Stories of Fragmented Lives in the Emirates3 min read

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Deepak Unnikrishnan

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Philip Cheung

TEMPORARY PEOPLE
By Deepak Unnikrishnan
227 pp. Restless Books. Paper, $17.99.

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s novel-in-stories narrates a series of metamorphoses. Guest workers dissolve into passports, a man begins “moonlighting as a mid-sized hotel” and a sultan harvests a fresh crop of laborers. Elsewhere a man has grown a suitcase for a face, while a teenager’s tongue has fled his body, verbs soon spilling out and assuming forms of their own. All this surreal shape-shifting patches together a mosaic of the frenetic, fantastical and fragmented lives of the South Asian diaspora in the United Arab Emirates, one that recalls the cry of its closest forebear, Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”: “Please believe that I am falling apart.”

What separates Unnikrishnan from Rushdie, and the vast literature of exile that precedes them, are his subjects. “Temporary People” explores the lives of arguably the least privileged class of nomads in the 21st century: guest workers. Joining the South Indian writer Benyamin’s “Goat Days,” a novel of modern-day enslavement in Saudi Arabia, and the British-Emirati director Ali Mostafa’s “City of Life,” a film that weaves together a cross-section of lives in Dubai, “Temporary People” is a robust, if somewhat scattered, entry into the nascent portrayal of migrant labor in the Gulf.

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Bereft of language, status and self in a foreign land, Unnikrishnan’s characters radiate desperation and desire as they perform backbreaking work and cope with second-class citizenship. Well, that’s technically incorrect: They can’t become citizens. Under the United Arab Emirates’ visa system, these “temporary people,” who make up as much as 80 percent of the population, will eventually have to leave. In Unnikrishnan’s imaginings, this ever-present threat of displacement comes to the fore only during his characters’ most naked moments. His depictions of sex are entangled with the ganglia of residency, race, class and gender, as well as the instability and inadequacy of language, the collection’s constant refrain.

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Mingling English, Malayalam and Arabic in a series of Kafkaesque parables, Unnikrishnan’s book features a lot of action and even some humor. Unfortunately, his hybrids of language and genre don’t always succeed. The trilingual patois can fall flat, as when each section is called a “chabter.” At times, self-evident themes are laboriously spelled out: “Pravasi means foreigner, outsider. Immigrant, worker. . . . Absence. That’s what it means, absence.” But perhaps one can excuse an overemphasis on this theme in particular: Left to the demimonde of the city, these characters can never forget that the Dubai dreamscape is reserved for locals and Western expats, not those in exile, like them.

Surrounded by injustice, Unnikrishnan’s characters don’t always remain passive. At times risking arrest, they fume, curse, kick and even bite. In each of the collection’s three best stories — “Mushtibushi,” a precocious child’s testimony about a sexually abusive elevator; “Moonseepalty,” the cannibalistic reunion of two estranged friends; and “Kloon,” a clown’s foray into prostitution — the migrant laborer’s growing sense of shame finally explodes.

“Temporary People” pairs well with an older cousin in nonfiction, John Berger’s “A Seventh Man.” In that stirring cri de coeur about migrant labor in Europe, Berger reminds us of a point that is embedded within Unnikrishnan’s stories: Countries that send migrant laborers to global metropolitan centers are often forced to do so. “There should be a transitive verb: to underdevelop,” Berger writes. “An economy is underdeveloped because of what is being done around it, within it and to it.” Unnikrishnan’s collection poses its questions obliquely, but demands explicit answers. What causes a society to look like this?

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