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Petrofiction: Sands of time 

The world is grappling with sky-high prices of crude oil caused by fluctuations in the global market due to the Russia-Ukraine crisis. It seems an appropriate time more than ever to understand the cultural impact of the oil encounter on literature.

The economic, political, and socio-cultural impact of oil was a major impetus for globalisation and free market trade. The discovery of oil, in no ambiguous terms, revolutionised the world.

Fictions on petrol 

Yet, as Amitav Ghosh asks in his seminal essay ‘Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the novel’, “why, when there is so much to write about, has this (oil) encounter proved so imaginatively sterile?”. The distinct lack of prose/verse from this encounter is surprising to say the least. Ghosh himself gives us a couple of reasons why not many ‘petrofictions’, as he calls it, have been written.

The ‘Gulf’ — as a spatial marker for oil — evokes in us multiple images. Oil rigs, a hot sun, sand dunes and of course, the enormous luxury that came with it which transformed a desert into one of the most modern multicultural hubs of our time. Oil also evokes fluidity, not only because of its nature but also for its potential to generate capital flow in more ways than one and for the in-flow of thousands of migrant labourers. The interaction of multiple cultures and the overflow of wealth against the backdrop of ‘black gold’, makes writing complex and often impossible.

Therefore, Ghosh applauds the effort of Abdul Rahman Munif when he attempts to portray the discovery of oil in  Cities of Salt (1984) the  first of his quintet novel series. Munif introduces us to the Wadi al-Uyoun, an oasis in the middle of the scorching desert which offers solace to travellers and day traders. He presents it as a utopia where people come to congregate, sell their wares, and tell stories of their adventures in the desert.

The people of the Wadi al-Uyoun, though not wealthy, are content with the little they have both in terms of land and food. However, all of those changes with the coming of the Americans, digging for oil. In the blink of an eye, the landscape changes. The oasis disappears and we see oil rigs, machines and the people of the Wadi al-Uyoun hired and under schedule. Gone are the days with the travellers and their listless stories. But when the rig suddenly lays off workers, the people organise a strike which results in a reinstatement of the labourers who were fired. While the novel ends on a positive note, as Ghosh himself critiques, such an ending is escapist at best. The oil rigs are characterised by a surplus of migrant labour. Language and cultural barriers prevent them from forming any organisational cross-networks. Even if they did, in nations where labour rights are next to non-existent for foreigners, unionising will only lead to violent suppression.

Such revolutionary hopes make a comeback again in Teddy Wayne’s  Kapitoil (2010) The protagonist Karim from Qatar emigrates to the U.S. to work for a tech company. While working there, he perfects a computer programme which predicts market fluctuations in oil stocks by analysing western news reports on West Asia. Karim goes from being a firm believer in the American dream and the potential of the oil stocks to make him rich to questioning everything around him starting from his boss, Mr. Schrub.

In the end, we see him refusing to give over the programme to his employer and instead opts to release the code as open-source through an academic paper. Wayne showcases a release from the deep-rooted effects of oil and its capital much like Munif, in the way that is both daring and unrealistic.

Murky waters 

In the latter half of the 21st century, the environmental effects of oil started becoming more visible. The deepwater horizon oil spill of 2010 was an industrial disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. It is considered to be the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry resulting in still-prevailing effects affecting marine life, migratory bird patterns and all other kinds of ecosystems. Taking inspiration from their own journey to the Gulf of Mexico to inspect the oil spill, journalist Steve Duin and cartoonist Shannon Wheeler take us through the most severely affected areas of the oil spill in  Oil and Water (2011), a graphic novel. 

The book traces the pilgrimage undertaken by a group of do-gooders from Oregon who travel to the oil rig to understand the effects of the spill. With strokes of black and white, the authors portray grim and dead people making do with what’s left of a devastating oil spill. One of the most heart-wrenching strokes portrayed is when the group visit the ‘Hammond Oiled Wildlife Refuge Centre’. Here at the centre, birds (mainly pelicans) who have been traumatised by the effects of the oil spill are treated and set free again. We are shown the process of how a ‘brown’ pelican (made brown by the thick layers of oil coating) which has ingested toxic amounts of oil is stabilised and later set free after treatment.

The oil has sunk so deep that the attendants need to use detergent for the feathers and saline solution for the eyes. While the refuge centre claims that they have rescued and rehabilitated thousands of pelicans, the group direly notes that most of those pelicans would not survive again and that ‘freeing’ them was equivalent to letting them die. “The birds will die in numbers we can neither count nor imagine, invisible victims of this invasive spill.”

Kerala and the Gulf dream 

The oil boom had its effects in India as well, particularly in Kerala. Migrant labour petrofiction has been made popular by writers like Deepak Unnikrishnan and Muzafer Ahamed. When the oil-boom of the Gulf countries first hit the world between the years of 1950 to the early 1970s, Kerala was undergoing a major unemployment crisis. The absence of an industrial sector and a shortage of jobs in agriculture left many young men nowhere to turn to. Therefore, the opportunity to go  akkare (across the seas) was heaven-sent. Soon enough, the figure of the  Gulfkaran (man from the Gulf) with his colourful shirts, bell-bottom pants and gold watches became a common trope in popular culture.

The remittances from migrant labour helped the State build its reserves at a time when industry was lacking. Till date, a significant part of Kerala’s GDP is made from foreign remittances from the Gulf. However, this migration for the longest time hid its most terrible stories. Benyamin’s  Goat Days (Aadujeevitham), tells the tale of Najeeb whose oil-ridden Gulf dreams went awry when he became a victim of labour fraud. He was kept as a goat herder by a cruel  arbab as he calls his Arab sponsor (or so he thought) who tortured him and made him toil for three years without proper relief or rest.

The gut-wrenching tale shows the utter helplessness the desert offers to migrant labour especially when they are poor and uneducated. Najeeb finally escapes, ironically via prison, when he is deported for not having adequate documentation.

There are still many tales to be told of the desert; the stories are far from over.


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Printable version | May 17, 2022 10:17:00 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/petrofiction-sands-of-time/article65419306.ece