Benyamin, a Baharain-based writer of short stories, started writing the dark, brooding and yet mesmerizingly funny Goat Days, a novel of widening horizons, after listening to a true story. The novel was meant to be published in a Malyalam magazine, and it was supposed to tell the tale of a man which, quite frankly speaking, survived. And that, as they say, was that.
But Goat Days, originally published in Malyalam under the title Aadu Jeevitham, went on to grab the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award, and was lapped up by publishers for translation. It was finally published by Penguin, and was translated; wonderfully I should add, by Joseph Koyippally, a Professor of Comparative Literature at the Central University of Kerala.
The translation couldn’t have been timelier- last year, the Saudi government passed the nitaqat law, delivering along with it an ultimatum and then eventually a deadline for all the immigrants without any valid papers and working rights to leave the country, obtain a work permit, or stay in hiding. According to one survey, 37.5% of Kerala’s migrants fly to Saudi Arabia in order to attain the dream of gold watches, accessories and an extra room to the little, cramped place they are forced to call their home. Success stories loom larger than those of a life lived in constant fear, loathing and exile- thus luring all those immigrants from India- young and old alike- into the game of chance which more often than not traps them forever. With minimal assets to boast of, sometimes even negligible, all those returned have with them nothing but memories of the land where they lived as slaves, and the land which had crushed their dreams and forced them to live like animals.
And living like animals is, indeed, a harrowing experience as is evident from our protagonist, Najeeb’s narration of his own plight in the middle of nowhere; run as you might, the desert, where most of this novel unfolds, stretches against the horizon, eternally unending. However, the life amongst animals, it can be said, is a different thing altogether, and this, too, we are able to deduce from Najeeb’s words and his episodic retellings. At the heart of Goat Days lie the unusual relation between the man and the animal, and how, in extreme circumstances, the relation is exploited, enjoyed even, and eventually how this binding between two species, sacred as it is, becomes a savior for some, as it became the savior for Najeeb, our unusual protagonist. His story, in compressed terms, is the tale of a survival.
But then it slowly begins to widen its sphere, and peculiar themes emerge, so that within 255 pages (253, if one excludes the Author’s Note, which one shouldn’t), the novel presents to us a unique tale of immigrant survival, or I’d rather, a true story of an immigrant misadventure told in Kafkaesque starkness (Kafkaesque being a term passed around a lot these days, and for unworthy little titles, so that even Kafka has been commercialized- but rest assured,Goat Days deserves every letter of it).
The story is both simple and complex, which is a very naïve way to put it, since the novel is beyond the story. It is, in fact, about a man, a desert, the disappearance of the humane–and, of course, about goats, the animal that segues the readers into the allusion between what is humane and what is, ultimately, the “animalistic”.
It starts off the way so many O.Henry novels have started –, where we encounter the protagonist committing crimes so that he can end up in jail, and thus be saved from the unflinching cold that reigns outside. Najeeb and another immigrant resigned to fate, Hameed, are trying something similar; squatting in front of a police station “like two defeated men”, doing all sorts of things to draw the attention of the policemen. They are trying to land up in jail (page one and absurdity is up and running). For the duo, jail is the only solace, it seems, from the slow, monotonous, nomadic (Najeeb wipes his backside with the help of stones and pebbles; water is strictly reserved for the goats and drinking when absolutely necessary), slave-like existence of a migrant life, playing out in the middle of nowhere. Indeed, we are not surprised when Najeeb remarks, a few pages later, “Can you imagine how much suffering I must have endured to voluntarily choose imprisonment!” We cannot, but within the next few pages, as the novel cycles back to Najeeb’s sad and isolated life, we not just imagine, but also end up feeling as if we have lived through Najeeb’s sufferings. In the vastness of that desert, endless and stretching towards the horizon, Benyamin seems to suggest, there is also no chance of hope or survival, and anything, even a prison, would be better.
Benyamin evidently has an eye for landscape, which is evident in Goat Days and also in his other ventures, such as the crime thriller, Manjaveyil Maranangal, set against the backdrop of the Diego Garcia islands, where the mystery manifests itself along with the landscape. But he doesn’t really need to describe it to us- he shows it, which is why the novel attains a form of bleakness, albeit a bleakness being complimented by the comic. Only the very best novelists could manage it well- Kafka, of course, for whom within the atmosphere lies everything; McCarthy, in whose novels there erupts the austerity of the calmness personified by the setting; Laszlo Krasznahorkai, whose novels, not unlike McCarthy’s, are marked by long, rambling sentences, and they work towards building a landscape full of misery and mystery, as in Satantango, and so in The Melancholy of Resistance. But Krasznahorkai’s prose, according to his translator, is like a “slow, lava-flow of narrative”, since his sentences can run for pages together, or even transcend chapters, so that they give the reader a feeling of travelling in a train which won’t stop until eternity.
Benyamin’s prose is the exact opposite: short, precise, and ending within the moment a sentence is under formation. One can deduce the chatter of his minimalistic prose as Najeeb constructs layer upon layer of emotions with curt sentences, sometimes even mere words. The peculiarity of Benyamin’s writing is what should be peculiar, I feel, of every writer; that he is able to control the emotions of his protagonist with the help of his words, which is to say through his prose. In the beginning of the novel, Najeeb seems to be a fairly happy man, full of bubbling energy and looking forward towards possibilities and opportunities, searching for happiness in a foreign land. The reader feels his energy raging within every sentence he composes as he converses- with others, and with the readers. But with the progress of the novel, the energy is fraught by shattered hopes and resignation, and the conversations are full of nostalgic remises and hopeless despair, with Allah replacing us at the end of the line.
Najeeb is the sort of narrator who speaks to the reader, and sometimes even to himself, which is why Goat Days is not wholly a monologue, but it can be called a story with traces of internal monologue, marked by self-doubt and self-loathing, but rarely self-pity or faux justifications. Rather, Najeeb’s thinking bursts with a steady diet of hope and miserable empathy- in one instance, he has the chance to murder his arbab, the boss, and flee from his life in gloom, but one sympathetic sentence from the arbab to Najeeb and he is filled with compassion and apologia, and decides against killing the Arab. Najeeb hopes that one day he would take flight from the little world in which he gradually finds himself settling, and go back to the laidback life of his village, where he was a sand miner. He invests his hope in the invisible: the fantasia of his escape and the invisibility of God, with whom his conversations increase once the novel begins to progress.
To Najeeb, the homeland he has lost is everything. He tries to suppress the chain of thoughts about the village of his childhood, but then all his suppressed thoughts “erupt like a volcano” and he decides to escape, which is easier said than done. Attempts are made, but they fail. The final attempt, however, chronicled in the final part, “Escape”, succeeds, although it would be too optimistic a claim, since the escape leads Najeeb and his three comrades into another maze- the unending expanse that is desert. A void. An oasis of madness where hallucinations take shape. A spreading expanse where, as Najeeb is right in pointing out, some find identity to someone else’s anxiety and death. The part, and indeed, the novel, seems to be a tribute to Edward Abbey’s quote from his 1968 book Desert Solitaire: “The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms.”
Indeed, and amidst the hopeless stretch of desert, Najeeb finds that his identity is “located”, to nod towards Erik Erikson’s take on identity and soul, within the animals, his only companions. It is telling- and Benyamin wants it to be told- that amongst humans and animals in the center of a vast stretch of emptiness, Najeeb finds solace and his individuality amongst the goats. For him, the goats represent what he craves the most within the loneliness of the desert: someone to call his own, and the animals provide a family of sorts to him, with one of the goats, named Nabeel by Najeeb, replaces the unborn child which Najeeb left behind when he landed in Saudi Arabia. The goats form the crux of his existence, so much so that he begins to view himself as one amongst them. For him, the human ceases to be humane and turns into an animal while the animals begin to display humanized virtues.
And to the subject of the story based on facts, again. That the whole premise of Goat Days is based on facts, a true story told honestly by explaining to us all of the “apparently trifling issues agitating us and distressing us” (that is, the readers), and taking its cue from a real-life Najeeb, as Benyamin informs to us in his Author’s Note- all this does not make the novel any less enjoyable, nor the more harrowing, since Benyamin writes of the fictional Najeeb in the way that he comes across to us as a man living a real life, flesh, blood and all hanging in hopeless misery. Benyamin’s creation of the silence of the desert is created by the sound that his words make. His exploration into Najeeb’s confused state of identity crisis come to a fore when Najeeb, all this while largely in control of his emotions, although wavering, breaks down and seeks to identify his lost dreams, which he writes in his letter to his wife, in which he lies of his condition, writing about the comforts of his imagined living and, at the same time, providing himself with a passing hope of all that he could have, and then all that he got.
To Najeeb, this dream of his is, like Santosh’s- whose life V.S. Naipaul portrays in one of the stories forming In a Free State, titled “One out of many”- is “the dream of another life”. Najeeb survives, and Najeeb heads back to his home, but even that isn’t a spoiler, because the twist, such as it is, and perhaps not much of a twist either but an opportunity to let out a gasp and a laugh together, in a single, momentous breath, come later, in the flash of two or three sentences (and I already stated that the sentences are short).
Goat Days is expansive, and one can keep mining on for themes. It is, amongst others, a meditation on the meaning of identity and self-respect, a peculiar kind of immigrant novel, the story of a survival, an adventure story and the story of loss of humanity in a modernized world. Najeeb is exiled to silence, solitude and is left to collect the pieces of his shattered dreams, and he has a lot of time to do that since neither Najeeb nor us have any idea of the time that passes slowly and silently- we, along with Najeeb, leave the time back in Mumbai when our unfortunate narrator hands over his watch to Sasi, an immigrant working in the city who took care of Njaeeb during his short stay there. Thus, we are, quite literally, left with a timeless journey- the journey in which a human attains the form of a goat, and where animals prove to be the only saviors.
The silence of the desert will eternally continue to enchant us, but it will never cease spinning out stories bold, beautiful and expansive, spanning whether days or decades, they will keep humming against the mythical silence of the wilderness, and will continue to whisper to us stories of extraordinary lives. Benyamin signs off this wonderfully intoxicating novel on a high, leaving us with an immigrant novel like no other, deserving of its awards, and making a case, a valuable one at that, for the importance of translated literature in India. Goat Days is as comically enjoyable and darkly Kafkaesque (if you will allow me another one here) as it is important and thoughtful, an exploration of a life of dissolution of an identity. An exploration into a goat’s life.