'Temporary People' depicts the lives of guest workers in the UAE

Novelist Deepak Unnikrishnan tells tales of 'people from elsewhere' who live as perpetual foreigners, often in fear, with precarious futures.

Temporary People By Deepak Unnikrishnan Restless Books 224 pp.

The sense of displacement, of disconnect begins on the cover: The words “A Novel” written sideways, unobtrusively stamped along the left side under the title Temporary People, might be considered misleading. Made up of three "books" that comprise eight, nine, and 10 chapters respectively, Deepak Unnikrishnan’s debut is more accurately a collection of (very) loosely interlinked stories. Look a little more closely at the “Contents” page and you’ll see “Chabters” (repeated 27 times) in place of the expected “Chapters” – a nod to native Arabic speakers whose mother tongue doesn’t use the “p”-sound, and replaces such with a “b”-sound. Then look more at the three repetitions of ‘books’ and you’ll notice not 1, 2, 3, but  ٣, ٢, ١ – the eastern Arabic numbers wholly replacing the more familiar western Arabic numerals.

Before his storytelling has even begun, Unnikrishnan is already slyly, inventively playing with language(s). His chameleonic turns come from personal necessity: His parents are Indian migrants living in the United Arab Emirates, where Unnikrishnan was raised, a country “where foreign nationals constitute over 80% of the population,” where its non-native labor force can never ever be granted citizenship, nor their children, as Unnikrishnan explains in his opening author’s note. His US education, and his current Chicago address (he also teaches at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus), has added another layer to his linguistic mélange: “The book employs an amalgamation of the English language tampered with by [sic] Malayalam slang, finessed in an Indian school on Emirati soil, and jazzed up thanks to American, Arabic and British television,” he writes. “The book also explores the mispronunciations and word appropriations that take place when a country’s main demographic are people from elsewhere.”

And finally, albeit just a few pages in, Unnikrishnan begins to tell his tales of these "people from elsewhere" who live as perpetual foreigners, often in fear, with precarious futures – always as temporary people who eventually will be forced to leave. Unnikrishnan organizes his migrants into three books – “Limbs” (for actual body parts and even lives lost), “Tongue” (for all the truths and realities that can’t be told), and “Veed” (the meaning of which is revealed in Book 3’s Chabter 4 – “[t]he English equivalent to veed is home.”)

Among the expendable, replaceable workers whose “Limbs” have built the UAE, three men flee a labor camp by morphing into a passport, suitcase, and runaway in “Gulf Return,” a woman who specializes in finding bodies at building sites eases a worker’s final hours in “Birds,” the city of Dubai “[s]prouts workers like sheafs [sic] of corn” in “In Mussafah Grew People,” 41,282 men and women in their 60s are ordered to leave the UAE after decades of labor in “Akbaar: Exodus.”

Of the stories in “Tongue,” the rampant sexual assault of children is investigated but unsolved in “Mushtibushi,” Indian teens lose their tongues in “Glossary,” cockroaches resemble in dress and speech the people whose homes they invade in “Blatella Germanica,” a student’s temporary job as a clown masks his humanity in “Kloon,” an 80-year-old woman explains how being a foreigner is equivalent to absence in “Nalinakshi.”

In “Veed [home],” a boy’s great-grandmother reveals epic family history in “Sarama,” a discarded dog and an elderly man watch the empty house of a dead woman in “Dog,” a man shamefully returns to his native Indian village in Chapter Six with its title redacted (the man’s name blacked out), a young man attempts to enter the UAE illegally – his homecountry – to see his dying father in “Baith.”

Combining surreal symbolism and linear narrative, wordplay and lists, family history and mythic retellings, Unnikrishnan uses fiction to “[illuminate] how temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, fables, and language(s).” In a brilliant, subversive move, Unnikrishnan connects his three "books" with a single-word chapter, “Pravasis” – Malayalam for migrant, or "temporary people" in Unnikrishnan-speak, which he repeats three times in each book. Book 1’s “Pravasis” lists words like expat, guest worker, non-citizen, brought, arrived, homesick, ending with a definitive “Temporary. People.”  Book 2’s “Pravasis?” lists two-and-a-half pages of jobs temporary people take. Book 3’s is a visual stunner, a shocking state of erasure reflected on a virtually empty page, with an unsolvable equation at the bottom right, “PRAVASIS=." And thus Unnikrishnan’s "novel" concludes.

With this unsettling, dazzling, astute collection, Unnikrishnan won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, which awards $10,000 and publication to a first-time, first-generation American author. “In giving substance and identity to the voiceless and faceless masses of guest workers in the United Arab Emirates, he not only calls attention to this very particular injustice, but also highlights the disturbing ways in which ‘progress’ on a global scale is bound up with dehumanization,” reads the Judges’ Citation (award-winning Ethiopian immigrant Maaza Mengiste was one-third of the judging panel). “'Temporary People' is a brave, stylistically inventive book that presents a frightening, surreal world that’s all too true to life.”

Its publication couldn’t be more timely given the current outcries for and against immigrants, bans, raids, and mass deportations. As an antidote to border politics, Unnikrishnan’s stories serve as both testimony and oracle to be read with grave urgency.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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