Najeeb’s childhood dream was to become a goatherd. His dream comes true, but in the form a nightmare. Benyamin’s Goat Days follows the twisted turns of Najeeb’s life. First published in 2008, Goat Days was written in Malayalam, the official language of the Indian state Kerala. The book became a bestseller there and won the Kerala Literary Academy Award in 2009. The novel was translated by Joseph Koyippally in 2012, allowing us to see how chasing the American Dream is a global phenomenon.
The novel begins at the end of Najeeb’s days as a slave. Seeking asylum, he schemes to get arrested. He is told there is no safer place for an Indian immigrant in an Arab state than behind bars, but the threat of recapture is always present. As Najeeb waits for his papers to be processed by the embassy, he begins to tell how he came to be a goatherd in a foreign land.
With a baby on the way and an adventurous soul, Najeeb jumps at the chance to work construction in an Arab state. A neighbor mentions a relative being able to sponsor a visa, and there are so many other success stories, what could go wrong? Although he would give up seeing his firstborn’s birth, he tells himself it will be all right because he’ll be making enough money to support his family. Without knowing a word of Arabic, Najeeb boards the plane and trusts the first Arab he meets. He is brought to a patch of land where camels and goats graze, physically isolated from anyone but an overseer and another goatherd who soon runs away. Najeeb is essentially a slave to the overseer and spends years herding goats, and becoming one himself.
The first-person prose is direct and the story simple. This is no clever bildungsroman, nor is it an expose on worker exploitation. All that is offered here is the experience of a migrant worker: no philosophy, no rationalizing spirituality, nothing but the thoughts of a simple man caught in a terrible situation. Antithetical to books like The Alchemist, Goat Days presents reality as it is: harsh to the vulnerable.
Najeeb is vulnerable, because he has hope for a better future. He has the audacity to dream. Yet, when he leaps, the weight of the world was too much for him to do anything but fall. Reading his story, based off of a true story of enslavement, is difficult, because it seems so distant from real life. The story is almost too foreign to comprehend in its display of poverty and powerlessness. But one simple line reveals that Najeeb’s story isn’t so disconnected from our own: the setting is in the 1990s. This is not some timeless tale warning us of Icarus’ faulty flight, but reality retold to make us see how cruel real life can be. Of course everyone knows that slavery and trickery exist in the world, but knowing that something happens is a different thing entirely than seeing it slowly happen, even if your vision is blurred by ink.
What lessons can be learned from Goat Days? A thematic take away may be to dream safer dreams. A practical lesson may be to support international laws and companies that focus on fair labor practices. Najeeb was a goat and sheep herd, and his free labor allowed for cheap prices on wool. This cheap price could translate into cheaper goods for the likes of you and me, but a deal at the mall may come at the cost of a real person’s freedom, dignity, and life. Transparency in supply chains and enforced labor laws are needed, so that those willing to work hard can do so without the chance of becoming lower than an animal. Of course, the simplicity of Goat Days does not preach so dogmatically. This is the kindness that Goat Days shares with its readers; it’s a story that allows you to come to your own conclusion.
A simple next step is learn more about not just the suffering of the world, but the world itself. Chicago is the perfect place to learn about the world through local connections. Book a tour with some friends of Little India, aka Devon Avenue, to learn more about the Indian immigrant experience. Check out events put on by the Chicago Cultural Alliance. Go beyond dining at an ethnic restaurant for a cultural education, and look for all the ways to learn about how foreign and familiar the world is.
Goat Days is published by Seagull Books, a University of Chicago Press imprint. Purchase the English translation from your local bookstore for $25.