Literature in the Oil Age: A Review of Goat Days

From Chapati Mystery:

The age of oil has produced unprecedented scales of human confinement and brutality. At the same time, people are traveling faster, and in larger groups than ever before: migration to the Gulf following the oil boom of the 1970s is a case in point. There are currently some fifteen million migrant workers in the Gulf, hailing mostly from Asian, African, and Arab countries. The number of South Asian migrant laborers rose substantially in the 1990s, filling in for the displacements of Arab workers caused by the 1991 Gulf War. There are two and a half million migrant workers from Kerala alone, who annually send home sums amounting to 15% of total remittances to India. Migrant workers spend years away from their families, work for extremely low wages, subsist in poor living conditions, and have their passports held by employers in places with virtually no enforceable labor laws. Their experiences have yet to be voiced within literature in as gripping an account as Benyamin’s novel Goat Days, forthcoming in English. Based on a true story, the novel has become a bestseller in the original Malayalam (Aadujivitam), winning the Kerala Sahitya Academy award. Benyamin, Benny Daniel’s pen name, is a Keralite who has lived in Bahrain since 1992.

There is a tremendous dearth of literature which un-cover the cultures born out of oil encounters. And, although migration to the Gulf constitutes the exemplary South Asian diaspora of our times, no other novel—none available in English, that is—has cast the migrant Gulf worker as its principal character. Benyamin does so by weaving rich descriptions of the protagonist’s surroundings with a robust interior monologue. The narrator is Najeeb, a modest sand-miner from Kerala who travels to Riyadh via Bombay in the 1990s with the dream of earning his fortunes, only to become enslaved for over three years in the desert interior of Saudi Arabia on a goat farm (masara) at the mercy of a cruel boss (arbab). It is a novel of multiple crossings: from South India to the Gulf, from Riyadh to rural Saudi Arabia, and from dreams of economic betterment to impoverished disillusionment. But at the heart of Goat Days is the journey Najeeb makes from slavery to freedom, including a perilous desert trek. The novel is about the many dangers Najeeb faces in his struggle for emancipation.

More here.