The Hidden Traumas of the Gulf NRI: An Analysis of Benyamin’s ‘Goat Days’
Migration from Kerala to the Gulf is a decades-old phenomenon, beginning in the 1960s when the Persian Gulf called for labour for its oil wells (Sasandakumar, 2015). Beginning with travelling by boats and dhows, the mass waves of migration have resulted in multiple international airports being built in Kerala to facilitate immigration between the Gulf and the state. The Gulf includes countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain.
It’s not far-fetched to claim that migration has helped boost Kerala’s economy and that the state benefited greatly from the source of labour. According to Irudaya Rajan, Kerala would have been a more literate, more explosive version of Bihar — with low industrialisation, higher unemployment, and political radicalisation, the high unemployment and poverty would have made Kerala a “hotbed of terrorism, communalism, and social tensions.” (Sanandakumar, 2015).
The starting point of mass migration from Kerala can be taken as the mid-1960s, with illegal migration happening in dhows from Kerala to the Gulf countries, with the first traces of earliest illegal migration taking place in the mid-1950s, when 13 people from Kerala boarded a vessel to cross the Arabian Sea (Sasandakumar, 2015). Of course, migration now is much easier — visa processes have been streamlined, flights take a few hours at most, and the Malayalee community is large and thriving, ready to accept other members into the fold.
Immigrant Experiences in Cultural Phenomena
The Gulf has been portrayed as a haven in countless Malayalam movies that depict the life of Malayalee immigrants in Gulf countries and as returning citizens, bringing newfound wealth from the oil-rich lands back home. The mass migration movement has resulted in waves of change for the Gulf nations and for Kerala as well, with the economy, landscape, and popular culture of the state shifting as a result (Radhakrishnan, 2009, p. 217).
Kerala has flowered thanks to the remittances gained from these Gulf countries. When the first Kerala Migration Survey was conducted in 1998, Malayalee emigrants stood at 1.4 million, with over Rs 13,000 being sent back home. By 2004, there were 2.4 million emigrants, and remittances had increased almost 5 times over, to Rs. 71,000 crores (Panicker, 2018). Kerala is also a unique state in India with regards to remittance funds — no other large state depends on remittances this way, with remittance funds amounting to over 35 per cent of the state’s domestic product (ibid).
Migrant experiences have coloured Malayalee films and literature since it became a phenomenon in the early ’60s. In the 1970s, ‘letter songs’ (Dubai kathu paatu) were extremely popular, featuring lyrical letters of longing, where women sang of their loneliness, passing youth, and children who were estranged from their fathers. Movies chronicled the difficult journeys made on dhows to ferry Malayalees to the Gulf. Many jobseekers piled onto boats and faced a number of difficulties from visa rackets to exploitation — as we see in Benyamin’s Goat Days.
Vilkannundu Swapnangal (‘Dreams for Sale’) was one of the first movies that examine the returning immigrants. Families don’t notice the labour and effort that goes behind the money, but sees the foreign brands and signs of modernity, from cellphones to ‘Raybon’ shades (Nair, “Kerala’s migration is woven into its culture”). Of course, the immigrant is stuck with facing a difficult task — home has moved on, and he is a misfit everywhere.
Popular movies like Pathemari, released 2015, recreated these early ventures — the difficulties of working in a foreign land, the hoops one must jump through for visas, and the families back home living off the sacrifices of men in the Gulf. There are films that feature migrant experiences with political subplots as well, where the experience of living and working abroad greatly shifts one’s political opinion.
In Varavelpu (1989), for example, a returning Gulf migrant is not faced with the achhars he was dreaming of, but to a money-hungry family. He is forced to set up a small transport business, but eventually loses that and must return to the desert to continue providing for his family. Arabikatha, on the other hand, does the opposite — the protagonist is a hardcore leftist, but learns of differing opinions after travelling to the Gulf. By the end of the film, he learns to value people over ideology.
Analysis of Benyamin’s Goat Days
The story Goat Days by Bahrain-based author Benyamin (born Benny Daniel) depicts one such migrant experience. However, the story isn’t a rose-tinted tale that other Malayalees have experienced — there is no wealth boom, and he is not one of the immigrants that contribute to the remittance funds sent back home. Rather, he’s one of the migrant workers that fell through the cracks. In a land where you don’t speak the language, it is easy to be taken advantage of, as we see in Benyamin’s writing. The story focuses on Najeeb, a young Malayalee who looks to the Gulf to provide for his new family. Newly married and with a baby on the way, the aim was to work in the Gulf; as this novel is set in the 1990s, this is during the peak of mass immigration.
The novel is divided into four distinct parts — Prison, Desert, Escape, Refuge — and has a simple, overriding narrative — that of a man trapped in the desert, longing for freedom, and eventually gaining it. Najeeb, a young man looking to start his life, turns to the Gulf to earn money and provide for his family. The first step is to land in the Gulf, which is not possible without a sponsor (known as ‘arbab’). He is able to land a job in the Gulf and gets himself to Bombay, to catch the flight to Riyadh.
Four and a half hours later, he stands near the airport, dreaming of a lush future with a caring sponsor, a comfortable job, and more money than he knew what to do with. Unfortunately, he gets picked up by an Arab cattle farm supervisor and is taken to one of the remote farms in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Forced into slave labour, Najeeb lives the life of a shepherd, dealing with goats, camels, and sheep for three and a half years. He suffers from back-breaking work with almost no rest or reprieve and is constantly monitored by a vicious supervisor who maintains control with a gun, a pair of binoculars (to check on Najeeb when he takes the goats for a walk), and regular lashings with a belt.
As he does not speak the local language, Najeed is starved of human interaction and kindness, and begins to relate to, and identify with the goats. He understands them as individual creatures, assigns personalities, and even sleeps with them during the colder winter months. Eventually, he sees himself living a goat’s life. He forms a deep relationship with one of the goats he helps birth and names it Nabeel. He sees the goat as a gift from Allah and favours the kid as much as possible.
Later, the goat is castrated by the arbab — only a few male goats are kept ‘untouched’ for their virility. Najeeb feels the pain as keenly as if it is him under the knife. “The day Nabeel lost his manliness, I too lost mine. I haven’t yet figured out that mystery — of how my virility vanished with that of a goat’s!” (Benyamin, 2008, pg 115). Najeeb’s intimate, friendly nature resulted in a lasting bond with the animals under his care. Nabeel is marked for the slaughterhouse, and it was this relationship that turned Najeeb away from mutton for the rest of his life.
Fortunately, there is a chance of escape — a quick escape is planned with a Somalian worker, Ibrahim Khadiri, and Najeeb’s friend Hakeem (the two travelled together and were taken together as slaves for the farms). The trio run at a time when their ‘arbabs’ went to attend a wedding, and get lost in the desert. Hakeem dies of thirst and fatigue and gets buried underneath the sand in a storm. Finally, Najeeb and Ibrahim find their way to Riyadh, where Najeeb gets himself arrested in order to get deported and go back home. He’s detained in the Sumesi Prison for several months before finally being able to return home.
The novel begins in medias res — we enter Najeeb’s tale as he rejoices being in prison. He speaks warmly of the prison walls, of the routine, and of the food. He embraces the friends he’s made and connections he’s built in prison, prompting the reader to wonder what triggered such love and respect for a space where you’re denied your freedom. He welcomes the human connection, in particular, relishing the times he can recount his horrific experiences.
There are slight foreshadowed moments to his time spent as a shepherd; one telling moment is when mutton is served during one of the meals, and he refuses to touch the meat. He is not a vegetarian but displays a particular aversion to mutton. We later learn that this is because of his deep emotional attachment to, and identification with, the goats he herded and cared for.
The first-person narrative allows the reader to explore a prison in the Gulf with a sense of intimacy, and an almost-unnerving familiarity with prisoners. The view of prison is like a train station, or a rehab centre — a transitory space of rest and relaxation while your fate is decided by the powers that be. The overtly religious Najeeb intersperses his narrative with prayers to Allah to save him, mingled with regret for having doubted the favours he was granted.
His sheer optimism is, for now, confusing, but later seen as incredible — he faced an impossible journey and survived. The narrative is tense and moves quickly — we later find out that Najeeb spent over three years on that farm, yet the short novel moves with such a pace that the mundane moments fly by, making it feel as though not much time has passed.
The first section dives into his time in prison — he seems happy, carefree. He’s comfortable in sharing his story with others, he laughs in enjoyment, and he observes the various groups with interest. He notes (accurately) how Arabs are treated in prison, compared to the others, saying, “The Arab enjoyed more freedom inside a prison in his country than we did in a foreign land.” (Benyamin, 2008, pg 22).
He describes the ease with which Arab sponsors were allowed to move within the prison as they looked for their runaway workers. Najeeb explains that being in jail is preferable, because ‘expulsion is salvation’ (ibid). Arab sponsors — in his words — are vicious and cruel, and if the prisoner was found and ordered to return to the Arab, he suffers a worse fate.
He then describes the way prisoners are released and deported by the Saudi government — the exhilaration of coming home, and the joy in escaping prison and the Gulf in order to enjoy freedom. There is no unease associated with a lost opportunity, but a sense of overwhelming relief at having survived long enough to finally go home. His description of prison seems liberating, at odds with the standard view of being behind bars. The sheer wonder and joy at basic human necessities prompt the reader to wonder exactly what Najeeb went through, to fall in love with prison.
The second section is titled ‘Desert’ and goes back to the beginning of his story — to a time when he was contemplating a future in the Gulf, to provide for his growing family and take the route that so many Malayalees had taken before him. Najeeb is optimistic, ready to work hard despite the possible estrangement from his family. His journey is slightly taxing, but his search for a visa comes through thanks to a friend. Families and friends helping sponsor visas have helped the Malayalee community grow to the size it has reached today.
His time in the desert, however, is not the rose-tinted adventure he thought it would be, as he becomes one of the unlucky immigrants that gets kidnapped and used as slave labour on farms in Saudi Arabia. He travels with a friend, Hakeem, and the two are taken from the airport to neighbouring farms, where they’re forced to work as slaves. With no access to any government officials and no knowledge of the local language, the two are forced to abide by the supervisors’ harsh rules, facing regular lashings and verbal abuse.
Najeeb’s description of his time as a shepherd is heartbreaking, to say the least. Naturally social, he craves human companionship, something that is sorely lacking when the only person he sees is his ‘arbab’, a harsh Arab who speaks Arabic, and isn’t interested in developing a relationship with Najeeb anyway.
Apart from regular beatings, the arbab leaves Najeeb alone, playing the role of harsh disciplinarian rather than a supervisor. His daily routine revolves around the goats he shepherds — from feeding them, to taking them for walks, to helping nurse the newborn goats, he grows attached to these animals, going so far as to name and assign personalities to them. As goats are slaughtered or carted away, he begins to reuse names and personalities, forming deep attachments. During his first winter, he’s surprised by the cold of the desert and is forced to sleep amongst the goats for warmth.
The third section, titled ‘Escape’, documents Najeeb’s hellish journey through the harsh deserts, along with Hakeem and Ibrahim Khadiri, a Somalian worker who’s from the neighbouring farm. The three of them take advantage of their arbabs’ absence and run out into the night, blindly following paths and hoping to stumble across civilisation. As the sun rises, reality sinks in — the three of them must cross a desert without water. The first night was sheer terror — the arbabs had cars, binoculars, and guns.
The three men were unarmed and running for their lives. The men crossed other masaras (farms) during their escape, stumbling into open farms and running from arbabs and their slaves. Once the sun came up, they were looking at a new, far more dangerous venture — facing the desert without water. Initially, the three were resolute; the masaras had dealt them with such a painful hand that the scorching heat felt trivial. What fascinated Najeeb the most were the presence of life in a barren desert — he was a trespasser in a land bequeathed by Allah to these creatures.
Throughout the novel, we see Najeeb’s faith stay firm and resolute. A devout Muslim, his belief is unwavering in the face of tremendous difficulty, and he keeps Allah in mind during every trial and ordeal. It was interesting to see how one drew strength at a time when escape seemed impossible, and how one maintained faith when death seemed inevitable. The three men walk in the desert, stumbling from dune to dune, with no reprieve.
During one particularly vicious storm, Hakeem collapses from exhaustion and gets buried underneath the sand. Najeeb is devastated, and Ibrahim Khadiri summons the strength for the two of them to carry on. Eventually, they stumble across an oasis, quenching their thirst and thankful for their survival. They reach some form of civilization, and Najeeb wanders into the city, looking for help.
The fourth section, titled ‘Refuge’ brings us to the beginning of the story — his need to go to prison to seek shelter, and for a way to return home. He collapses on the step of a restaurant run by a Malayalee and is saved by his own people. The last chapter ties the story together; we see Najeeb walk out of prison, guided by Saudi authorities to a plane to take him back home.
Though deportation is to be used as a form of risk-aversion, we see Najeeb use it to save himself from much harsher cruelties that Riyadh had in store for him. His return to Kerala is a mixture of triumph and relief. Unlike others, he did not ‘make it big’ but barely escaped with his life, and sacrificed three years for nought. This section is short — only two chapters, but is one that brings this story to a close. The return to Kerala is a return to normalcy, where the trip to the Gulf was not a chance to start anew, but a perilous adventure. Nothing was gained, time was lost, and Najeeb returns a broken, yet optimistic man. His return as an immigrant is different from other stories, his return is to a state of normalcy, of home. There is no misplaced nostalgia or a feeling of being left out, but a welcome return to a safe space.
The work details a horror story that I haven’t associated with Malayalees before, that of a slave, or underpaid labour. Growing up in Dubai, I was used to seeing fellow Malayalees in well-paying positions, where the desire to return home came out of a need for retirement, and a desire to settle down as the adopted land offered no such option. The novel serves as a harsh reminder of the bygone era when Malayalees were forced to work in order to make money, and that the drive for wealth resulted in many lives lost, as the state gained.
The number of Malayalee emigrants is dropping; the Kerala Migration Survey in 2016 records a 10 per cent drop, from 2.4 million, to 2.2 million Malayalees living in the GUlf (Panicker, 2015). This can be attributed to the fact that decades of migration has resulted in generations of Malayalees being educated and skilled enough to aim for more specialised professions and to look towards emigrating to places that offer a chance of naturalisation and citizenship.
In the Gulf, the supply for unskilled labour has been replaced by migrants from Asian countries like the Philippines, Pakistan, and Nepal, and from other Indian states like Bihar, Rajasthan, and UP. At the same time, the number of returned migrants to Kerala has increased, touching 1.6 million in 2016. It’s easy to see that Malayalees are coming home; the transitory nature of Gulf countries — for immigrants who are unable to access citizenship — has resulted in younger generations looking to other countries, and continents, to find a future. Thanks to the upward mobility provided by working in the Gulf, Malayalees were able to educate their children who, in turn, can look towards moving to countries where there is a higher chance of permanent relocation.
As the number of returning immigrants swell, so must the government — and the people — of Kerala adjust to the dwindling remittances from the Gulf. The hope is that Malayalees are able to secure a future in other countries. Though Europe, Canada, and the US offer chances of citizenship, higher tax rates mean that there is less money to be sent back home. The minimal taxes in Gulf countries made it easier for fathers to work while their families enjoyed their wealth at home — now, it seems as though entire families must be uprooted to enjoy the wealth offered by Western countries.
Benyamin, (2018). Goat Days, trans J Koyipally, Penguin Publishing.Viewed September 15, 2020 <https://www.amazon.in/Goat-Days-Koyippally-Benyamin/dp/0143416332/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=goat+days+benyamin&qid=1603739971&sr=8-1>
Gopinathan Nair, P.R., Irudaya Rajan, S. and Zachariah K.C. (2001). “Return Emigrants in Kerala: Rehabilitation Problems and Development Potential”. Centre for Development Studies. Viewed 10 October 2020. Available at <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5127055_Return_emigrants_in_Kerala_Rehabilitation_problems_and_development_potential>
Nair, M. (2020). “How Kerala’s migrant experience is woven it is culture, captured on screen, in stories”. The Times of India. Viewed 09 October 2020. Available at <https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/how-keralas-migrant-experience-is-woven-in-its-culture-captured-on-screen-in-stories/articleshow/75961347.cms>
Panicker, N. (2018). “MIGRATION: The Story of Kerala”. India Migration Now. Viewed 08 October 2020. Available at <https://medium.com/@indiamigration/migration-the-story-of-kerala-dcfb06dd6a4e>
Sanandakumar, S. (2015). “A fifty-year-old phenomenon explained: Malayalee migration to Gulf builds the new Kerala”. The Economic Times [online]. Viewed 12 October 2020. Available at <https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/a-fifty-year-old-phenomenon-explained-malayalee-migration-to-gulf-builds-the-new-kerala/articleshow/49201357.cms?from=mdr>