Undocumented, Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf review: Footprints in the sand

The Gulf, as West Asia is often referred to in Kerala, conjures up the quest for an El Dorado. The need for livelihood, the ensuing remittances, the itch to build sprawling bungalows and organise weddings of siblings are all part of the desire-matrix. And for readers of a certain vintage pre-dating globalisation, a Gulf-returnee was associated with a suitcase full of goodies ranging from the two-in-one tape recorder to Yardley talcum powder.

However, being linked to the Gulf wasn’t always about the feel-good vibe as evident in several films, and literature.  Varavelpu highlighted a Gulf-returnee’s plight with Mohan Lal lending it humour and pathos.  Pathemari threw light on what a labourer undergoes in Dubai and it had Mammootty wrenching our hearts. Similar was the texture in the earlier  Arabikkatha with Sreenivasan in the lead. And in books, we have Benyamin’s  Aadujeevitham (Goat Days), soon to be a movie with Prithviraj Sukumaran headlining it.

Shared experience

Be it films or tomes, they revealed different layers of the shared Gulf experience that most Keralites are exposed to at different points.

It is the tale of riches and empty plates, and of perfumes and unwashed sweat.

To this body of work, an essential mirror to the Indian diaspora in the Gulf, please add Rejimon Kuttappan’s  Undocumented, Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf. It is essential reading for those interested in the tales of struggle that prop up West Asia. It reveals the grime and hope that lurk beneath those oil reserves and highrises.

Rejimon has a journalist’s inquisitiveness, an activist’s heart, the research-scholar’s rigour and the willingness to tell a story with all its warts. Even if a majority of his case studies are linked to Keralites, specifically in Muscat and Oman, he also throws light on Indians from other States. Men and women, numb with poverty and yet excited about their prospects in West Asia, take diverse ways to reach their expected slice of heaven. Manikuttan and Altaf in the first chapter, crawled into a dhow, coped with hunger and nausea and swam ashore to embrace a new life. Eventually they returned to tell the tale.

‘Home and coffin’

The book then delves into the darker side. Appunni struggled for two decades in Oman but he ensured that money was always sent to his family in Kerala. Just that his neighbours back home with their share of Gulf connections were more prosperous and when he returned, he became an unwelcome guest. A second-hand car becomes his home and he tells the author: “I live in the white car. I am here, Reji. As I said, this is my home and my coffin, too.”

Rejimon is never the cynical hack writing a news feature in the  Times of Oman. He avoids detachment and becomes a participant as evident in his act to rescue Sushmitha, hailing from Bihar, but saddled with an abusive employer. Eventually his story on human trafficking proves costly with the Oman government deporting him. The odd typo, or the occasional dry prose when he delves into various rules that govern immigrants, cannot dull this book’s sheen. He concludes: “I listen to people in distress and tell their stories to the world.” And they are worth reading to embrace the truth and be aware of a larger world beyond cellphones and laptops.

Undocumented, Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf; Rejimon Kuttappan, Penguin India, ₹399.

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Printable version | May 13, 2022 3:01:55 pm |