Aadujeevitham Malayalam Novel Review Essay

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the complete review - fiction

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Goat Days

by
Benyamin


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author



  • Malayalam title: ആടുജീവിതം
  • Translated by Joseph Koyippally

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Our Assessment:

B : quite affecting and effective

See our review for fuller assessment.






  From the Reviews:
  • "Very seldom in life does a book like Goat Days come along and ruin you for other books. It becomes like that mythic true love you once felt for someone when you were still innocent � but now that you have lived through it, you no longer are that innocent person. You have read it and now other books just don�t compare." - Sheheryar Sheikh, Dawn

  • "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." - Shreekumar Varma, The Hindu

  • "Najib is an astonishing protagonist, staying convincingly humane and grateful to God even after he gets more than Job�s share. (...) Despite this compelling setup, the book is unbalanced throughout by the maudlin and the repetitive. (...) Sadly, if you read Goat Days as a book in itself and not as a translation, what you get is an arresting story in frequently dismal prose." - Nisha Susan, Outlook India

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Goat Days is narrated by Malayali (Malayalam-speaking, from the southern Indian state of Kerala) Najeeb Muhammad. When the opportunity to get a visa to work in one of the Gulf states -- Saudi Arabia, as it turned out -- in the early 1990s, when the wartime "dust of discord" in the region had subsided a bit, he sees it as an opportunity he might as well take. Recently married, his wife is four months pregnant, and raising a family will mean more expenses. This way he can add a room to the house, settle a few debts .....
       The novel begins with a short section from near the end of his time in Saudi Arabia, and since it opens with him trying to get himself arrested and put into prison it's already clear things have not gone well. But he has concluded that: "prison was the best option to survive my circumstances", suggesting he's had quite an ordeal up to this point. The facility for foreigners isn't even that bad -- and, appropriately: "more like a disaster-relief camp". Even here, however, he's not home-free yet: employers routinely make the rounds at the facility, and claim their: "absconding workers -- a tear-filled day in prison", and, like everyone, Najeeb is terrified that his 'arbab' ('boss') will show up and drag him back before he can be deported (the true release he yearns for).
       Najeeb's fate is still in the air when the story jumps back to the beginning, to the long middle section that describes Najeeb's three-year nightmare. What sounds so simple, if also a bit scary -- getting a visa to the Gulf, traveling there, following whoever picks him up -- works out more or less as expected -- until he and another local reach Riyadh. They don't immediately find their future arbab -- but one eventually comes and decides they're good enough and drives off with them. First his traveling companion Hakeem is let off, and then Najeeb is taken to his new workplace.
       Najeeb does not find himself a worker on a construction crew, as he had imagined. He finds himself in the middle of nowhere, on a goat farm:

     I lived on an alien planet inhabited by some goats, my arbab an me.
       The one-time diver, used to wet Kerala, finds himself in a place where water (trucked in) is so limited and precious that he never can even clean himself with it, much less bathe or wash his one set of smelly clothes. There's no way for him to communicate with the outside world, much less home, and he is basically a goat-tending (and milking) slave in the middle of the desert. Soon enough he identifies more with the goats than any human.
       He also comes to realize that:
     Every prison has its own aura of safety. I didn't feel up to bursting that bubble of security.
       Eventually, however, he finds an opportunity -- of sorts -- to escape, with Hakeem (who has been working on a neighboring farm) and another man, in the novel's final section. Escape, across the inhospitable (but not devoid of animal-life) desert, proves a great challenge as well, and while we know from the beginnings of the novel that Najeeb makes it to (relative) safety, the toll is enormous.
       Najeeb's is not a typical tale of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia -- an estimated nine million, compared to a native population of about thirty million --, but the isolation and abuse he is subjected to are in many ways representative. By placing Najeeb more or less all alone much of the time, Benyamin can focus on his predicament, which is simply a more extreme variation of that so many foreign workers find themselves in.
       Najeeb finds himself in a situation that, in its outlines, resembles one he always dreamed of -- yet when it becomes reality:
I realized how painfully distant it was from my dreams. We shouldn't dream about the unfamiliar and about what only looks good from afar. When such dreams become reality, they are often impossible to come to terms with.
       The relatively simple story of Goat Days is reasonably well presented, and Benyamin does well in describing the extreme situations Najeeb finds himself in. The arduous and frustrating goat-tending -- the animals can practically never be kept under control -- is used well, while there's actual suspense in Najeeb's escape attempt (and his possible fate in prison).
       Somewhat disappointingly, an 'Author's note' at the conclusion explains that Najeeb's is a true story -- Benyamin eventually insisting: "This is not just Najeeb's story, it is real life". Suggesting that the novel is, in fact, fictionalized reportage, with Benyamin merely assuming Najeeb's voice, might give a sheen of pseudo-'authenticity' to the work, but also makes it feel more like 'just a story'. If the power of the story is supposed to be taken from the fact that it is based on a real-life story, then surely a real-life account (i.e. non-fiction) would have been more appropriate. Goat Days doesn't need the justification of being based on real events, and could stand well enough on its fictional own; it's clear enough that whatever it is based on -- an individual's experience, or the impressions of millions who have experienced some of what Najeeb lived through -- reflects real conditions and experiences. (There is also an unfortunate sense of the author sticking too closely to the real-life Najeeb's actual story, limiting some of what Benyamin might have done at some points of the story, especially its edges -- the before and after, little of which is shared here.)
       An unusual worker's-tale from the Gulf States where, instead of (technological) modernity, building and consumer frenzies, and oil-related activity one is confronted almost only with the most desolate of rural locales, Goat Days is an interesting slice of Saudi life -- but one that also reaches far beyond its specifics, much of the novel's strength coming from how universal the tale is (even as few actually experience what Najeeb did, at work, in the desert, and in prison).

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 November 2016

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Links:

Goat Days: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Indian author Benyamin (ബെന്യാമിൻ; actually Benny Daniel) was born in 1971.

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© 2016 the complete review

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