Najeeb and Hameed wait patiently in front of Batha police station in Riyadh hoping to grab the attention of the cops. At first glance, Najeeb reminds one of Soapy from O Henry’s The Cop and the Anthem – a young man out to commit a minor offence so that he can spend the three harsh winter months in the comfort of prison. Unlike the (un)fortunate Soapy however, Najeeb and Hameed are arrested and sent to Sumesi, the largest prison in the country.

Hundreds of prisoners alighting from police vehicles and filling the prison yard reminds Najeeb of marriage halls in his native Kerala where the relatives worriedly mill about. For the reader, the first sign of darkening mood is when a number is tattooed on Najeeb's forearm, but it does not seem to bother him; his references are different.

He simply says that he recognises the Arabic number as 13858, the only ever use of his childhood madrassa education. He soon settles down to prison life, and seems to savour it to an extent, while he waits for consulate officials to process his repatriation, hoping that his arbab will not come for him.

What is Najeeb’s story?

Migration is a given in Kerala, especially if it is across the Arabian Sea. Anyone who is rightly proud of the state's oft-quoted achievements in human development indices and relatively lower levels of income inequality, a notable feature of developed social democracies, cannot shy away from the fact that this success is underwritten in part by more than 2.4 million migrants living and working in the oil-rich kingdoms of the Persian Gulf, which count among the most undemocratic places in our world.

They send home an astounding Rs 1 lakh crore every year, more than the state’s revenue collections revenue. Kochi's Nedumbassery airport is the fourth busiest airport in the country for reasons that have nothing to do with domestic travel. Every Gulf airline is featured here transporting doctors, nurses, technicians, IT professionals, drivers, and retail workers back and forth every day.

Twenty-five years ago, this airport did not exist but the migration did, and many more Malayalis travelled to the Gulf to take up menial jobs than they do now. Najeeb, the protagonist of Benyamin's best-selling Goat Days, translated from Malayalam to English by Joseph Koyippally, is one such young man. Newly married and expecting a baby, this sand miner from a small town is lured by the prospect of “TV, VCR, AC and gold watch”, which in those days still counted as an aspiration and not a basic need as it is today. He mortgages his home, borrows money, and travels to Bombay from where he boards a flight to Riyadh.

Hard landing

“For me, Bombay was worry, Riyadh, wonder”, says Najeeb just after landing in the country of his dreams, and he looks for his arbab (boss, landlord) in anticipation. His arbab, unfortunately for him, turns out to be a man with a masara deep in the desert looking for a shepherd slave. I am certain that young Najeeb was more than capable of quoting chapter and verse of the workers’ charter, but what does he do with it when he is not recognised as a worker?

Completely at the mercy of his master who thrashes him at regular intervals and threatens to kill him, not knowing the language, no one to talk to except the goats he tends to, locked up in the masara and not allowed even water to wash his bum, Najeeb leads a slave-like existence as he loses count of days and weeks and months. After an ill-fated escape, he says:

The arbab left me locked me in the masara that day and the next. He didn't let me out at all, didn't even give me a drop of water or a piece of khubus. For two days, I lay there without complaint. By the second night, I was very hungry. When I was sure the arbab was asleep, I slowly untied my legs and, creeping out through the goats, I reached the water container and drank till my thirst was quenched. In the next container, there were some wheat grains, left uneaten by the goats. I gathered them up and ate greedily. Raw wheat. Unhusked. There was some salt in the small pail nearby. I ate the wheat with the salt. It was on that day I realised that uncooked wheat could be tasty! I guzzled water again from the container. My belly full, I was finally at ease. I slept in the masara with the goats. By then I had indeed become a goat.

After three and a half years of a goat's life, another opportunity for escape arises. He and his friend in the nearby masara attempt to escape with the help of a Somalian fugitive but alas, not all of them make it back to Riyadh. The desert, with its unforgiving sand storms, snakes and the scorching sun, takes its toll first.

Najeeb finally reaches the city, and faints in front of Malabar Restaurant (“a banyan tree in this Arabian city”), and is nursed back to health by fellow Malayalis. Taking their advice, he gets himself arrested and goes to prison, from where he is finally repatriated to Kerala, but not before a final encounter with his arbab.

Not that I would have minded, but if that sounded like you would spend days and weeks with Najeeb in his desert masara, think again. Goat Days is a literary page-turner; it is a suspenseful and gripping read till the last page. Every page and every chapter leaves the reader wanting for more. Will he finally escape, will he lose his unshakeable faith, or will his favourite goats escape the slaughter-house?

There is also an economy about the book which ties in well with the hero; there is not a word beyond what is absolutely essential. (Aside: There is something strange about reading a translation when you know the original language rather well. There were so many turns of phrase that left me asking for more, not because the translation did not do it justice but because I kept thinking about the many ways it might have appeared in the source language.)

Laughing for sanity

The subject of Gulf migration has been dealt successfully in a handful of popular Malayalam films over the decades, perhaps making up for a relative lack of it in fiction. Nadodikattu and Varavelpu from the late 1980s played on the aspirations of young men desperate to go the Gulf and the travails of returnees respectively. In the 2000s, Arabikatha lets loose an idealistic comrade (with the name of Cuba Mukunthan!) in the capitalist world of oil-driven dreams.

Running through these films is a brand of humour peculiar to the state – sometimes slapstick but mostly wry, with a fierce grounding in everyday reality. Benyamin takes this to a new level in Goat Days. His Najeeb, even when living through unbelievable hardships, always gives us lines to snigger and to smile at; the reader is convinced that the hero would not have remained sane without this humour.

For instance, one of the delightful chapters in the book is about goat names – Najeeb gives them names of not just people from his locality, but also of public figures such as Mohanlal, Jagathy and EMS, for the way for the goats walk, laugh and stammer respectively. Here is the back story of a goat-naming:

Mary was the first heroine of my love story. My first love affair began when I was in the fifth standard. She was the most intelligent and beautiful girl I ever knew, and a wonderful singer. There were no boundaries for the dreams I had about her. Somehow, my ummah found out...

“By the sound of her name she seems to be a Christian,” Ummah frowned between peals of laughter.

“No, Ummah, she belongs to our religion,” I broke in excitedly.

“A Mary in our religion?” Ummah laughed aloud.

It was only then that I actually gave her religion some thought – that she might not belong to our religion at all. “She's not Mary, Ummah,” I told her a name that came to my mind, “she's Marymaimuna.”

“All right. I am coming to your school. I want to see the girl with that name,” Ummah continued laughing.

My ummah couldn't come to school to see my Marymaimuna. I stopped going to school before she could. That was the year my father died.

It was a name I had completely forgotten. Marymaimuna. But when I saw a particularly beautiful goat in the masara, in tremendous waves all those memories rushed back to me. To me, that goat had the same beauty as Marymaimuna.

Novels dealing with migration and displacement have had enormous success in the last few decades. To name a couple, there is the much-copied and wildly popular Jhumpa Lahiri style, and then there is the less-copyable and more interesting Junot Diaz school. But the story of a lower class migrant in such an alien landscape is not among the stories we encounter often in fiction, and I hope that we will see more stories in this vein in the years to come.

One doesn't have to look far for other Najeebs – this sandminer's (and my) coastal homeland has one of the highest densities of trains in the country with more than 80 stops along its length. On any given day, trains bring to each of the stations not just non-resident natives and tourists but also a long stream of migrants from north and east of the country in search of better prospects. More than 2.5 million migrants live in the villages and towns of Kerala – as waiters and cleaners, factory, farm and construction workers – and their stories are waiting to be told.

Veena Muthuraman’s short story collection, A Place of No Importance, has been published by Juggernaut Books. She lives in Edinburgh and is working on her first novel.