Arabian Nightmare

Novel: Goat Days

Author: Benyamin

Translated by Joseph Koyipally

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 264

Price: Rs 250

Kerala witnessed two migrations in the 20th century that played a big role in the shaping of its mind. The first was horizontal, in the 1920s, from the south to the northern Wayanad hills. Trains of poor farmers trekked on mountain roads, in bullock carts and sometimes on foot, to colonise virgin shrublands and forests. Stories were written about how these pioneers tamed hostile acre after acre and how many of them perished to malaria and wild boars.

The second migration was much more momentous, both in terms of its impact and its sheer magnitude. Semi-skilled and skilled Malayalis benefited most from the oil boom in the sparsely populated Persian Gulf region, which was to be sustained through cheap South Asian labour.

About 2.5 million Gulf Malayalis have been sending home nearly $7 billion annually, lending the state a high HDI sheen that its domestic output could not have bestowed. There is an impressive corpus of studies on the Gulf migration and how it changed the way Kerala lives. Paradoxically, this important chapter in Kerala's history is absent in literature.

The first south-north migration within Kerala produced some classic works like S.K. Pottekat's novel Vishakanyaka. However, on the second migration to the Gulf, the Malayali is in denial. There is hardly any work on this epochal experience. Benyamin's Aadujeevitham, whose English translation is Goat Days, is probably the first candid portrayal of a Gulf migrant in Malayalam literature. This doesn't mean that the novel can be tied down to tags like émigré writing; it is universal in its appeal and written with great beauty and poignancy.

The Gulf Malayali is usually a single male. He works and lives under trying circumstances. With metronomic consistency, he sends home his small savings that elevate the lifestyle of the people he has left behind. It is a worker-ant life, feeding drones and queen ants back at home. The comicality of the situation has never been lost on Kerala-bound Malayalis.

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