ABOUT THE STORY: The Malayali’s journey to the Gulf in search of work is one of the paradigmatic Indian arcs of migration of our times. But a sense of its peculiar perils and dislocations—of the tensions between a self willing to remake itself in a new world and a new world not particularly interested in that self except as a body that works—is yet to appear in Indian fiction in as compelling a form as Benyamin’s forthcoming novel Goat Days (Penguin), already a bestseller in Malayalam. In this excerpt, the protagonist, Najeeb, is seen making the Faustian crossing from Kerala to Riyadh via Bombay, in search of the Arab (here, the “Arbab”) who will take responsibility for him and change his life. Willing to accept any assignation given to him, Najeeb nevertheless baulks when his nose gives him an intimation of what his eyes cannot see in the dark of the desert night. Benyamin’s astute threading of external description and interior monologue powerfully brings home the tragicomedy of Najeeb’s predicament.
“Tell me if there is anyone who wants to go. It is through my brother-in-law. He’s here on vacation. If money is sent, the visa will arrive within two months,” my friend said. The passport which I had applied for yielding to Sainu’s coercion came to my mind.
“Yes. There is someone. Don’t give it to anyone else,” I said excitedly.
“Then come to the house tomorrow. Together we can go and see my brother-in-law. You can discuss the rest with him.”
When the friend left, there was a tension in me. To do or not to do?
For a long time, I wrestled with it in my mind. I told Sainu only when I could not resolve it. She was ecstatic—a likely reaction from any woman. “It is a God-sent opportunity ikka, do not waste it. How long have I been telling my brothers about this, and nothing has happened.”
Both her brothers were in the Gulf.
“But, Sainu, a lot has to be spent. Do we have...?”
“If one becomes resolute, everything will happen, ikka. Do all the people who go have enough money to start with? You go ahead and boldly meet the man from Karuvatta.”
She is like that. Her tongue would not utter even a single word of despair. She’s very smart in creating the facade of plenty even in severe poverty. Women should be like that; she was my secret pride.
The very next day, I went and met my friend’s brother-in-law. He asked for thirty thousand—twenty to be given to him within a fortnight before he left for the Gulf. He had to give that to the Arab to process the visa. After getting the visa, the remaining ten had to be given to the agent in Bombay for the ticket and other expenses. That was not an amount that I could put together without difficulty. Still, daringly, I agreed. Yes.
The struggles I had to undergo the next one week! Every Gulf worker who had no relative in the Gulf to support him will have a similar story. I finally fixed up the total by mortgaging the house and the little amount of gold Sainu had as jewellery, and by collecting small amounts from other sand miners and by borrowing from everyone I knew. Yes, ‘fix up’ best describes it. Suffice to say I gave my friend’s brother-in-law the money the night before he left. (I could have asked Sainu’s brothers in Abu Dhabi, but she refused to let me. She resented them for not helping me till then.)
Two months passed, months of waiting and dreaming. And there was another round of borrowing. I had to arrange the remaining ten for the agent. Even that was fixed up. Meanwhile, I dreamt a host of dreams. Perhaps the same stock dreams that the 1.4 million Malayalis in the Gulf had when they were in Kerala—gold watch, fridge, TV, car, AC, tape recorder, VCP, a heavy gold chain. I shared them with Sainu as we slept together at night. “I don’t need anything, ikka. Do return when you have enough to secure the life of our child (son or daughter?). We don’t need to accumulate wealth like my brothers. No mansion either. A life together. That’s all.”
Maybe the wife of every man who is about to leave for the Gulf tells him the same thing. Even so, they end up spending twenty or thirty years of their lives there. And for what reason?
Finally, the telegram from the agent in Bombay arrived: “Visa ready. Come with the balance amount.” The delight that I experienced then! It was greater than the joy of the tens of thousands of Malayalis who had reached the Gulf before me, I am sure. Nobody would have embraced his wife like I held Sainu that night. But one sorrow remained. My son? Daughter? I would not be there for the birth. I wouldn’t be able to massage Sainu during her big pain. As if to make up for that, I kissed Sainu’s growing belly. My Nabeel, my Safia—names I had chosen to call my child; my kunji, my chakki—pet names I had for them. Oh my son ... my daughter ... Your uppah will not be near to see you come into this earth with wide eyes. But, whenever I return, I will bring enough presents for you, okay?
When I recall those moments, I feel nauseated as though from the stench of a fourth-rate film scene. Some situations in our lives are even more absurd than a film scene. Isn’t that so?
It was when I went to convey the news of the arrival of the visa to my Karuvatta friend that I learned that another boy from Dhanuvachapuram had also got a visa along with me, through the same brother-in-law, to work in the same company. Neither of us knew much about the outside world. It was decided that we would go together.
I met my fellow traveller as we boarded the Jayanti Janata from Kayamkulam to Bombay—a tall and thin lad who had not yet sprouted a moustache. “Son, Hakeem has never been outside. You are going with him. Please look after him,” Hakeem’s mother wept at the window of the train. I did not heed the tears of Sainu and Ummah. I was reluctant to sob in public.
I was more tense than excited. The journey was fraught with all the worries that creep up when one thinks about the difficulties along the way:
worry about the money in the bag, worry about the city that one is going to, worry about the stories of fraudulent agencies, worry if my friend Shashi would be at the railway station to receive us. For three days, I feasted on my worries, not wasting any. I even devoured Hakeem’s worries. He was only a boy. He was all laughter and play during the journey.
Once I reached Bombay, all the worries vanished. Anything that I needed, Shashi was there, as though he was my own. One has to acknowledge the camaraderie of Bombay Malayalis—Shashi even gave up two days of work for me. We stayed with Shashi and eight others in a room. The room had no difficulty in accommodating us. The occupants would not have complained even if there had been two more people. Such magnanimity was only possible among Bombay Malayalis.
It was only after they showed me a visa that I gave the money to the agency. We were in Bombay for two weeks. A long fortnight. A fortnight when time refused to move. A fortnight when I was made to feel that every second was a century and every day, an age.
Once Shashi and his friends were off to work, Hakeem and I would wander about. We just walked, not knowing where to and by which way, and without a language in which we could speak with the citizens of Bombay. That was some bravado. We walked through the shanties of Dharavi. Passing narrow and long gallis, one day we reached Andheri railway station. Two weeks of watching the commotion of commuters, eating paav bhaji, drinking sherbet, drinking beer—for Hakeem, soft drinks—with Shashi, visiting dance bars and returning late at night.
Finally that day arrived. I did not have much luggage. Some lemon pickle and some upperi that my child-heavy Sainu had fried with love. Some chammanthipodi which Ummah had pounded, disregarding her exhaustion. Pickle of freshwater fish. Two or three sets of clothes (‘Why ikka, you are going to a land where everything is available in plenty’), a bath towel, two bars of soap, a small tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, my passport, the ticket and some Indian currency. That was all. But Hakeem had a bagful. I often felt that it contained enough for a family to eat for a century. Shashi and I often poked fun at him about it, but we teased him merely to see his discomfort.
Shashi and another man from the room came with us to the airport. Like all Gulf Malayalis who leave the homeland, we also promised our friends we would arrange visas for them as soon as we landed there and found our Arab. They laughed as if they had heard it many times. Still, a sprig of hope probably sprouted in their hearts. Isn’t it on some such hope that the Bombay Malayali pushes his miserable life along?
As a reward for looking after us for a week, I removed my watch—Sainu’s brother had given it to me when he returned from the Gulf for the first time—and gave it to Shashi. Then, from a phone booth at the airport, I tried to call home. There was a phone in a Moplah house in the neighbourhood. When the connection finally went through, I told them to give my message to my family.
Everything went off well at that airport. It was only at immigration that some questions were asked. As I did not speak Hindi and the officer did not speak Malayalam and a 100-rupee note was handed over inside the passport, that hurdle was dealt with quickly. It was an Air India flight. Bombay to Riyadh. A four-and-a-half-hour journey. So, at 4:30 pm local time on 4 April 1992, I landed in Riyadh.
City of my dreams, I have arrived. Kindly receive me. Ahlan wa sahlan!
For me, Bombay was worry, Riyadh, wonder.
I could not remain starry-eyed in that wonderland for long. We waited outside the airport after finishing the immigration formalities and, as no one came to collect us, we became anxious. All those who had come along with us in the flight had left in the vehicles of their friends, sponsors and companies. There was no one to pick us up.
The agency in Bombay had told us that the sponsor would be there at the airport. The plane had landed an hour late. Had he come searching for us and returned without finding us? Or was he wandering around the airport looking for us? How would he recognize us out of these hundreds of thousands of people? How different I look from my photo in the passport! We could not hope to be recognized with its help. Or had he forgotten that we were coming? Had the agency forgotten to intimate him? A heap of questions accumulated in front of me. As the time of waiting increased, the heap swelled in volume.
Hundreds of Arabs walked back and forth. Men and women. I distracted myself by picturing ourselves in Antarctica instead and imagining those who crossed us as black and white penguins. I would pleadingly look at the faces (into the eyes of the female penguins whose faces were not visible) of each penguin. I am the Najeeb you are looking for. This small boy with me is the Hakeem you are searching for. I communicated to everyone with my eyes and with my suppliant posture. But no one noticed my appeal. Everyone walked away and faded into their busy lives.
Our wait continued. Meanwhile many planes landed and people of many nations speaking many languages kept coming at us. They too dispersed and disappeared in many vehicles. As the azan for maghreb sounded, we learned that it was already evening. When we could not find anyone even after the prayer, we walked to a Malayali-looking airport official and told him about our plight. He asked me the name of the company I had come to work for. I had no answer. He asked for the sponsor’s number. I had forgotten to get that from the agent. He asked for the phone number of any local person I knew. I didn’t know anyone. I had the address of the company of the Karuvatta brother-in-law and I showed him that. It was a place far away from Riyadh. He would not be able to help. “Anyway, wait. Surely your arbab will not fail to turn up,” he said and walked back to his work. So it was from that stranger that I heard for the first time that Arabic word ‘arbab’!
Arbab! Arbab! I repeated it in my mind. So amusing. A harmonious sound. Who is that arbab? What is this arbab? Whatever it is, the arbab has to come, only then can we go. Arbab, come fast, how long we have been waiting. Come fast, save us from this fear. Arbab! Arbab!
Another hour and a half must have passed. As I had given my only watch to Shashi in Bombay, I did not know the precise time. I didn’t feel like wandering through the airport to look for a clock to find out the time of the day. What was the use of that? What if the arbab came and left in the meantime?
Outside the airport, the city had begun to travel into night. Our panic began to consume us. Then, an old vehicle—not a car, jeep or lorry (it was after a long time that I learned that it was called a pick-up)—rumbled in and stopped at the main entrance of the airport, even though it was a no-
parking area, and an Arab jumped out of it. As soon as I saw him, I don’t know why, my mind whispered that he was the arbab I had been waiting for. Impatiently, he walked to and fro in the airport for a while. Although our eyes were following him incessantly, he did not see us. He paced restlessly. I didn’t have the courage to go up to him and inquire whether he was my arbab. That thought might never have occurred to Hakeem. Anyway, in which language would I ask him? After going around the airport for four or five times, he found us. We moved towards him.
“Abdullah?” he pointed his fingers at me. I had never heard such a crude voice before. I shook my head. “Abdullah?” he pointed his fingers at Hakeem who also shook his head indicating a no. Then he asked something in Arabic. There was anger in his tone. Luckily, I didn’t understand anything, Hakeem, even less.
Leaving us there, he went around the airport again. From time to time he would grab the passport of anyone who stood alone and look at it. Finally, he came back to us. Then he snatched my passport and looked into it. Similarly, he snatched Hakeem’s passport. Then, without saying anything, he walked forward. Carrying our bags, we followed him.
I had associated Arabs with the fragrance of athar and perfume. Hundreds of Arabs had walked past us wafting enticing fragrances. I had joked to Hakeem some time earlier that a new perfume could be made by distilling the urine of the Arabs who use perfume every day. But my arbab had a severe stench, some unknown stink. Likewise, while the other Arabs wore well-ironed, pristine white clothes, my arbab’s dress was appallingly dirty and smelly.
Whatever it is, an arbab had come for me. I was satisfied with that thought. I too have become a Gulf NRI. I too have an arbab of my own. The one who walks in front of me is the custodian of all my dreams, the visible god who would fulfil all my ambitions. My arbab! Arbab—at that moment nobody could have liked any other word more!
As we neared the vehicle, the arbab grabbed my bag and threw it into the open back of the vehicle. Arbab! The fish pickle prepared by my mother. The lemon pickle prepared by Sainu... My heart burned. Before his bag was snatched, Hakeem placed it at the back of the vehicle. He had many more bottled items—pickles, coconut oil etc.
The arbab opened the driver’s seat and jumped inside. In fact, the cabin could hold only one more besides the driver. Me and Hakeem together? Well, we would have to adjust. As I went to open the other door, the arbab yelled out something. Startled, I took a step back. The arbab pointed towards the back. I remained where I was, continuing to hold the door handle, as I did not understand anything. Again, he pointed and shouted, ‘Ya, yella!’ Then he opened the door angrily, came out, grabbed me by my hands and pulled me to the rear and pushed me up the back of the vehicle. Seeing this, Hakeem jumped in. The arbab hurried back to his seat and started the car.
In the back of the vehicle there were two or three large aluminium vessels, some grass and many sacks. We somehow managed to fit in, holding on to the side-rails. Despite its antique appearance, the vehicle was pretty fast, we felt. Its growl and grumble were too much. However, we realized its true speed only when we left the airport and touched the main road. Hundreds of vehicles kept overtaking it heartlessly. The only thing it overtook was the dark smoke its exhaust pipe breathed out.
My first journey through the Gulf streets. Although it hurt that it was in an open vehicle, it was only because it was open that I could unreservedly enjoy the full beauty of the tall illuminated buildings on either side of the road. Could I have ever seen the Gulf in its fullness like this if I had been sitting with the arbab in the front seat? As it was already dark, nobody travelling in the other vehicles could see us.
I have no idea how long that open-air journey lasted. Hakeem had no idea either. The radiance of the metropolis grew fainter. I could make out the long road parting from the city. The number of vehicles overtaking us decreased. Soon, the intermittent neon glare from the street lamps became the only light. After some more time, I noticed we had deviated from the highway. Distant street lamps were the only source of light. Hakeem had dozed off somewhere along the journey. He must be weary, let him sleep, I thought. I realized that our journey had moved to some sand road by now. Light transformed into an envelope of dust. Then, darkness. Raising dust, the vehicle sped between sand dunes.
The only thing that had gone into my stomach till then was the little water that I had on the plane. I had been feeling too nervous when Shashi compelled us to have breakfast before we left. I could not eat the plane food either as I was not sure about how to eat it. I was actually starving. With the blistering hunger that one experiences after a mining session in the river. When I mentioned it to Hakeem at the airport, he said that he felt as though he might die of hunger. I wanted to howl, arbab, please stop, get us some food, some water ... But nothing came out of my throat. It would not come out. I was afraid. Afraid, that I would anger the arbab. Not only that. It was pitch dark and there was no sign of any place where food might be available. An hour must have passed since we had started driving on the sand road. My back began to ache from the jerks and jolts. The rising dust made it impossible to breathe. What kind of a journey is this, my Lord, I cried involuntarily.
From that moment, like the maniyan fly, an unknown fear began to circle my mind. An irrational doubt began to grip me, a feeling that this journey was not leading me to the Gulf life that I had been dreaming about and craving for. The Gulf I had learned about from so many people was not like this. A whiff of danger. Nothing clear. I would have been at ease had I shared my anxiety with Hakeem. But he was fast asleep. Let him sleep. If he listened to my worries, he might start crying.
There was no way to know the time. I cursed the moment I gave Shashi my watch. Let us reach when we reach. What was the use of knowing the time? I was travelling in the vehicle of my own arbab. In his hands my life was safe and secure. Why should I worry about the time? I lay down and slowly sunk my head into a bundle of grass. Up in the sky, the stars hid their lustre. They were asleep. I lay there, staring idly into the emptiness of the sky. The unending jolts and the growl of the vehicle entwined into a lullaby for my weariness. I fell asleep.
We are two poor things, arbab, who do not know anything at all. Why be angry with us like this? Do you know arbab, we’re hungry? In fact, more thirsty than hungry. I cannot remember a single day of starvation like this. What a very good reception this is, alongside your needless fury. No, why should we accuse the arbab? Wouldn’t he also be hungry and thirsty? He must have set out many hours ago to pick us up. At least we travelled by plane. He had to drive this old vehicle to the airport and back. At least we managed to sleep a little in the plane and in the vehicle. The arbab had had no sleep. Only after taking us to our place can he eat a little, drink a little water and stretch his back. Be angry, arbab. Be furious, even. We are guilty of sleeping without even realizing that the vehicle had stopped.
I sensed that we had reached a plain, with not a building or tree anywhere in sight. Far away, like a map drawn on the dark sky, some mountains or hills could be seen. A cry sounded in my heart: My Lord, where have I ended up?
Hakeem jumped out with his bag. The arbab led the way in the darkness. He seemed to know the place. Hesitantly, Hakeem followed him. But didn’t Hakeem and I come to work in the same company? Weren’t we supposed to live together and work together? Why had the arbab brought him here in this darkness? Why was I made to remain seated in the vehicle? Where is he taking Hakeem? My Lord, his ummah had left him in my care. Rogue arbab, where are you taking Hakeem? I jumped out of the vehicle resolutely. I took my bag and ran after the arbab and Hakeem. The arbab turned back. Even in the darkness I could see his eyes redden with rage. I asked him something in Malayalam. His furious gestures failed to drive me back to the vehicle. Then he unbuckled his belt and swung it in the air once. Its blood-dripping whoosh was frightening. Reluctantly I returned to the vehicle.
Open plains have some light even in the dark of the night, a gleam at least, composed of the remains of light beams that have shattered against the sky, the ends of the earth and other places. As my eyes became accustomed to that light, I could see the arbab stop in front of the gate of an iron-mesh enclosure. I saw him pull out a key from his pocket and take Hakeem inside. Although I was intensely curious to see what was going on inside, it was too dark for that.
The only thing I could discern in the air was a foul smell, maybe the arbab’s stench. I had the common sense to understand that we had been driving through the desert. Was it the smell of the desert? Do deserts have such a smell? The deep sea, they say, does. The air was filled with that smell. I had been conscious of it since the vehicle stopped. Initially, I thought it was because of the dust raised by the vehicle. But now it was clear that it was coming from the iron enclosure into which the arbab led Hakeem. Like the mixed smell of bone powder and dung. Have we reached some bone-powdering factory? If so, where are the buildings? The machines? The heaps of bone? The exhaust pipes? Where? Who knows?
I waited for the return of the arbab. Fear had really taken possession of me now, a feeling that I had entered into a dangerous situation. It was as though Hakeem had been imprisoned by the arbab and that it was my turn next. He might have plans to lock me up in some dungeon. I would run before that, escape from this danger. But where to? All around there was only a vast expanse of nothing. Since I was unfamiliar with the terrain, if I tried to run, not knowing the direction, or the way out, I would die wandering in this desert. I was hungry and thirsty. How much distance could I cover? Yearning to run, yet refusing to move, I remained seated at the back of the vehicle.
After some time, the arbab came out alone. He locked the gate from the outside. I jumped out of the vehicle, ran towards him and inquired about Hakeem. The arbab frowned at me and walked to the vehicle. He told me something as he walked. It was in Arabic and I couldn’t understand anything. The arbab got into the vehicle. Hurriedly, I returned to my position in the back.
The vehicle stopped again after travelling hardly a kilometre. This too was an open area. Carrying my bags, I followed the arbab. At some distance, a tent became visible. I realized that this was my arbab’s destination. I didn’t see any light except the natural light of the wilderness. As we reached the tent, another arbab, also in Arab attire, came out. A short arbab, like a caricature from old Arabic stories, his clothes and the stench from him worse than my arbab’s.
They talked for a while. Then, handing me over to the new arbab, my own arbab went back to the vehicle. I relaxed a bit as I figured out that he had probably entrusted Hakeem with some arbab like this. He was a naive boy. I was afraid that he had been locked up in some dark room.
Outside the tent, one could see a long iron fence. Like the compound into which Hakeem was taken, this too was a source of a foul smell. There were some unidentifiable movements. Pointing towards it, my new arbab went back into the tent.
I felt deeply sad. My arbab, how can you so cruelly walk away after leaving me here in this darkness in front of a tent, without saying a word? Is it that you don’t know that I am here in the Gulf for the first time? ‘Have you eaten? Are you thirsty? Are you hungry?’ Shouldn’t you have asked me at least that much? Shouldn’t you have shown me where I should stay and introduced me to my co-workers? Is this the legendary Arab hospitality that I have heard about? What kind of arbab are you, my arbab? Don’t deceive me. In you rests my future. In you rest my dreams. In you rest my hopes.
I don’t know for how long I stood there like that. Did I expect that my arbab who had left would return with some food for me? I might have. But as soon as I realized the futility of waiting, I walked towards the place the arbab had pointed at.
My accommodation must be here somewhere. But there was no sign of a tent, let alone a building. Inside me, something was reduced to ashes. If my arbab lies down in a tent in the middle of the desert, where am I going to stay?
Worried, I paced along the iron fence. I could see some shadows move, moan and jump inside the fence. Then, as if to acknowledge my presence, I heard a light whimper. It was the bleat of a lamb! I peered inside the fence. Goats! Hundreds of goats! Rows of goats, undulating like a sea. It struck me like a thunderbolt. I had a rough idea of my job now.
Benyamin has lived in Bahrain since 1992. His short story collection Euthanasia won the first award of the Abu Dhabi Malayalam Samajam. Goat Days, forthcoming from Penguin books, won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for 2009 and the Abu Dhabi Sakti Award for 2008.
Joseph Koyipally is an associate professor in comparative literature at the Central University of Kerala. He received his PhD in semiotics from Jawaharlal Nehru University and has taught at Sherubtse College, Bhutan; Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi; and in universities in Saudi Arabia.