Way back in the 1990's, I remember reading a story by Ursula K. LeGuin: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
. It disturbed me greatly at that time. It was about this perfect country, Omelas, where there was no sorrow or disease, and everybody was happy. There was only one catch: Omelas was paying for this happiness through the misery of one child, kept locked in a cellar and treated cruelly perpetually. This was the pact that Omelas had made with the powers that be: the misery of one human being in exchange for the bliss of one country. Quite a bargain, if you think of it.
But there were people, when the truth became known, walked away from Omelas; because they could not make peace with the bargain. They were the hope of humanity. When I initially read the story, I proudly said to myself that I would be one of those. Now I hang my head in shame...
...because in reality, I do not walk away. I stay there and enjoy life.
The term "Middle East" brings to mind images of prosperous towns populated by beautiful people, enjoying the glittering night-life with wine and song, all powered by the petro-dollar. What the casual observer misses is the depths of misery just below the surface-the misery the novelist Benyamin has brutally portrayed in his award-winning Malayalam novel, "Aadujeevitham" (Goat Life).
The story is narrated in first person by Najeeb, your average lower middle-class Muslim youth from Kerala in India. He does not know anything of the Middle East, other than that the "Gulf" is an endless source of prosperity. Like many of his countrymen, he also yearns to work there, earn some quick money, pay off his debts, build a house and generally live a moderately good life. However, fate has something else in store for him: whisked away from the Riyadh airport in Saudi Arabia directly into the heart of the desert by his Arab sponsor, he is put to the job of tending goats.
This is not your pastoral idyll. Najeeb is forced to stay all time in the open desert, whether it is the blazing hot summer noon or the biting winter night. He is given only Kuboos
(Arabic bread) soaked in water to eat; water, and occasionally goat milk, to drink. He has only one set of clothes, which he is supposed to wear continuously. Baths are out of the question.
Najeeb tends goats, sheep and camels without rest throughout the day. Any small mistake results in horrendous beatings. He slowly realises this is going to be his life from now on-like the goats, castrated and penned in, till one day they make the final journey to the slaughterhouse. He forms a deep kinship with the goats; gives them the names of his acquaintances from home and talks to them regularly. He rejoices when they give birth and mourns when they die. Towards the end of the story, as his humanity is almost totally stripped away, he even sleeps with a she-goat.
Najeeb is a pious, God-fearing Muslim. True to the meaning of “Islam” (surrender) he surrenders to the will of Allah, the all-merciful. This, coupled with the fatalism that is the hallmark of most Indians, Najeeb is the perfect victim, the slave every owner would love to have. But it is also this unquestioning acceptance of his fate that allows Najeeb to survive his ordeal for three and a half years. Finally when he escapes, that too is orchestrated by others – even though, ironically, he is the only one who escapes.
The depths to which human beings can plunge is narrated without any sentimentality or righteousness, almost in the tone of a child which has met unfair treatment at the hands of its parents. The tortures the sponsors mete out to their “employees” are mentioned so matter-of-factly that we catch ourselves flinching. Benyamin tells the whole story in unembellished, first-person narrative; while it makes for rather simplistic writing at times, the voice of the protagonist flows through clearly. The writer is all but invisible, and that is the novel’s greatest strength.
This is a brutal book which does not pull any punches. But then, it should not. Thousands of the poor from India pay huge amounts for visas to the Gulf countries, to agencies who fleece them mercilessly; only to discover when they reach the Promised Land that they have sold themselves into virtual slavery. By then, it’s too late.
Benyamin does a great thing: even though he does not walk away from Omelas, he shines his light on the abused child, not allowing us to forget its presence there. Maybe, in the end, it’s better than just walking away-for the child too, may ultimately get the justice that’s its due.