Profile Lit for Life

'Temporary People' is a nuanced study of the pravasi experience

How do Indians who live in the Gulf relate to it? It’s a question that encompasses all of life’s existential quandaries. Yet, till the release of Deepak Unnikrishnan’s breathtakingly ambitious Temporary People last year, there was not much literature that engaged with these ideas.

Temporary People, which won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, is a revelatory piece of work, sign of a writer announcing, the breadth, if not depth, of his literary prowess.

The in-betweens

The book evokes comparisons with Salman Rushdie’s magical realist style but Kuzhali Manickavel, who Unnikrishnan has cited as an influence, comes more easily to mind as do the cadences of spoken word poetry. In Temporary People, Malayali workers are grown like saplings, labourers fall off rooftops and are put back together with glue and tape, cockroaches walk on two feet and speak a melange of Malayalam, Arabic, Farsi, Tamil, among others, and tongues break free from young boys’ mouths, releasing their words all over the street.

It’s the bizarreness of these stories that allow them to arrive at the truths of the pravasi (Malayalam for expatriate) experience in Abu Dhabi. As a result, Temporary People spans a gamut of themes from cultural displacement to economic anxiety and the fates of people inextricably linked to their work visas.

Unnikrishnan, a global immigrant, was born in India and raised in Abu Dhabi, a city his parents moved to in the 1970s. After shifting to the U.S. for his undergraduate degree at Fairleigh Dickinson University at the age of 20, he grappled with a new kind of understanding of what home meant.

His relationship with Abu Dhabi was always marked by the knowledge that his life in the city was transitory — a cultural displacement the book captures in a character’s inner thoughts: “…she didn’t want her children turning into in-betweens. Children she saw everywhere, those with cultivated accents, kids fattened by cable and imported chocolate, coddled by Japanese electronics and American telly.”

Yet, it was the memories of his family and friends in the city that he lugged with him everywhere. His relationship to the city has evolved after returning there, when he received a job as a lecturer in the writing programme at New York University, Abu Dhabi. Today he claims that “the city is the home I carry on my back and archive on my tongue.”

Temporary People is deeply political in a way that makes Gulf-raised kids like me, accustomed to keeping our heads down and lips pursed, uncomfortable. ‘Mushtibushi’, a sly satire in which an elevator sexually abuses children, brings levity to a difficult topic. Another story, ‘The Anniversary,’ written in play form is an unmistakable riff on Issa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Abu Dhabi royal who was caught on tape brutally torturing an Afghan grain merchant.

Not only about pain

Despite this, Unnikrishnan reveals that he hasn’t received any pushback from authorities. He was even part of the written publication of the U.A.E. pavilion in last year’s Venice Biennale.

When it comes to his writing, Unnikrishnan credits reading, luck and the many people who stood up for him even when they didn’t have to. One of these, credited in the book’s dedication, is the late Ted Chesler, a former professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Chesler supported was instrumental in supporting Unnikrishnan all the way, even giving him the key to his office to take naps or borrow books from his library.

One semester when Unnikrishnan walked into his office and broke down because he was unable to scrounge up the money to pay his tuition fees, Chesler comforted him and promptly headed to the finance department and swiped his credit card for a semester’s worth of tuition fees. “How do I tell you that Ted Chesler was the kind of professor I hope every student gets to experience, and that when he died, I also lost one of my dearest friends?” he says. It isn’t surprising to note then that acts of kindness and love are abundant in the novel. Yet, all the stories have an underlying sense of tragedy.

Unnikrishnan, however, insists that the book is not only about pain. “Generalising the pravasi experience as good or bad is not useful. I would argue the experiences of people like my parents, friends and even those who perform blue-collar work are more nuanced than some of us would like to believe. My uncles can attest to that. I suppose that’s what the book’s getting at, the need to have numerous perspectives and narratives to comprehend the state of temporary people.”

A character in the novel remarks “what the word pravasi really means: absence.” Unnikrishnan’s success with Temporary People indicates that the oral narratives of Gulf immigrants might like tongues finally break out of their owner’s mouths and stun us with their hidden vocabulary.

The author is a writer and editor based in Chennai. He is the winner of the Likho Award for Excellence in Media, 2017.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 3:48:53 PM |

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