Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, a collection of short stories based in the United Arab Emirates, begins with a telling quote: “There exists this city built by labour, mostly men, who disappear after their respective buildings are made. Once the last brick is laid, the glass spotless […] the labourers, every single one of them, begin to fade.”
With the recent Qatar crisis, the words ‘begin to fade’ take on new poignancy and relevance. While the media has extensively covered the impact of the sea and air blockade on ordinary Qataris, little has been mentioned about the many foreign workers stranded because of the kafala visa system. Heavily criticised by human rights groups, the kafala system allows local employers to control unskilled foreign workers’ documents such as passports, and thus, their freedom of movement. Often workers are dependent on their employers for food and accommodation and must take their permission to enter or leave the country.
A recent Washington Post article talks about how, in a “particularly shocking case in June, Qataris who had been working in Saudi Arabia scampered back to Doha without leaving so much as food or water for their South Asian workers, who were stranded without sustenance, their wages or their legal sponsors.”
An Indian expat’s debut short story collection shines a spotlight on the less glamorous side of Dubai and Abu Dhabi
Like Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi too grew into global hubs because of these ‘fading’ workers who make up an estimated 80 percent of the cities’ residents. But even though they keep the Emirati machine oiled and running, they have few rights, are often treated poorly (unlike Western expatriates) and can never become citizens. It is these workers who toil in the shadows that Unnikrishnan is most interested in.
In the story ‘Birds’, Anna Varghese spends her nights cycling through a city that made “all give and give up” fixing “the fallen.” With ‘The Anniversary’ — a fictionalised twist on the real life case of an Afghan grain merchant tortured by an Arab sheikh — Unnikrishnan reimagines the incident as a dramatic play. Meanwhile, the loneliness that comes with being a guest worker is brilliantly explored in ‘Fone’.
The stories that stand out most, though, are those with surrealist tones. ‘In Mussafah Grew People’ and ‘Le Musée’ are stories where we follow a researcher, Moosa, as he grows Malayalam people — the way one would grow genetically-engineered plants — for the Abu Dhabi government. The Emirati rulers are greedy for cheap, pliant workers who don’t “wilt in the sun” like white men. However, disastrous consequences follow.
Unnikrishnan’s stories are full of such metamorphoses. In ‘Gulf Return’, three labourers attempt to escape Dubai and the clutches of its brutal kafala system. One labourer swallows a passport and becomes it himself; another becomes a suitcase and a third, the passenger. A dark comedy of sorts follows as the three attempt to get through airport security. In ‘Blattella Germanica’, cockroaches learn to speak like humans based on “the many tongues” of their building’s tenants and start to walk on two legs. In ‘Glossary’, a schoolboy’s tongue sprouts limbs and escapes, as do the nouns, verbs and adjectives he has learned over the years.
Occasionally the characters in Temporary People have more agency and ‘happier’ endings. A victim of bullying and police violence has his bittersweet revenge in ‘Moonseepalty’. ‘Kloon’ is a dark, humorous tale about a salesman, Chainsmoke Haseeb, who has to dress as a clown for work. He pushes back against the people putting him down and also dabbles in prostitution: his client is a kinky Arab lady who wears a veil and is — of course — dubbed Abaya.
At times, however, Unnikrishnan tries too hard to make his point. The chapters of the books are labelled ‘chabters’ — a reference to the fact that there is no ‘p’ in Arabic and Arabic speakers pronounce ‘p’ as ‘b’. And stories such as ‘Pravasis?’ — that includes a long list of professions and trades that ends with the words “Cog.Cog?Cog” — come across as too on the nose. Overall, however, it is a collection of short stories that draws the readers in.
The world of Temporary People is filled with people who grapple with their Kafkaesque lives and often meet tragic ends. In this regard, Unnikrishnan is in good company: Ali Akbar Natiq, Albert Camus — and of course, Franz Kafka — come to mind. Unnikrishnan is also not the first author to write on unskilled labourers in the Middle East. Author Benyamin (who, like Unnikrishnan, is also a Malayalam-speaker living in a Gulf state) brilliantly tackles the subject in Goat Days.
Nevertheless, with Temporary People, which deservedly won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, Unnikrishnan captures a certain quirk of contemporary life: what it means to forever be living as a migrant with no place to really call home.
The reviewer is a member of staff
By Deepak Unnikrishnan
Restless Books, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 6th, 2017