Pravasi means you’ll have regrets [...] it’s always meant: absence. Those words of an aged mother who yearns for her son sums up the essence of almost all the stories in Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan.
The tempering of English with Malayalam and Arabic, and in the tone and angst of the narrative, the book is first and foremost an ode to the Gulf Malayalee.
Maybe if read by someone with zero Gulf experience the book would have drawn a few loud laughs. For someone who has been a Pravasi, the humour is so dark, you are tempted to throw away this book and reach out for Ulysses for some lighter reading. Only temporarily, just like the people.
Temporary People is one part dystopia and one part nostalgia; it’s the brutal dashing of hopes of every aspirant pravasi . Set mainly in the 90s and earlier, the stories are about those who made the UAE what it is now, the good and the bad.
It’s the decades of silence and subservience of hundreds of thousands of worker ants that laid the foundation of the Emirates. The book is a political manifesto cleverly disguised as fiction.
“We don’t like Arabees but we rarely told them that. We wanted to talk back, we wanted to fight [...] but we didn’t want to get into trouble.”
Unnikrishnan doesn’t try to sweeten the narrative with the ‘good’ stories’. Given where he is now, one would assume his own is a ‘good’ story. But then those stories would only feed the narrative of the silent and subservient.
There is a ‘chabter’ of a young man brought up in the Emirates trying to visit his dying father, but he can’t visit his ‘home’ so easily, because no matter how long you’ve lived there, how much you love the place, no exceptions will be made for you to get a visa quickly. It’s the story of every third culture kid in the Gulf. Forever they will remain pravasi, because it’s not them who are absent from home, but it’s the absence of a home itself.
Then there’s another where a young Indian boy is bullied by some ‘Arabee’ children, and the unmentionable done to him by the shurtha , the ghost-like police who are everywhere in the stories.
The child knows no other home, yet what he can think of is the revenge he would wrought, had it been ‘back home’. Again, the refrain of every Pravasi.
Unnikrishnan’s observations of the life of the temporary people is so astute and seering, one is aware with every turn of the page that this is not fiction. This is the life of millions, compressed into 272 pages.
It begins with an ‘in memoriam’ to the city itself; the constant destruction and the rebuilding; to achieve perfection, to be the best and tallest and first of many things. Clichéd as it may sound, there’s an Orwellian purpose to this rebuilding. The workers who are always on the brink of death, and put together to be put back to work. The labour farm where clones are grown, the mutiny, the dispensability of man and clone.
“The city was a board game and labor its pieces, there to make buildings bigger, streets longer, the economy richer. Then to leave. After.”
Barring some insightful movies in Malayalam, there is so little available in the creative space on this unique diaspora that lives in limbo between Ivday (Here) andAvday (There) —yet another chabter.
There was an anthropological study released by Neha Vora some years ago, ‘Imposssible Citizens’, that attempted unsuccessfully to commit to longevity the vacuum in which Indians lived in the Gulf. In Temporary People , Unnikrishnan uses the liberty fiction affords to tell a story so true and so real, at once dark and fantastical.
Yet, you do frequently tire of the reading and the morbid stories itself. If you persist, he will reward you with yet another peek into a life so surreal, it can only be fact as imagination alone cannot travel those depths. The boy who tries to gas roaches out of existence, and fails; the man who is happy his wife is crying over the phone, across the ocean, because she misses him, and then despairing as his friend steps in to console her; the molestation of children; the seeds and fear of the Arabee that’s sowed early in the lives of the TCK; sex however, wherever and with whomever. In masterfully telling the diaspora tales, Unnikrishnan doesn’t overtly attack the Emirates, but disembowels the shiny and the new, laying bare the ugly.
It waits to be seen if the UAE will censor Unnikrishnan and his book, since he continues to live there and teaches at the New York University in Abu Dhabi—to all appearances living the Gulf dream.
The Emirates has a zero tolerance policy for criticism, and Temporary People makes no attempt to show the ‘other side’ on which the country builds its impressive PR.
The writer is a journalist who has lived in Qatar for 17 years. She is the Associate Editor of Migrant-Rights.org.