>> Last month I congratulated Anjali Joseph for her Man Asian Literary Prize longlisting. And another book I dearly hope makes it ont0 the shortlist announced on Wednesday is Benyamin’s Goat Days.
The tale of a migrant worker trapped in modern-day slavery in the Gulf might not sound like the most seasonal of reads, but it completely captivated me this Christmas. 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. Tragically, it’s also based on a true story – but then, the fact that the author was told this story by its protagonist does suggest a certain uplifting twist in the tale.
It was fascinating talking to Benyamin – real name Benny Daniel – for The National as the debates surrounding migrant labour in the Gulf are many and varied. Benyamin says that in Bahrain, where he lives, the situation has got much better – which is quite a statement from someone who came to find work from Kerala himself, 20 years ago. But as we talked about a Dubai taxi driver who I spoke to last time I was there – who hadn’t seen his Pakistani family for years – we agreed that not only was there a long way to go, but that the obsession in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and so on with finding a fortune in the Gulf had to change.
And that’s why Goat Days is so effective – the narrative is compelling enough, but it’s a quietly political and sociological novel too. Even if it doesn’t make it onto the Man Asian shortlist, it’s available to download across the world. I urge you to do so.