Title: Goat Days
Translator: Dr. Joseph Koyippally
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 253 pages
Najeeb, a poor, illegal sand miner from Kerala dreams of going to the Gulf and earning big bucks, just like millions of his Malayali compatriots.
He is given the chance when the brother-in-law of a friend has "a visa for sale". Najeeb pledges his home and all his wealth to buy the visa and make the journey to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
There he is taken in by an 'arbab', who enslaves him as a shepherd of goats and camels.
Denied the use of any water for sanitation or bathing, he is given just enough food to survive. He is regularly beaten and his life is spent in the stinking animal pens, herding them, feeding them, milking them and walking them.
His 'Goat Days' have begun.
The three and half years of suffering he would eventually endure form the bulk of the book.
The book is originally written by Benyamin in Malayalam and has been translated by Joesph Koyippally. Written in a first person, conversational style, the language feels simplistic when read in English.
But one gets the feeling that the lines were probably more pleasing and intricate in the original Malayalam.
The book almost has two angles. On one hand, it is a simple story about a Malayali being taken to the Gulf under false pretexts and being abused by his Arab master. It is an engaging read even if that's all you get out of it. The daily struggles and grand escape attempt of Najeeb will keep you turning the pages.
On the other hand the book is also about how Najeeb dealt with his loneliness, his broken dreams and his pain.
The pull of this angle to the story is that it is told without any gimmick or trope.
This is not a factory-assembled tearjerker, designed to pull the right strings at the right time. Save for one at the start, there are no convenient cliffhangers. The uneducated shepherd does not magically come to some great and deep realizations about the nature of life and the universe with his goats.
Though a believer, Najeeb is never witness to a miracle, nor are the worst horrors the human mind can think of inflicted upon him. (There are worse things in this world than beatings.)
There are no stereotypes or caricatures; there are only people - some good, some bad, some indifferent. Najeeb meets and suffers at the hands of his villains just as accidentally as his heroes rescue him, and this lends a touch of authenticity to the tale often missing in such real-life narrations.
However, Najeeb's connections with the animals that are ironically, and innocently, the reason for his bondage are the highlight of the tale. One does get the feeling that if we were in his place, this is probably how we would have dealt with it also. And that is how the tale gets to you.
At 253 pages of widely spaced text, it is not a particularly long or heavy book, which makes it perfect for a journey or a day at home.