When I got this book, I felt in the initial reading that I wouldn’t be able to complete it. But I gradually developed an interest in it and read it with delight. The book maps the journey and odyssey of Najeeb. It makes one think and make comparisons to books like Life of Pi, The Old man and the Sea, The Alchemist and the like. It is a wonderful account of a goat farm. The book’s forty-three chapters are divided into four major parts – Prison, Desert, Escape and Refuge. In one of the chapters, he gives a glossary of words that he has learned in the course of his stay in Masara.
The author Koyippally Benyamin originally wrote the novel in Malayalam in 2008. His original work title is Adujivitam. It was translated into English, titled Goat Days, and published by Penguin. The book became a bestseller and won the Kerala Literary Academy Award in 2009. The novel was translated by Joseph Koyippally in 2012.
My gain from the book is to learn and develop indomitable and unsurpassable faith in divine power. The mysterious power that does miracles and at times play with human life. It is about loneliness, patience, honesty and love. It reveals how the heinous practice of slavery is still popular despite its abolition and abomination. It depicts the torture of slavery as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It seems to reflect the real condition and experience of many migrant workers and their plight. It gives a brief account of the Gulf War. The author’s note towards the end corroborates the authenticity of the narrative. “This is not just Najeeb’s story, it is real life”. It is a fiction woven with the facts of a real-life incident. It is written in a simple and easy language. It is a book for those who are interested in the life of the Gulf, goat, camel and tragedy. It gives a taste of Arab life. It is enchanting in its own way.
Najeeb ,a minor worker who was working in Kerala started looking for greener pastures in Saudi Arabia. His journey is also from greenery to desert. He left his pregnant wife and mother with the hope for betterment. He once dreamed of being a goatherd which turned out to be a nightmare. “We shouldn’t dream about the unfamiliar and about what only looks good from afar. When such dreams become reality, they are often impossible to come to terms with.”
The alien land makes his life miserable, pathetic and full of anguish. The story moves from present to past to present. The novel begins with Najeeb and Hameed scheming to get arrested. He was told that there was no safe return for Indian immigrants. Then the story moves to his past. On arriving at Riyadh, he is taken up by an Arab. He is doomed to live a life of hardship to tend goats from morning till night. It is arduous and frustrating to control goats. He toils hard without any sign of relief or token of mercy. On the contrary he is subjected to incessant lashing and starving. He remains under the eyes of Arbab, his overseer. He learns that water is limited and precious and shouldn’t be wasted in cleaning oneself. He remains unkempt and filthy in Masara. In the beginning, he had a companion but soon he too ran and escaped. He recalls and remembers his wife and life. He thinks of running and escaping from the ordeal but he felt the divine grace was not on him. He names the goats from the people of his locality and also public leaders. Goats were his companions. He even says, “I had indeed become a goat”, “I remained a goat in the masara of goats”, “A goat’s life” “I was one of the goats. Mine was a goat’s life”. These lines describe the dehumanizing effect of inhumane behaviour of Araba. When he was departing, he expresses his sorrow to goats and the goats respond and share their sorrow too “goats understand me better”, “Goats, my friends, my brother, my blood, goodbye.” His neighbouring farmworkers plan and help him. His escape from the farm with Hakeem (his travelling companion) and Ibrahim consist of horrendous days of desert, sand storm, poisonous snakes, and no water and no food. Just a vast desert.“ 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.” Hakeem couldn’t bear the heat of the desert and succumb to it. Ibrahim disappeared without any clue. On reaching the end of the desert, he is taken care of by Kunjikka. He learns that it is 13 August 1995. He lived for 3 years, 4 months and 9 days.
The book reveals how it is possible to communicate even without the knowledge of the language. Najeeb can only able to speak Malayalam. “hasn’t it been proven many times that if necessity demands, a listener can understand any language. But it is also my experience that whatever the language, the listener will never understand if the need of the speaker to communicate is greater than the listener’s to understand”.
Written in the first-person narrator, it is a simple story. Though it is not a philosophical treatise yet it has some aphoristic and memorable lines:
A way to come out of our sorrow is to listen to the stories of those who endure situations worse than ours.
Compassion doesn’t require any language.
Circumstances can make a man capable of learning to do anything.
Every prison has its own aura of security.
We can’t escape from this world without going through all that we are destined to endure.
Necessity bestows a man with courage he did not know he possessed.
One of the greatest sorrows in the world is to not have someone to share a beautiful sight.
We can endure any misery if we have someone to share it with.
Every experience in life has a climax.
No matter how severe our pain or how harsh the difficulties we face, we come to terms with our miseries in the course of time.
Life is full of strange contradictions.