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. You may stop reading altogether, for a while, just to let memories of Goat Days flow through you unchecked. The same feeling courses through you after you read books like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Perfectly pitched books, with the language kept out of the way of storytelling.
That is what good books do. They take language out of the equation by simplifying it, making it purely functional. Not to say that Goat Days doesn’t have ornamentation in its narrator’s voice. There is a personality to the voice. But it is also the closest you can come to reading a book by a reliable narrator. There is honesty to the book that doesn’t require false emotion. So there is little to fault in this novel.
Najeeb’s tale of being enslaved in the desert of Saudi Arabia is taken from real life, as recounted to Benyamin, the author, who originally wrote the novel in Malayalam in 2008. Benyamin’s work was translated into English, titled Goat Days, and published this year by Penguin. Given the post-Arab Spring global desire for awareness about the Gulf region and life in its vast desert stretches, Goat Days comes at the perfect time.
The novel’s linear plot starts with the newly married Najeeb, a labourer in Kerala, getting a suspect visa to work in Saudi Arabia. His motive is simple: he wants to get a better-paying job overseas, and bring home more money for his family. Once he arrives in Riyadh, an Arab at the airport grabs him and takes him into the middle of the desert, where Najeeb is shown his future. He must tend to the Arab’s goats. He must feed them, milk them, water them, take them out to roam the dunes, and he must clean their pens. He is not allowed any fresh water, and his food consists only of bread and milk. Also, Najeeb is subject to constant lashings for jobs that he does not perform perfectly.
In the beginning, he has a companion to teach and help him with these tasks. But that companion runs away. Much of the short novel then guides the reader through daily life and extraordinary events in that goat farm out in the desert.
Then there is the inevitable escape, the wandering in the desert, saviours and betrayers. A nest of desert snakes rolls over his body at one point and leave bruises where their slithering bodies touch him. Goats play a major role, even besides the ordinary one of needing attention. For the most part though, it’s the desert that Najeeb has to contend with, while living at the goat farm and especially after escaping it. In a very disillusioning and unromantic passage, Najeeb, or his writer Benyamin, meditates on the meaning of the desert. He comes up with this gold dust: “Writers in every language and religion have seen the desert as a space for enlightenment and spiritual revival. There are writings that suggest life in the desert can create an explosion of knowledge in the brain. But the desert did not revive me in any way. I lived in the desert for more than three years. Then I tried crossing it. All through, the desert gave me nothing but grief and frustration. Maybe the desert gave spiritual knowledge to those who came seeking it. I didn’t set out to look for anything, so I got trapped. It must have decided that it had nothing to offer me.”
From kidnapping to escape, the book’s language suits the narrative. There are a few aphoristic lines that might seem out of place if this were based on a fictional account, but they hit home in this true story. One that stands out is: “A way to come out of our sorrow is to listen to the stories of those who endure situations worse than ours.” Najeeb’s faith never wavers. He describes his faith in Allah as “infinite”, and that plays a tangible part at many of the narrative’s boiling points.
Then there is Najeeb’s memory of his home and his wife, which is perhaps what clouds his thinking into believing his wife is an angel. He tells us that “her tongue would not utter even a single word of despair … women should be like that; she was my secret pride.” The reader never gets to hear about his wife except in memory, for the narrative ends abruptly after the escape and rehabilitation.
However, those are minor drawbacks — at worst and at best just preferences — in an otherwise immaculate work.
The reader is transported with Najeeb into that slavery. His fate quickly becomes our own, for we have to dwell with him and his suffering. The desert and isolation overcome us, and so does the drowning feeling that Najeeb will never escape this misery. So when he does get the chance, finally, and nearly refuses to take it, we clench our jaws and goad him for the loss of “[the] urge to escape.”
How Najeeb recovers from his misfortunes, who helps him on his way out, and the way in which he finds his way back home is worth discovering on your own.
Penguin Books, India