The houses in Tranquebar, a small fishing village perched on the black rocks of the Tamil Nadu coastline, tell two stories. The shacks of the local fishermen are a patchwork of scrounged material, cobbled together to make homes that feel permanently temporary.
On the wider roads, away from the stink of the fishing village itself, the houses built with Gulf money flash in the sun, brightly painted in vivid orange and purple, mauve and sky blue. The Gulf houses are often empty, locked and maintained in good condition by their absentee owners. This is an old, familiar story across most of the South Indian states, but it has left few traces in Indian fiction, even Tamil and Malayalam fiction.
Benyamin’s Goat Days is perhaps the only contemporary novel that directly addresses the reality of life for migrants to the Gulf, through the experiences of Najeeb. Lured by the promise of gold watches and fortunes, Najeeb’s “arbab” sets him to the task of herding goats in the desert, and as he slowly loses his identity, the separation between him and the animals becomes precariously flimsy.
In the late 1980s, M Mukundan published a classic pair of novels — On the Banks of the Mayyazhi and God’s Mischief. The fortunes of the Dubai-returned, the successful migrants to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates run like a counterpoint to the lives of those in newly independent Mahe. “Phalgunan’s return was an event not only for his family but for the whole town. He came home in two cars. One car was full of suitcases and bags.”
When his father expresses a deep, secret desire – to have a proper tiled roof for his house – Phalgunan casually announces that he will build a new, first-class home. This is the stereotype of the Gulf returnee, and yet, Mr Mukundan also refers to a less successful migrant, Michael, who distributes rolled gold when he returns, hoping to pass it off as the real thing.
Mr Benyamin was born Benny Daniels and has lived in Bahrain for many decades. He published Goat Days in 2008, but novels in other Indian languages have their own journeys — it took his book three years to make the crossing from Malayalam into English. The story, told in stark, effective prose, goes against the grain, reaching deep into the reality of indentured migrant labour.
In Passport Photos, the writer Amitava Kumar mentions a list of 220 Indians who arrived on board the Fatel Rozack in May 1845. “Bhuruth Sookra Dukhee… Bhoosiya Gungeeya Samareeya Mungree… None of these names, not one of them, will be found among the Indian immigrants in London’s Southall or New York’s Jackson Heights. They are the names that belong to those migrant workers in India that today board the trains in Bihar or in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
They go looking for work in the rock quarries and fields of Punjab or to labor in the small industries in the towns around Delhi.”
With the towering exception of M G Vassanji, most Indian immigrant narratives – from Anurag Mathur’s novel to the fiction of Bharati Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri – have focused on the familiar face of the middle-class Indian in search of a better life. Minor exceptions include Kiran Desai, who gives the homesick restaurant cook in Inheritance of Loss the basic authorial respect of a rich internal life. But it was Mr Vassanji, with The In-Between World of Vikram Lall and No New Land, who first gave voice to the buried histories of the migrant Indian population in Africa and Canada. Vikram Lall is a middleman, the grandson of a coolie, forcing a passage for himself in a world where there is little room for him.
Mr Vassanji understands the problems that go with accepting only the official histories. As he writes: “The boundaries and names of many places are only recent in origin and often hide richer, more complex truths than one might imagine; the past then becomes inconvenient and slippery, far less easy to generalise.”
Mr Benyamin’s Goat Days breaks the relative silence among Malayalam writers, who face a challenge similar to that of the Latin American writers of two generations ago. Someone has to write about the banana boat companies, the slave traders and their modern-day equivalents.
Instead of resistance, Mr Benyamin implies, the only way out for the immigrant is surrender. In Goat Days, Najeeb deals with his situation by naming the goats, identifying with these animals who will be led, eventually, to the slaughterhouse. “Each of them was dear to me in one way or another. Have you ever looked carefully at a goat’s face?”
It is not a question that would have cropped up in the lives of the immigrants who people the world of Indian English fiction, where arranged marriages, a longing for pickles and a sense of mild alienation are far more the norm. Perhaps Goat Days will help to open up migrant histories and memoirs as much as it might inspire other Gulf novels.