Book review

The man who became a suitcase. The ‘fone’ that let people talk forever. The migrant who tried to fly

We’ve read about Indian workers in the Gulf before but never in this magical-realist form.

A man, desperate to escape, disguises himself as a suitcase. His two companions metamorphose into a passport and a benign looking traveller, respectively, before they make their way past the tight security at the airport, through an array of glowering guards and smiling stewardesses, before finally reaching the airplane that will spirit them away.

It’s an escape that appears apt, even fortunate, unlike the fate of the others, the construction workers whose bones and broken limbs Anna Varghese fuses and melds together after they have fallen off building scaffolds and rafters. Anna can do little to help those whose bones have been shattered irreparably, so she listens to their stories instead. Iqbal tells her that his wish had been to mock the universe itself when he had strayed to the very edge of the building, and of his yearning to be a bird.

Unseen, yet necessary

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s stories in Temporary People are linked and then reappear in a somewhat cyclical way. The title draws on the uninterrupted supply of temporary workers – mainly from South and South-East Asia to the Gulf states – a necessity for oil-rich West Asian city-states and governments since the 1960s, as they sought to develop and build their luxurious world-class desert cities.

In 2016, Temporary People won the inaugural Restless Books prize for New Immigrant Fiction. In his introduction, Unnikrishnan tells us that eighty per cent of workers in the gulf are indeed foreign “guest workers” – a status different in every way from expatriates, as those from the more privileged West are called. The lives of the temporary workers are carefully regulated, as bleak as the ones detailed by Sunjeev Sahota in his Booker shortlisted, Year of the Runaways, about (illegal) immigrants from Punjab to Britain.

Another collection of stories published in 2016, Mia Alvar’s In The Country, had a story titled “Shadow Families”, in which wealthy Filipina housewives in Bahrain held the occasional “thank you” party for their Filipina helpers and other working class Filipinos, who have travelled much farther and longer and lived without their families near them.

The “pravasi”

Very many of the actual workers, are not given customary rights – residency permits, or family visitation rights, for instance. They retain their jobs in the most perilous of ways, with escape not possible, and sickness framing a very invitation to disaster. Their jobs and residency rights could end abruptly, with one fell sweep of a minister’s pen, as does happen to Vasudevan and his wife, Devi in one of Unnikrishnan’s stories. Yet, such “temporary people” are also “pravasis” – those who have gone away – and they offer a range of essential services that facilitate the smooth running of these Gulf state countries.

The pravasi, as one short chapter will tell you, could be, “Tailor. Hooker. Horse Looker. Maid. Camel Rider. Historian. Nurse. Oil Man. Shopkeeper. Chauffeur. Watchman…”. A pravasi, as old Nalinakshi also says as she reminiscences about her son Hari, is one who “has left one’s native place”. It is “someone who will have regrets”; someone who will want more money. It refers to absence, too.

Unnikrishan’s workers also have little to look forward to. There’s the “fone” – the phone which, in Unnikrishnan’s fiction, acquires magical-realist properties. The fone lets the workers call home for longer sessions, but for one of them this comes with mixed results, when he “sees” his wife having an affair with his best friend.

In another of Unnikrishnan’s stories, the unabated need for such workers prompts a particularly innovative scientist named Moosa to come up with an idea. He endeavours to create, out of seeds, a huge batch of temporary workers. But the creator then gets somewhat carried away. He also sows the seeds of rebellion in them, for which he pays a heavy price. Unnikrishnan tells this story in a metafictional way: a book written by the narrator’s mother hints at what happened. And yet there does turn out to be a survivor, who fuses the story together, as written by the narrator’s mother.

Other voices, other works

The world of such temporary workers has only in recent years found its fictional voice. In 2015, Benyamin’s Goat Days, which first appeared in serial form, tells of a worker from Kerala, Najeeb Muhammad, who falls victim to a job racket on his very first day in Saudi Arabia. His dreams of making enough money one day so to be able to return home turn nightmarish when he is kidnapped, transported to the desert, and forced to herd goats, sheep and camels. Unable to escape, Najeeb realises that his existence is barely different from the goats in his care and soon he begins to identify with them.

Kadeeja Mumtas’s 2010 novel in Malayalam, Barsa, only recently translated into English, tells the story from the other – the woman’s – side. Such voices have been altogether invisible. Barsa tells of a doctor couple, a husband and wife team, who move from Kerala to Mecca to practise. It is there that Sabitha makes the decision to convert to Islam, and what follows is her recounting of women’s lives there and whether religion circumscribes life in any way.

Though Unnikrishnan’s writing, as the blurb denotes, has been compared to the “darkly satirical” tone seen in George Saunders’s short fiction and appears as wildly inventive as Salman Rushdie’s, it also evokes the bitingly farcical strain seen in works of writers from Kerala, such as OV Vijayan (1930-2005) and Vaikom Muhammad Bashir (1908-1994). Vijayan, a cartoonist and writer who translated his own works from Malayalam to English, created, via embedded stories, an entire world of myth and fable, as in The Legends of Khasak. He also mocked contemporary political events of his time in his other famous work, The Saga of Dharmapuri. Bashir was credited for creating his own literary language – one that, as Bashir often said, used Malayalam the way people used it in their everyday lives.

Where stories come from and what they do

Unnikrishan’s parents left Kerala for Abu Dhabi soon after he was born, and he has also lived in New York and Chicago. These cities have indubitably been influences on him. So too, obviously, have the twin strands of the literary cultures that Unnikrishnan can claim to draw on – Saunders’s absurd and apocalyptic voice, and Vijayan’s use of myth and superstition in his modern-day capacious sagas.

This is evident in Unnikrishnan’s story, “Sarama”, where he draws on a story from the Ramayana to show how, in war, good and evil merge, and the women on both sides become victims. In another story, “Blatella Germanica”, a boy wages a battle against an army of roaches led by a uniformed general, who has somehow picked up the patois language of the Gulf states. This could be a metaphor for the lives of the temporary people, but it’s a story with multiple meanings. Unnikrishnan’s stories, in this linked novel, make demands on the reader; they nudge, even force, them into a necessary and vital state of awareness.

Temporary People, Deepak Unnikrishnan, Restless Books.

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