Beyond the Gulf Dream — Malayali writers investigate the lives of immigrant workers

What is the Gulf dream?

“Perhaps the same stock dreams that 1.4 million Malayalis in the Gulf had when they were in Kerala — a gold watch, fridge, TV, car, AC, tape recorder, VCP, a heavy gold chain.” (Goat Days 38)

The oil boom in the mid-1960’s beckoned to the cheap and unskilled labour and more than a few fleets of ships set course for the Middle East from the coasts of Kerala. Accounts of first-generation Malayalis who reached the Gulf shores on launches and ships are replete with bitter experiences. But the contribution of these expats or pravasis towards improving the standard of living in Kerala is always recounted with pride. Gulf cities and towns are still epicentres of dreams and nightmares for a large section of Malayali diaspora. The narratives around the life of a pravasi have thus become a major theme in the Malayali expatriate writings.

The saying that ‘Malayalis are as ubiquitous in the Gulf as the sandy deserts and shopping malls’, stands true even today. While the skilled and semi-skilled workers still choose to work in the Middle East, majority of migrant workers are unskilled Malayalis belonging to the lower middle-class. They often work without citizenship rights, endure miserable living conditions, and ultimately have to leave the Gulf. The humanitarian crisis of these labourers has managed only a bleak exposure in Indian fiction till now. However, in recent times, a number of novels and travelogues published in the Malayalam ingeniously encapsulate the ordeals of the migrant community.

Writer and author Benyamin’s Malayalam novel, Aadujeevitham (2008) is one such work. The novel gained a wide readership owing to its realistic and heart-wrenching prose, and was translated as Goat Days (2012) by Joseph Koyippally. The novel presents the protagonist, Najeeb’s journey through the desert land, the trials and hardships he undergoes. But more importantly, it draws a picture of the life of an immigrant worker forced into labour in Saudi Arabia. The inability to satisfy his needs from his meagre income and the regulation in sand mining activity in his hometown lures Najeeb to the Gulf.

“When a friend from Karuvatta casually mentioned there was a visa for sale, I felt a yearning I had never experienced before. How long have I been here, diving for a living? How about going abroad for once? Not for long. I am not that greedy. Only long enough to settle for a few debts. Add a room to the house. Just the usual cravings of most Malayalis.” (Goat Days 35)

Najeeb’s dreams shatter on receiving an inhuman treatment by his arbab, his employer. He was promised a job in a construction firm but was forced to spend over three years as bonded labourer in a goat farm. Yearning for the homeland and the sheer will of the immigrant labourers to survive the toughest situations form the pith and core of the novel.

Many such accounts of these ‘guest workers’ are remembered, recollected and often written in Malayalam. English translations of these become a window for the non-Malayali reader in to the social, mental and physical sufferings that the forced labourers endure in Gulf countries. Najeeb’s story contrasts our ideas and assumptions of the Gulf life of the expats — the one with fancy perfumes, imported chocolates, dry fruits, and gigantic houses that adorn the streets of Kerala.

Contemporary Malayali writers have explored the lives of underprivileged labourers who sailed to the Middle East, chasing the glittering Gulf dream, but slowly eroding in hard labour. Many travelogues, memoirs and other non-fiction works in the Malayalam, with a focus on the migrant labourer, are now added to the list of brilliant fiction titles in the language. Here, a list of books will give you a peek in to the lives of Indian labourers in the Gulf:

Marubhoomiyude Atmakatha (2008), which translates to ‘the biography of the desert’, is a travelogue by V Musafar Ahammed that won the Sahitya Akademi award in the year 2010. Ahammed’s work acquaints the reader with the slave narratives against the celebrated narratives of the Gulf dream. It was translated in English by PJ Mathew, and was titled, Camels in the Sky: Travels in Arabia.

Babu Bharadwaj’s Pravasiyude Kurippukal (2010) directly translating to ‘notes of an expat’, is a memoir of life and thoughts of a man in exile. The recurrent themes of love, life and loneliness are weaved into the narrative.

P Manikandhan’s Malayaliyude Swanthwasneshanangal (2010), ‘Malayalis’ search for themselves,’ was the winner of NV Krishna Warrier award for best critical work by Kerala Bhasha literature. It covers subjects from the Gulf migrant workers’ literary endeavours to politics of eco-feminism.

Jasmine Days, 2018 English translation of Benyamin’s Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal (2014) is the story of Sameera Parvin, a young Pakistani woman who works as a radio jockey in an unnamed Middle-Eastern country that is on the verge of revolution.

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, is a set of interrelated stories—with a hint of magic realism—on Indian labourers in the Middle East. The book won 2016 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.

Work cited:
Benyamin. Goat Days. Penguin Random House, 2012. Print.

Hindi Literature

The story behind the translation of Phanishwar Nath Renu’s first novel Maila Anchal

Known as the first ‘regional’ novelMaila Anchal  narrates the life of an Indian village with a kind of sensitivity that was missing from the rigid, stereotypical portrayals in earlier novels of the period. Indian Novels Collective came across this rare document (below) carrying the preface and introduction to The Soiled Border – a translation of Renu’s first novel Maila Anchal – by translator Indira Junghare.

Indira Jhungare shares the story of translating the novel and enlightens us with the various themes the novel carries. She also highlights the struggles faced while translating the regional dialects and idiolects while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of the meaning and style of the novel.

Here are some interesting facts that you can find in the extract below:

  • Phanishwar Nath Renu was nicknamed ‘Rinua’ by his grandmother. The name was later changed to Renu (dust), which also became his pen name.
  • The village Maryganj around which the novel is centred, was named after an English woman Mary, the wife of an Indigo-planter Martin, who had lived there for past 35 years.
  • Maila Anchal consists of languages ranging from standard and colloquial Hindi to regional dialects such as Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magahi, Nepali, Bengali and the tribal language of Santhali, making it a difficult book to translate.

As of 2015, Indira Jhungare was the Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Linguistics, University of Minnesota

Translation Lists

Six must-read translations of Bengali novels

The Bengal renaissance that began with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the nineteenth century had a profound impact on modern Bengali literature. During this period of social reform and intellectual awakening, there was a push towards modernity through critical analysis of orthodox aspects of society and religion. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the Bengali novel, which drew upon both Western and local literary traditions. The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, a key literary figure in the renaissance movement, remains the most well-known Bengali writer in India. His most popular novels include The Home and the World and Chokher Bali.  

Here is a list of Bengali novels that are easily available in English translation.

Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Translated by T.W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherji

Published in 1929, the novel first appeared serialised in a Calcutta periodical a year earlier. It tells the story of the Roys who live in rural Bengal and later move to Varanasi in search of a better life. Bandyopadhyay’s evocative narrative paints a vivid picture of rural life and the scenic beauty of the Bengali countryside and captures the loses the family faces on their journey to the city.

Shesh Prashna by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay
Translated as The Final Question by the Department of English, Jadavpur University

Set in the expatriate Bengali community in Agra, the novel follows the life of Kamal, a young Anglo-Indian woman who challenges the traditional position of women in society. She is independent, lives and travels alone, and enters into relationships with different men. With its focus on female sexuality and its anti-patriarchal stance, The Final Question remains as relevant today as when it was published in 1931.

Hajar Churashir Maa by Mahasweta Devi
Translated as Mother of 1084 by Samik Bandyopadhyay

Written as a response to the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, the novel deals with the pain and frustrations of Sujata whose Naxalite revolutionary son has been killed by the police. With her son’s identity reduced to that of corpse no. 1084, Sujata struggles to make sense of her son’s choices and her position in society. Set across the course of a single day, the narrative interweaves the past and the present to explore Sujata’s complex relationship with her son and society and her journey towards acceptance.

Tithidore by Buddhadeva Bose
Translated as When the Time is Right by Arunava Sinha

Situated in Calcutta during the first half of the twentieth century against the backdrop of the Indian independence movement and the threat of war, the novel revolves around Swati, the youngest daughter in the Mitra family. Swati rejects her brother’s colleague offer to marry her and instead finds herself attracted to Satyen, a professor at her college. They share a love for literature and communicate mainly through letters. The lyrical, slow-paced narrative, with its focus on domestic life during a period of political upheaval, provides for an immersive reading experience.

Pratham Pratisruti by Ashnapurna Debi
Translated as The First Promise by Indira Chowdhury

Set across the late eighteenth and early twentieth century in Bengal, the novel follows the dreams and struggles of four generations of women. Through The First Promise, Debi explores the impact of colonialism on caste practices, the move from the village to the city and the subsequent change in family structure, women’s rights issues, and social and educational reforms.

Sei Samay by Sunil Gangopadhyay
Translated as Those Days by Aruna Chakravorty

The novel blends history and fiction to create a vivid picture of the elite in nineteenth-century Bengal. Set against the backdrop of the Bengal renaissance and the Revolt of 1857, it tells the story of the wealthy Mukherjee and Singha families in a rapidly changing society in Calcutta. Several historical figures, from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the reformer and writer to Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the poet populate the narrative, which adds to the social realist elements of the novel.

About the blogger
Priyanka Lindgren has a background in linguistics and refugee studies. She is passionate about world literature, in particular, 20th-century South Asian literature in translation. She is the Culture Editor at The Lead, part of the International Women’s Initiative. She blogs about books and South Asian identity at