Koyippally says, “It is a simple and honest narrative. ‘Goat Days’ offers a fresh perspective of the Malayalis working in the Middle East. This issue has never been addressed before in such depth. The few earlier books were sob stories. But Benyamin reveals the true grit of the Malayali worker.”  

Adds Benyamin: “Anybody living anywhere will be able to empathise with Najeeb. He is able to escape from the farm after nearly four years and ends up triumphant. In the end, it is a novel of hope.”

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine, South India and New Delhi) 


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