First published in 2008 in Mathrubhumi Illustrated Weekly, ‘Aadujeevitham’ by Benyamin became the bestseller and won the Kerala Literary Award in 2009. It was later translated by Joseph Koyipalli from Malayalam to English in 2012 to ‘Goat Days’, published by Penguin Books.
The novel opens at a time when Najeeb still somewhat anxious, awaits his freedom in a prison.
Taking loans and selling his wife’s jewellery, Najeeb flies to the Middle East to earn only as much money needed to make his yet to be born child, a happy one.
Upon landing on ‘wonder’ Riyadh, bone tired and hungry Najeeb and his fellow young Hakeem were driven through the desert hanging from the back of a stinking car.
On the way, Hakeem was dropped some other unknown place than Najeeb with not a lot of miles of sand in between them. But, the next time they meet, their worlds would have changed completely.
Reaching his destination, Najeeb got a rough idea of his job- in the middle of the desert, a small tent that only the Arab was allowed to occupy, a cot on which ‘scary figure’ lay, an unknown language and hundreds of rows of goats, ‘undulating like a sea’ inside a fence.
Najeeb briefly remembered his childhood dream of becoming a goatherder.
Eventually, his tears dried up when he saw no escape from this- sleeping on the sand and having ‘khubus’ and hot milk from the goats’ udders as his only meal for the years to come. Najeeb learnt his first lesson when he got thrashed with a leather belt by his arbab while trying to clean his backside with water.
When one night, his only company, the scary figure disappears, Najeeb becomes so lonely that he forgets to remember his life before the desert-his ‘secret pride’ Sainu, his not yet born child, his lush green country where he used to take a bath even after being in the river for the whole day.
Gradually, Najeeb finds his only solace with the goats. He talks to them, he even names each of them after the neighbours of his green country. Once a goat gave birth to a young one in front of Najeeb, he named him Nabeel remembering that it was already time his own baby would be born.
A few days before Nabeel reached his manhood, the arbab came and cut off his masculinity. Some time later, Nabeel died of a snake bite.
Najeeb once again forgot to remember his ‘secret pride’ Sainu, his just born baby, his lush green country where he used to take a bath even after being in the river for the whole day.
More than three years passed with the goats and leather thrashes; with lice in his sand encrusted hair. The desert has moulded herself around Najeeb. He himself became a ‘scary figure’.
While herding the goats one day, Najeeb met long lost Hakeem, another unrecognisable scary figure. Hakeem told him about Ibrahim and their plan to escape from the merciless desert.
Najeeb by then very well know what would happen if the plan fails. With the echoing gunshot in his head, Najeeb takes the risk.
When the day comes, Najeeb says goodbye to his goats-it is as if they understand Najeeb is never going to come back, he visits each of the mascaras and each of the dumb creatures takes turn to feel Najeeb’s caress one last time.
When all three of them finally meet, they run.
They run through the burning desert for days without a single drop of water on their tongues. They get overwhelmed with mirages. They come across thousands of snakes that leave blisters wherever they touch the skin. But the desert never ends.
When Allah finally leads Najeeb to humanity, he is advised that the safest place for him right now is prison.
Both the journeys in the novel- escape and refugee are extremely intense and happening. Though Benyamin mentions ‘Goat Days’ to be a true account of a survivor, the dramatic turns here and there do seem slightly unreal at times. But, he actually puts forward the reality of the below-poverty-line immigrants in the lands of the Arabian deserts, who seldom come back home.
The way Najeeb’s life gets completely upside down, and he latches to the goats as the last anchor, makes the Reader very strongly feel the pain of remembrance and torture; and the dilemma to live life like living with the fear of a bullet cracking the skull, or living a safe life full of fear embedded within each word. Najeeb’s time in the Gulf is so heart wrenching that the reader would actually start praying for his rescue.