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From Another View: Deepak Unnikrishnan’s "Temporary People"

Katrina Kufer By Katrina Kufer Published on April 17, 2017
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Photo courtesy of New York University Abu Dhabi

Temporary People is a work of fiction set in the UAE, where I was raised and where foreign nationals constitute over 80% of the population,” begins Deepak Unnikrishnan’s introduction in his debut tome. “It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave.” Winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, the collection of 28 fictional short stories is an experimental literary foray into exceptionally diverse storytelling styles tackling the rarely covered and contentious reality of the United Arab Emirates’ “guest worker” population.

In recent years, the UAE have received undesirable international attention for the living and working conditions of many of the South Asian workers that inhabit and largely sustain the region’s rapid development into mega-cities. While there have been few moments internally where migrants’ oft-overlooked status has been brought to attention (usually through the form of art projects, most recently, Ammar Al Attar’s Plaza Cinema installation at Alserkal Avenue revealed during Dubai’s Art Week in mid-March), there are few obvious references to the non-Western or Emirati sects of the population. This is where Unnikrishnan’s publication plays an interesting role locally, in both an active and passive stance.

Allegorically addressing contemporary concerns in a place where literal, let alone confrontational expressions, are largely inappropriate (and possibly worthy of legal consequences), Temporary People fills a gap. “Fiction has barely addressed the so-called guest workers of the Gulf, their histories, myths, their struggles and triumphs,” Unnikrishnan’s introduction states. By using cultural memory, imagination and language as vehicles to capture the sound, memories and essence of the Emirates, he paints a colourful, diverse picture of a place that is much richer, deeper, and complex than the Utopia it appears to be at first glance.

Divided into three parts (Limbs, Tongue and Home), Unnikrishnan’s black whimsy is present in the book from the start. The first story, entitled "Gulf Return", tells the fantastical tale of three workers who escape a labor camp. While the premise is serious and a legitimate concern for many – with the desperation for the freedom to return home palpable – it is told through the form of the absurd. The first man swallows his passport in order to become the travel booklet, the second man mimics the former’s act but with a suitcase instead, and the third then rushes to the airport with his “passport” and “suitcase” in hand, effectively consuming all in his path in one frenetic sprint. “It happened so quickly, the running, the swallowing, the madness, the stuffing, that when the trio reached the aircraft doors, they seemed first surprised rather than jubilant,” Unnikrishnan writes. It is an energetic and surprising beginning to the book in light of the sobering introduction – Unnikrishnan is already flexing a masterful light touch to highlight inescapable, if barely visible, realities.

The tone can at times appear bordering on flippant, or even jaded, the staccato-like pattern of each story creates an insatiable desire to read on – the final phrases of each of his stories throughout the book are often especially poignant – despite the fact Unnikrishnan takes readers on an unsettling journey through uncomfortable realities. Child molestation (Mitsubishi), isolation (Dog), anthropomorphises (Blattella Germanica), cannibalism (Moonseepalty), sexuality and prostitution (Kloon) are but a few themes intermingled with more abstract pieces, including long lists of professions (Pravasis and Pravasis?) that iterate social hierarchies and degrees of dehumanization. Unnikrishnan’s penchant for mild humor, direct language and colourful dialogue (first and third person) in a rhythmic pattern make the topics easier to digest and allow them to resonate more deeply. Before the reader knows it, they have traversed half the book.

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While the stories are written in diary and reportage style to third person narrative with even more varied lengths (a few sentences to pages long), the book also oscillates between subject matter that is universally identifiable and wildly polarizing, ostracizing and foreign – but there is no more appropriate method considering this is set against the backdrop of the UAE, a place where no matter how long one resides, one will always be an outsider. Linked by universal truths of the human condition, the specifics to which Unnikrishnan speaks through his imaginary world are what draw readers unwittingly in. For example, "Fone" tells the straightforward story of a device that can be used once a year and allows the caller to teleport invisibly, permitting a sense of voyeuristic closeness to their loved ones at home while they are working to support their families abroad. In this case, it reveals a devastating secret: the main character Johnny Kutty’s wife is cheating on him with his best friend, ultimately resulting in Kutty destroying the device and being imprisoned. Unfaithfulness is certainly not a regional or culture-specific predicament, nor are the chapters laced with sexual, death or loneliness undertones. Unnikrishnan weaves together a very complex set of circumstances and packages them in a way that becomes accessible to a wider public, making every story in this book worth a mention.

The unbiased tone and direct language (despite an amalgamation of English, Malayalam slang and every US-Arabic-British fusion in between in various states of success) is critical to the effectiveness of this technically fictional work. There is a somewhat childlike element to each story, in that it addresses mature matter with imaginary justifications and sublimations usually attributed to a child’s mind when negotiating trauma, whether Unnikrishna’s cognitive cockroaches, abusive elevators or humanoid aircrafts. Then there is the blatancy of an almost innocent statement of the obvious. The last sentence of "Fone" reads, “When the shurtha told Johnny Kutty at the police station that he could make one phone call, he told them they could do whatever they wanted to him, but if they asked him to phone someone or brought a phone to him, he would die, and for a man to die so many times in one year was not normal, and that he probably wouldn’t survive that, which would be a shame because he had been through a lot.” The ending is an unemotional observation, or statement of fact, void of euphemisms or softening. This reminds readers that every vivid, visceral description of sight, smell and emotion is grounded in a cold reality.

Stories of various forms of violence and circumstances linked to existence are seamlessly and easily delivered. Many of the topics may be taboos within the Gulf region, but Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, through the lens of fiction, reads as an alternative reality. The hint of fantasy keeps readers’ eyes open and glued to the page, even as an unsettling feeling in the pit of the stomach grows, because the book’s (masquerading as) imaginary play isn’t imaginary at all. "Birds", the tale of protagonist Anna Varghese as she tapes and glues workers back together who have fallen from their construction sites, has her converse with Iqbal, who explains he fell because he was masturbating on the edge of the roof and had become startled when a pigeon landed on his member. “Try it, there’s nothing like it. It’s like impregnating the sky,” the text reads, poetic in its vulgarity before continuing that Iqbal also once ejaculated on a bird, which then reacted as though it had been shot. It is ridiculous and perverse for just a moment, before veering towards the larger message of disappearance and death, both from a previous life and the current one, using (inadvertently?) violated birds and anecdotes about pigeons chained by local owners as a motif to discuss futile efforts to fly away to freedom.

The stories are rife with residency, race, class, gender, isolation and identity through language, issues that resonate with any culture. Unnikrishnan, whose inspiration derives from his upbringing in the UAE, highlights a population and set of circumstances that likely does not come too frequently into contact with the public that will read this book. His astute perspective and indirect propositions deserve to be exposed, as much as his writing skills and storytelling abilities need to be experienced.

Katrina is a contemporary arts editor/writer and TCK based in the Middle East with a special fondness for abject art, gourmet cheese and asking too many questions.

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