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The reality of Riyadh
The survival saga of a migrant Malayalee worker who escapes a life of slavery on a remote desert goat ranch in Saudi Arabia is fast acquiring cult status. Author Benyamin tells TOI-Crest why he wanted to expose the lie of the Gulf dream.
Let me introduce myself. I am working as IT professional at Bangalore. Most of the Malayalis in our office have read your novel Aadujeevitham. We think this is not just Najeeb's story, but ours too. We've named our office "masra" and our manager "arbab" ....
"I'm a 22-year old engineering graduate from Kottayam. I was placed at HCL Technologies through campus recruitment process. But unfortunately I flunked two papers last semester and am now awaiting results. I thought I was drowning in my worries. But now I feel better. Your book inspired me....
"I have stopped asking my uppa (father) to buy me new clothes and gifts when he comes home from the Gulf now. I know how hard he has to work for us now...
Sometimes the story of one man's battle against odds can be more moving than any story that statistics can tell. The numbers say that 2. 5 million Malayalees migrate to the Gulf, that of them most do menial jobs and live in dehumanising conditions, that thousands disappear into the desert countries as slave labour never to be found again and that Qatar itself has reported 120 Kerala workers "missing" this year. But Najeeb Muhammad refused to be reduced to a trafficking statistic because he didn't let the indignities corrode his faith or his goodness. And, more importantly, because writer Benny Daniel or Benyamin found him and told his incredible story.
When four years ago, Bahrain engineer Benyamin sat down to write Aadujeevitham (translated into English as Goat Days), a story about Najeeb's travails at a desert goat ranch in Saudi Arabia, he hadn't foreseen the cult status his the book would acquire. But Najeeb's saga has gone on to become a Bible of survival for the Malayalee diaspora everywhere - for IT professionals caught in gruelling 12-hour days with no hope of escape, for emigrants in China longing for home, for 60-year-olds despairing of New York winters and for soldiers caught at hostile outposts.
It has gone into 50 editions, won Benyamin the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award, is up for a movie and now prescribed for schoolchildren as a moral story. In tea shops, in intellectual circles, academic gatherings, among yuppies who rarely touch books, Goat Days seems to have worked at every level.
Of course the book has the ingredients of an epic. An impoverished diver is lured to Riyadh by a "sponsor" with promises of the big life, the gold watch, the big house, the fancy shades and money to throw around. It is an escape Najeeb dreams of for himself, his mother and young pregnant wife. What he doesn't realise is that he is walking into a trap like thousands of other uneducated, naive Malayalees, to be swallowed by horrific slave rackets we can only imagine.
At the airport he is roughly collared by an arbab (an Arab sponsor, protector, mentor and a dream figure for aspiring migrants) and driven through the night to work as a goatherd in a remote desert ranch owned by the brutal arbab whose binoculars and rifle ensure that Najeeb cannot escape. All alone in this hostile sand country with just the goats for company he becomes, as he says, one of the animals. (Some of them he names: Pochakkari Ramani, Maryamaimuna, Chakki. He sleeps under the merciless skies and the only bath he is allowed is when freak rains arrive in the desert. After four years he makes a wild dash to escape the mortification, beatings, deaths in this endless desert corral and amazingly, against all odds, survives to tell the story.
It could have been a weepie, a rousing saga, or it could have been a breathless escape tale, but it is none of those. Goat Days is simply a very believable story, told as it is, with as much humour (the tedium of having khubus bread and water for meals every single day, the Malayalee's trauma at having to forego the daily routine of two baths) and compassion as pathos. It is also a landmark book because it exposed for the first time the lie that many migrant Malayalees live in the Gulf, the loneliness, the heartbreak behind the flashy riches, the pressure of keeping up the facade for anxious families back home, the staggering debts they accumulate to feed this pretence.
"When I started writing I was struck by how Malayalee writers in the Gulf wrote about everything but the reality of our life here - they wrote of distant trees, fields and rivers of their homes. As though their real life is a fallacy and the dream a reality. Even movies about expat Malayalees either lampoon them or extol them, " says Benyamin who drew a lot of fans at the recent Kovalam Literary Festival in Thiruvananthapuram.
The fact is that the Kerala community in the Gulf is an entire world in itself and deserved a literary genre of its own. Benyamin says his work was supported, propagated and promoted the most by Gulf Malayalees who spread the word back home, among each other and in the rest of the world. It gave them a chance to breathe free, drop the all-is-well mask that few books and movies have managed to look beyond.
Najeeb, back in civilisation, works as a segregator in a metal scrapyard in Bahrain. It mayn't be the best job in the world but he is back among humans, surrounded by others like him, with a shot at leading a life of dignity. He is a shy soul who has resisted all campaigns to fete his heroism. He didn't even think that his story needed telling as though this suffering was par for the course in human life, recalls Benyamin. But Najeeb's words have become a part of the expat lexicon. Masara, the vast desert goat pen, now stands for insufferable office cubicles, arbab, for that obnoxious project manager.
Benyamin has an interesting take on why the book flew off the shelves like it did - the story of triumph over misfortune appealed to the Malayalee's inherently melancholic outlook/disposition. . "We go through life with this huge dukhabharam (the load of grief). We think we suffer the most in the world which is why the suicide rate is so high in Kerala. The book tells people that a man reduced to an animal for four years can pick himself up and walk so why can't they?" says the author who belongs to Pandalam district of Kerala and left home 20 years ago for Bahrain. "Almost every Malayalee relates to this book, through himself, through his family, friends, at some point they find links to their own Najeeb."
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