MEET THE WRITER

Meet Deepak Unnikrishnan, the Indian writer in the US you’ll soon hear about

‘Abu Dhabi raised me. New York made me. Chicago freed me. But I’m still an Indian passport holder.’

Temporary People, by Deepak Unnikrishnan, will be published in the US early 2017. This year, it won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, awarded to a “first-time, first generation American author or resident”. Temporary People is a novel comprising linked stories about immigrant workers in the United Arab Emirates. In their citation, the judges for the award called the book, “brave” and “stylistically inventive”.

Unnikrishnan spent his childhood and early years in Abu Dhabi, where his parents moved, soon after he was born, from India. He has also lived in New Jersey, New York City and Chicago. He studied and then taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and at present teaches at New York University, Abu Dhabi.

A decade or so ago, Deepak Unnikrishan worked on and published a collection of stories titled Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacup. The work that he intriguingly describes as a “first attempt at something that constitutes a book”, was published by a Sri Lankan publisher, Vijitha Yapa. Excerpts from an interview:

The blurb says you wrote Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacup when you were 23. I am amazed at the self-reflexive and self-awareness in some of these stories. How do you see these stories now?
I was 22 when I wrote them. Back then, those stories constituted my entire output. I had nothing left to give once I was done. I loved language but the writing was raw. There was no intent to publish any of it.

I was living with someone at the time, someone who was very kind to me. She volunteered to take the work with her to Sri Lanka. In Colombo, she found a publisher willing to put the work out as a book. I’m pretty sure they split the costs between them. It was such a tiny print run. There’s only ever been one edition and I don’t think it ever sold out. Nobody knew who I was, but that didn’t bother me. It was oddly comforting.

I wrote seven stories that ranged from okay to poor to so-so. A friend and a publisher helped put the material out into the world, graciously called it a book even though most children’s books run longer. Then the writer Carl Muller wrote a review in the Daily News (Sri Lanka). I’ve never met Muller but I owe him a debt I probably can never repay.

In his review, he broke my writing down, the craftsman tutoring the apprentice. And you know what, he got me. He was also kind, hopeful that I’d have more writing to come, something that mattered. To read such a thing when you’re unemployed, to sit with the knowledge that some dude you’d never heard of, a respected man of letters, saw potential in the work you could potentially produce some day…potentially, because the work, my work of the future, hadn’t been made yet – now that, that was paralysing, and wonderful.

When I return to the stories, I’m tempted to edit them down. Or leave out a bunch of them because I’m in them all in a way that makes me feel exposed. I also see what I was like when I was younger. And I think of where I am now, and I see I’ve been extremely lucky. But I also miss how fearless I used to be. I’d like to have some of that chutzpah back.

The narrator in one of these stories, Travelogue, says he has always looked at the minute details of things, and it’s so evident in his description of the pigeon. Or your description of the moth in yet another story. Is this how you approach your writing material too?
I pay attention, if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve always been shy. I don’t like crowds. So I watch. The act is reflexive. You watch because you don’t like being watched. It’s like I’m a character in a Western. Always watching the room because I always need to know what’s going on. And then I need to find my spot in the room, which often ends up being some corner.

But your question is about process. If there’s anything I truly worry over, it’s whether I’ve got the tone right. I like my sentences to set the page on fire. Pop. Dance. Howl. But there’s no system. I respect and admire people with precise systems. Or discipline. This much I can tell you: I want to write only something I could write. My mother would call that arrogance. And she’s right.

There is a difference, if I may use this word, in the two stories set in Abu Dhabi, and those in New York. The narrator in the latter stories is also older. Do they chronologically follow your own life?
Yes, two of the stories are set in Abu Dhabi, and then there are those set in New York and Jersey, the ones you speak of. Do the stories chart my own life? Up to a point. And then the narrator stops being the Deepak whose body I occupy, and possibly turns into someone I would’ve liked to have been, or am afraid to be.

I was surprised when you mentioned chronology. In fact, I returned to the work to see if you were onto something. It’s possible I used my life to chart my thoughts about the world. And as I did it, I borrowed chapters from my own life and tweaked them for impact.

Before, I’d walk alongside the narrator throughout the piece. Now, I’d like to think, I’m more willing to let go.

So it’s nearly a decade between your first collection and the new one from Restless Books. Was that intentional? And did that worry you for writers, if I may be too general and bold, worry about this too.
I tried to write a proper book, an actual one, after Coffee Stains, which I say again isn’t a book, but an attempt at something. I took a year off from life, pretended to be a thinking artist, and wrote a bunch of crap. I tried too hard. Then I found a job. For the first time I was financially independent, so I decided to write again. But I was writing to be published. I was writing to be known.

That manuscript ended up being rejected by everybody, including my Sri Lankan publisher. So I gave up a little on the writing. And started living. I read again, I watched films. I walked a lot. And I began to realise that I’d been collecting things/ideas for a good long while. Gradually I began to write for myself again. And one day I realised that I wanted to write a book about the city that raised me. And I got to work.

I don’t think many writers are going to tell you that they intend to wait thirteen years before putting out their next book. Or their first book, because Temporary People is a book like Coffee Stains wasn’t meant to be a book, but it became one. But at forty pages, what I produced was a booklet partly funded by a friend. Then once every two to three years I’d run into somebody who’d say something kind about my work. And honestly, there wasn’t much work/writing to speak of. I basically wrote when I could.

Before Restless Books happened, I’d assumed the worst: Here sits Deepak, I’d tell myself, another writer with a book to bury. I was inconsolable, irritatingly dramatic because I thought I’d written something half- decent, at least the most honest thing I’d ever done. I gave Temporary People my all. But then nothing happened, suitable conditions to engage in self-pity. There were a few close shaves with the publishing world, but everyone passed. Then, because I’m rarely subtle about my worries, I thought, Right, what now?

Temporary People is, I understand, about the guest workers in the UAE, and I read your story, Gulf Return, in Guernica, which is part of this book. That story brings to mind phrases like magical realism, speculative fiction, etc. Your stories in Coffee Stains... offer an interesting range. Will the reader look forward to a similar range in Temporary People?

Yes, Gulf Return and Water will be in the book. About range, I’m not sure how to answer that because I’m hesitant to define the work, but I also accept I’m going to be asked this question often enough. What I can say is that Temporary People operates the way it does in book form because I couldn’t see any other way the work could be written. I don’t say that to sound artsy-fartsy.

Personally, I’d be very curious to know how readers are going to define/describe the book. In Temporary People workers play a part, yes, but so do their children. And families. And languages. And myths. Everything matters. The Gulf is complex, nuanced. Hopefully, all that’s there in the work.

How has living in these three cities been for you as a writer?
I owe my mind to Abu Dhabi. It’s home. But New York used to be home too. And Chicago retains its home-like qualities for me. I don’t feel the same way about Jersey oddly enough. I think it’s because I only started feeling comfortable in the States after I landed my first job, which happened to be in New York. But even the word “home” is complicated. Look, Abu Dhabi’s where family is.

Where I smell my parents, where I can find my sibling. But in New York other needs kick in: the need to walk, think. New York, if you’re lucky, grants you anonymity. When you’re young, away from the city that raised you, in another city that’s machine-gun rapid, anonymity’s precious. But I was only made to last in New York for five useful / heady / wonderful / difficult years. I left because I started to get overwhelmed. I didn’t write much in New York.

Then Chicago entered my life, the city that helped me finish the book. To the person I’ve become, I guess it’s accurate to state that I owe a couple of cities a ton of gratitude. I’m from Abu Dhabi, and am also, as my parents feared, a creature of the States. So I’m also from New York and Chicago because I’ve taken things from there: lingo, writers, people.

But I’m still an Indian passport holder. That complicates matters further. I’ve rarely been allowed to absolutely belong to a place, you see, so I’ve tried to keep a safe distance, from loving anything / anyone too much. But you fail. I’ve failed. Abu Dhabi raised me. New York made me. Chicago freed me.

And what is like to be a writer in the US? Has it changed you as a writer – in terms of themes explored, and writing style?
I am not sure. But life in the States has forced me to think long and hard about plenty of things, sure: why people leave homelands, the colour of my skin, why hip-hop’s poetry, firearms, baby-faced soldiers, privilege. And more. Depends on the day, depends on the news. Depends on the city.

There are other things too, little stuff. The Abu Dhabi I was a little boy in didn’t have many bookshops. Or libraries so cavernous you gawked. I went to my first museum when I was twenty-two. Ted Chesler, my mentor in college, took me. Temporary People is dedicated to him. And if I were to talk to you about the films and the books I had access to, it’ll be a long list because I watched and read everything I could get my hands on. I was hungry, and young.

I’m not sure how my writing style has evolved. My sense is I’m quicker to the point, less precious about language, or polite. Like I said, the problem with questions like the ones you’ve posed is that you feel you ought to say something fancy. Something quotable. Frankly, as a writer, I’m better. I know this. I know I’m better because I never stopped reading. But I’ve also been lucky. Very.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.