Prithviraj (left) in Aadujeevitham, Benyamin
Prithviraj (left) in Aadujeevitham, Benyamin

‘Goat lives’ in Gulf: What Benyamin’s Aadujeevitham represents and misrepresents

Benyamin’s ‘Aadujeevitham’, which tells the real life story of a man forced into modern slavery in the Arabian desert, has been subject to a series of controversies ever since the release of its film adaptation.

Benyamin famously notes in the cover of his novel Aadujeevitham, that the lives we haven’t experienced are all fables to us. Indeed, one of the biggest draws of the novel is its shock value, the startling ordeals of Najeeb instilling a deep sense of dread in its Malayali readers, who are left wondering how “one of us” could have possibly experienced such staggering trauma on a land that has arguably helped change the landscape of Kerala for the good. After all, the many lakhs of people who have migrated from Kerala to the Gulf and brought back considerable money over the years have been credited, among others, as significant contributors to the state’s high development indices today.

In Aadujeevitham, however, Najeeb faces a fate far different from the stories that the Malayali community has come to expect from the state's Gulf expatriates. Hailing from a village named Arattupuzha in Kerala’s Alappuzha, Najeeb travels to Saudi Arabia in pursuit of better monetary avenues — only to be abducted from the airport by an Arab man who poses as his employer. He soon finds himself isolated in a desert, where he is forced to live in a shed with 700 goats, herding and feeding them. His employer constantly monitors him through binoculars, ensuring he has no way to escape. He is not allowed to wash himself, and is given only a single long shift-dress-like piece of garment to cover himself. His only food is stale kuboos (Arabic flatbread), which is so dry that he has to wet it with goat’s milk before eating.

The novel, which tells Najeeb’s story with a sprinkle (or more?) of creative liberties, was considered an ‘overnight sensation’ in Kerala’s literary sphere, even winning Benyamin the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009. The book went on to be translated into at least eight languages, with its English translation Goat Days appearing in the long list of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2012 and the short list of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2013. The film adaptation of Aadujeevitham, directed by celebrated Malayalam filmmaker Blessy and headlined by actor Prithviraj, has also been garnering critical and commercial attention since its worldwide theatrical release on March 28. 

Plagiarism allegations

Aadujeevitham’s success, however, hasn’t been without its share of controversies. Since the book was published in 2008, Benyamin has been accused of plagiarising parts of the novel from Austro-Hungarian writer Muhammad Asad’s The Road to Mecca (1954). Critics have quoted at least three paragraphs from both literary works to draw direct parallels between them, especially in the descriptions of the protagonists’ experiences while traversing the desert.

MN Karassery, a prominent Malayalam writer and critic who translated The Road to Mecca to Malayalam, had come to Benyamin’s defence in 2021. “I don’t know if Benyamin has read The Road to Mecca. If he has and if two or three phrases or images that may have been imprinted in his mind appeared in his writing, he cannot be faulted for it. Aadujeevitham is a good novel, one of the best that has recently come out in Malayalam,” he said.

Karassery pointed out that not just Muhammad Asad, but Benyamin too has seen the desert. “Both Benyamin and Asad could have experienced sunsets in the desert, the chill of an oasis, and sandstorms. It is nothing out of the ordinary for two writers to use similar phrases or metaphors. But that is not all there is to Aadujeevitham, it is a story of the Malayali expat life,” he added.

The most recent controversy, however, has been about the alleged creative liberties taken by Benyamin in the novel, after it came to light that one of its most startling scenes — where a lonely and frustrated Najeeb turns to a goat for sexual relief — was the writer’s own input to the story.

The infamous bestiality scene

Benyamin’s critics and supporters have since debated the ethics and boundaries of artistic freedom and the fictionalisation of real-life experiences, pointing out that misrepresentation in art can become a bigger problem when it is at the cost of a real man, in this case, someone who hails from a marginalised community with little privilege.

Najeeb, on whom the novel is based, has recently been appearing in promotional interviews for the Aadujeevitham film and has expressed visible discomfort with any question related to the bestiality scene in the book. “That scene is something the novelist added on his own, as per his creative vision,” he has repeatedly asserted, once even on the verge of walking out of the interview.

In the wake of the controversy, Benyamin wrote in a Facebook post that the hero of the novel is “Najeeb” and “not Shukur,” apparently the name by which real-life Najeeb is known in his hometown.

“Shukur’s influence amounts to less than 30%. Aadujeevitham is not Shukur’s life story, it is my novel. This is clearly stated on its cover. I take full responsibility for every action attributed to Najeeb in the story, with explanations readily available,” he wrote.

Even in a behind-the-scenes video shot during the making of its film adaptation, Benyamin had clarified that the story of Aadujeevitham, or at least its skeletal form, was formed much before he met its real-life protagonist. “I was thinking, how would life be if there was just one human being and god? It was a desire I carried for a long time, to write a novel about such an isolated man,” he added.

A former expatriate himself, Benyamin said he also wished to write about life in the Gulf, and it was when both of these ideas came together that he met Najeeb by sheer coincidence.

Aadujeevitham the film, notably, does not contain the disturbing sequence with the goat, and the contradictions in the writer’s and director’s statements while explaining why also spurred a set of controversies. Though Benyamin had claimed the scene was indeed shot but had to be cut because of interference from the Censor Board, Blessy denied ever shooting the scene, stating that though they had discussed it during the scripting stage they soon decided to avoid it.

“Benyamin wrote the scene in quite a subtle manner. But it was not easy for me to film such a scene,” Blessy said in an interview. But that, however, wasn’t his main concern, he added. “I could have shot the scene in various ways, but I was thinking about Najeeb. Wouldn’t he feel guilt afterwards? Perhaps the Najeeb in the book is without guilt, but my Najeeb is not like that.”

The expat life

Despite the controversies and alleged misrepresentations, there is no denying that Aadujeevitham is a starkly compelling and, more importantly, necessary piece of writing.

According to writer-critic EK Dineshan, the reason the novel was so widely read was because the life experienced by Najeeb was not far from the lived realities of a large section of expatriates from Kerala.

“This is not to say all of them are living the ‘goat life,’ exactly as detailed in the novel. But the lives led by many Gulf migrants from the most marginalised castes and classes of Kerala can very well be equated to such an existence,” he says.

Dineshan, who has been living in Dubai for the past two decades and has written extensively about the migrant experience, says the people who migrated from Kerala to the Gulf can be broadly categorised into three groups. “The first is the top layer, the minority, who arrive in the Gulf with an already significant social and financial capital. They have big jobs or businesses, and some even have the resources to buy land in these foreign countries.”

The second group comprises the middle-class expatriates, says Dineshan. “These are the people who have helped change the social and economic landscape of Kerala, especially the Malabar region. They landed here, worked hard to learn the ropes, and gradually climbed the ladder to make enough money and educate their kids. They empowered our family units and essentially aided the transformation of the state’s social structure,” he says.

But then there is the third group, which lives the darkest side of expatriate life — that of modern-day slavery. Many people from across India, having travelled abroad with big dreams of a better job and salary, end up being betrayed by their agents and employers, with no resources to seek help due to their dire social and financial circumstances.

Najeeb’s experiences in fact reflect that of the many such foreign workers entrapped in the Middle East’s kafala system, a sponsorship system that binds migrant workers to a kafeel (employer/sponsor). The system allows kafeels complete control over migrant labourers and their legal status, in ways that often undermine its contractual basis. Many labourers who escaped the system have since alleged that they were often denied even the basic guarantees that were promised in their contracts, such as reasonable work hours.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, The Telegraph reported on the appalling conditions that African migrants in Saudi Arabia were forced to live in. The authorities were found holding hundreds of migrants in tightly-packed detention centres, leaked images showing them crammed together in small rooms with barred windows, with corpses of those who died from heatstroke, hunger, thirst, and disease strewn about.

Several women from Kerala who went to the Gulf in search of jobs have stated that they have been forced to work in more than one home and do additional work not outlined in their contracts, often without proper nutrition or healthcare. Many reported their employers did not pay them promptly or at all, and alleged that they were subjected to dehumanising treatment, including isolation, restriction of mobility, barriers to seeking help, lack of privacy in living arrangements, physical violence, and verbal abuse.

Prithviraj (left) in Aadujeevitham, Benyamin
How two Kerala women were lured into slavery in Kuwait in the name of a govt scheme

Dineshan says that despite Aadujeevitham triggering a discussion surrounding the plight of this third group of expatriates, not much has been done to fix the situation. He points out that the Kerala government still doesn’t have proper data on the number of expatriates who have left the state in pursuit of employment in the Gulf. “Only if we have such data will we be able to keep track of who is working where, what field they are in, what are their means of survival, etc. If we have comprehensive data on this, we will be able to protect our people better,” he says.

Another major criticism against the novel has been that it is Islamophobic, with many alleging that the story weaves a false sense of danger around migrant life in Arab countries.

Dineshan differs, pointing out that Najeeb in the novel is almost entirely dependent upon his Islamic faith during his bid to survive and it is the deep connection he develops with his god that helps him brave the odds stacked against him. “The novel has many spiritual implications and it places enormous importance on faith and its power to restore hope in the darkest of times,” he says.

Besides, modern-day slavery is not limited to Arab nations and has been reported in countries including North Korea, China, and India.

Najeeb’s plight in Aadujeevitham is in fact indicative of much larger problems, including of underprivileged people being denied monetary or employment elevations in their own homeland, and the lack of a robust government system that ensures the protection of its people in foreign countries.

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