x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Goat Days is a carefully tended tale

One of the contenders of the Man Asian Literary Prize is a tale of a hopeful Indian migrant labourer who comes to the Gulf to feed his family. We talk to Benyamin about his sparkling novel.

The author Benyamin moved to the Gulf in 1992.
The author Benyamin moved to the Gulf in 1992. "For the jobless youth of Kerala, it was like a glittering dreamland," he says. "I didn't have any other ambition - or choice." Courtesy Benyamin

It is, by some margin, the most exciting time in the author Benny Daniel's writing career. Last month he was included on the longlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and tomorrow he finds out whether he's made the shortlist with his bestselling Goat Days, written in Malayalam in 2008 and translated into English last year.

"Honestly, I never expected I would be considered along with big writers like Orhan Pamuk, Hiromi Kawakami and Jeet Thayil," he says.

Daniel, who writes under the name Benyamin, is endearingly modest. He's previously won two separate Abu Dhabi-based awards for literature written in Malayalam, and Goat Days is an unflinching, moving and entirely absorbing account of migrant labour in the Gulf - which Benyamin should know a thing or two about; he left Kerala for Bahrain in 1992 as a callow 20-year-old.

"The Gulf is a place of pure luck. It doesn't matter about your education, your experience, your wealth, even. It's how you use your chances when you get them," he says of his own experience. "And for the jobless youth of Kerala, it was like a glittering dreamland. I didn't have any other ambition - or choice."

Goat Days explores what happens when that dream goes terribly wrong. Najeeb is an average lower middle-class Muslim from Kerala who wants to earn some quick money, pay off his debts and provide for his young family. But when he arrives at Riyadh airport, wide-eyed and enthusiastic, he is kidnapped and dumped in the desert, forced to tend goats for an evil arbab. Any small mistake results in terrible punishment. It is, as Benyamin is not afraid of suggesting, a modern-day slave tale. Tragically, it's also based on a true story.

"You read so many little newspaper stories that simply say a man has been found in the desert after being missing for a long time. But when I heard about Najeeb, I decided to meet him - not because I thought it was a good story but through sheer curiosity. This man had been through so much and after a while it felt like it became my duty to tell the world about people like him, living their lives in such suffering and pain."

It is true that the Gulf states' labour arrangements aren't exactly praised in Goat Days, although Benyamin is at pains to point out that since the time in which the book is set, after the first Gulf War, laws have been strengthened and "the situation has changed a lot; people are more vigilant". But labourers still come from India and Pakistan, Nepal and the Philippines, and find life tough.

"It is a mystery to me that some people have been here for 20 or 30 years, going home maybe once a year, but in the end they leave with very little," he says. "The strange thing is that I am sure if they stayed in India they could earn more."

All of this might make Goat Days sound impossibly hard going. But its real triumph - and, one senses, the reason for its Man Asian longlisting - is its uplifting message of hope and faith. Najeeb doesn't give in. He dreams of escape and surrenders to the will of God - and actually it's this unquestioning acceptance of his fate that allows Najeeb to survive three and a half tortuous years.

"It is a story of suffering, loneliness and alienation," admits Benyamin. "But more than that, I was trying convey the message that whatever the situation, hold onto hope until the last moment. You will be saved."

As for Benyamin, he's finally getting the worldwide praise his writing deserves, thanks in no small part to a beautiful translation from Joseph Koyippally. "I am delighted," he says. "Being longlisted is a memorable achievement for Malayalam literature and I really hope it makes people consider the Najeebs we see around us every day."