(Shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, 2014)
Living in Nepal, the issues of migrant labour to, and remittances from, the Gulf are often in the news. The exploitation of young South Asian men–on building sites, in the hotel industry–is terrible, and often amounts to little more than slave labour. Nepalis are particularly favoured because they are ‘docile’ and will do what they’re told. Of course, not all experiences of migrant labour are bad–whether to the Gulf, or Malaysia, or wherever–but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that most are exploitative, at best, and violent, at worst.
Finally, some fiction on the topic. Though not from Nepal–Benyamin is a Malayali based in Bahrain, and writes of migrants from Kerala–the story could be applicable to young men from across the region. The narrator and an acquaintance from a small watery town in Kerala end up in the Arabian desert, working with goats. The dryness, the labour and the treatment they receive from their Arab supervisors dehumanise them, and Goat Days is ultimately about the strength of human spirit. The novel is less about what happens than the psychology and endurance of the narrator.
The novel originally appeared in Malayalam in 2008, and the English version was published in 2012. I wouldn’t call Goat Days brilliant literature, but it is a readable translation that introduces to the English literary world the life experiences of so many working class people of South Asia. I was disappointed, though, by a comment in the author’s afterword. Benyamin writes that the story he told is a true one, and he had been encouraged by a friend to meet the man who is at the centre of Goat Days and hear his story. “I thought it to be one of the typical sob-stories from the Gulf,” he writes. I don’t know if this phrasing is perhaps a result of translation, but it seemed disappointingly dismissive. Benyamin continues that the narrator’s story is remarkable and was worth telling, but this seemed to be overly exceptionalising a tale which is far from individual. Perhaps the details of Goat Days are unique, but the story isn’t, and it is here that its strength lies.