December 8, 2012 by markstani
Here’s my third review from this year’s MAN Asian Prize longlist, and it’s another good one. Our collective ‘Shadow’ Jury reviews can be accessed by clicking the icon on the right.
Goat Days, by Benyamin, is an unusual novel: probably quite unlike anything else you’ll read this year. A relatively rare translation from Malayalam by Joseph Koyipally, it is, as its title suggests, a book in which goats feature prominently. So prominently, in fact, that by the end you’ll know more than you ever thought you’d know, and ever wanted to know, about the frisky beasts. You’ll know how to feed them, how to castrate them, how to dodge a buck if it turns nasty (see previous operation). You’ll know how they smell. You’ll know how to milk them, too, but just for reference:
Never approach the goat that had to be milked from behind. Approach it from the front. Do not start milking it straight away. Caress it like a child by tenderly touching its cheeks, ears and back. Stroke its sides, pat its back and then slowly sit by its side. Caress its underside twice or thrice. Then slowly touch its teats. The goat will twitch. Even goats feel ticklish. Like a virgin. Then, ease its discomfort by slowly caressing its teats… After ensuring that it has got over its ticklishness, pull the udder from top to bottom using the thumb and the index finger. The pressure shouldn’t hurt, but must be firm enough to draw milk. This control is something one masters gradually. It is the mark of a milkman’s worth.
In fact, all flippancy aside, you will be relieved to hear that ‘Goat Days’ is far more than a reference guide to animal husbandry. For all its slices of deadpan humour, it is in fact a rather numbing account of the slave-labour life of an Indian emigrant in Saudi Arabia.
The most shocking aspect is that it is almost entirely true: Najib, the main character, is based on a man Benyamin got to know, and whose real-life story inspired him to write this book.
Millions of Indians apply for visas to work in the kingdom in the hope of earning enough money to send home to their families: what ‘Goat Days’ proves (though obviously to an extreme) is that the reality is often rather different,as they find themselves effectively held hostage by their rich Arab sponsors, with little or no means of escape.
Najib is no different: I dreamt a host of dreams. Perhaps the same stock dreams that the 1.4million Malayalis in the Gulf had when they were in Kerala – gold watch, fridge, TV, car, AC, tape recorder, VCP, a heavy gold chain.
Leaving behind his pregnant wife, Najib arrives in Saudi where he is whisked straight into three years of hell, tending herds of goats on the desert plains for a cruel arbab, or master, who beats him for the slightest infringements, and denies him anything beyond the most basic levels of food, shelter and sanitation.
That, in essence, is that, and as Najib tends his goats for days on end the novel becomes more of a meditation on faith and fate, and a study of the mental and physical limits one reaches when faced with a life of such grinding loneliness and the apparent impossibility of escape.
‘Goat Days’ remains much more of a page-turner than you might expect. Its momentum comes not so much from any fast-developing plot lines – its narrative is clunky in parts, and it’s fair to say in certain sections it does drag a little – but in the desire to see Najib back to a better life.
By the end, you may need time to decide what to make of it all. It’s probably not a book you’ll want to clutch to your heart through winter nights: it’s too stark and blunt and – well – goaty for that. But it is a story and a truth that will stick in your mind. Benyamin deserves credit for tackling such an important issue with cleverness and clarity. The plight of Saudi Arabia’s Indian emigrants is one that deserves to be brought to light. Hopefully, the book’s MAN Asian Prize longlisting can go a small way towards achieving just that.