In a literary congregation of over 250 authors, it is rare to come across an unassuming novelist. It is perhaps because he started his career in his words as an average “reader,” and not an aspiring novelist that Benyamin Daniel remains unaffected by success.
As a Malayalee emigrant who left his village in south Kerala in the early 90s, he tackled the alienation of life in the Gulf with books and more books. He never intended to write. An engineer in Bahrain, caught in the daily humdrum of cement and calculations, literature opened a new world to Benyamin till he decided he wanted to create one.
His 2008 book Aadujeevitham, which was translated into English by Joseph Koyippally and entitled Goat Days in 2012, tells the story of Najeeb Muhammad who leaves his village for a better life in the Gulf only to be forced into slave-labour by a merciless Arab farm owner. Najeeb spends almost three-and-a-half years looking after cattle in the cruel desert interiors of Saudi Arabia. His Arab (master) denies him food, water for drinking or bathing and beats him up regularly. And then there’s the inevitable but equally treacherous escape.
The book is perhaps the first literary attempt to illustrate the experience of the Gulf diaspora, 70 per cent of which consists of the labour class that works in exploitative conditions to collect some money to send back home. “I would read a lot of such news reports tucked in the inside pages that spoke of some or the other expat exploited for years in confinement and I always wondered about them,” says Benyamin.
The writing of the book was perhaps as serendipitous as its translation. Joseph wanted to design a course on diaspora literature in English for Central University of Kerala. To his surprise there was the Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi experience but no work of fiction that illustrated the migrating Malayalee. “Following an accident, I was gifted Benyamin’s novel to read and was struck by the sheer power of the story and decided to include it in the course. I began translating the book without seeking his permission to teach my students," says Joseph.
Just when about 90 per cent of the translation was done Aadujeevitham won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award and Jospeh contacted Benyamin to publish its English translation. Goat Days is narrated in first person and Benyamin, in a deliberate device, uses simple language to affect the emotions of an unlettered labourer. His experiences in the Gulf made translation easy for Joseph.
Benyamin says his novel is about hope and faith. “Your life actually starts when you think it is just about to end. I have had a lot of people tell me that they were on the verge of ending their lives and had lost all hope and reading the book made them change their mind."
Not just readers, the book’s tremendous success — the original is in its 75th edition within five years of its release, which makes it one of the fastest selling books in Malayalam — means that Benyamin can give up engineering and concentrate on writing full time. His next book will explore the Indian perspective of the Arab world with its many nuances.