Mohamed Shafeeq Karinkurayil reviews Deepak Unnikrishnan’s 2017 novel, Temporary People.
Once, before the smart phones became ubiquitous, in a small German town where those who could speak English were not many, I had to find my way to a ‘Rathaus’. I could not speak German. Now, my reticence comes in the way here, but if I could emblematize ‘the path of discovery’, it was that day many years ago in the early April of clear skies when over many faces and gestures who truly and kindly wanted to help but couldn’t, I stumbled upon the truth that the word did indeed sound something like “Rat house” but not really. As to what it really is, I still cannot say. But yes, I found my way. To come face to face with a foreign word excites, but also creates anxiety. The joy of having cracked a code is a sugar rush. Unfortunately I could not partake of this when I came face to face with a cluster of non-roman alphabets in the last chapter of Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People. That language was not foreign to me, and I can only be jealous at the rush which countless other readers might have when courted with foreign words.
Amitav Ghosh, in a pioneering attempt to characterise ‘petrofiction’ or the works of fiction (novels in this case) which has the petro dollar economies as their condition of production, argued for the critic to rid herself of the usual yardstick of literary criticism. This is because the petrofictions are produced under vastly different conditions than ‘the historical imperatives’ which shaped writing hitherto: “The territory of oil is bafflingly multilingual, for example, while the novel, with its conventions of naturalistic dialogue, is most at home within monolingual speech communities (within nation-states, in other words)… It is a world that poses a radical challenge not merely to the practice of writing as we know it, but to much of modern culture: to such notions as the idea of distinguishable and distant civilizations, or recognizable and separate ‘societies’” (Ghosh 2002, 79).
Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, published in 2017 by Restless Books, is a work of petrofiction that baffles and provokes in its content as much as in its form. Born to migrant labourers in the Gulf, and currently working in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Unnikrishnan, in an interview to The Guardian, describes Abu Dhabi, the city he grew up in, as the “city where citizenship is not an option”:
My father came in 1972 on a three-year work visa, which allowed you to sponsor spouses or children to join you. After 18, sons were on their own. To stay in Abu Dhabi as a young man, you had to find a job or enrol in university. Only unmarried daughters could stay on their parents’ visas.
But unlike in the US, where the H-1B work visas offer the possibility of a pathway towards permanent residency, no long-term option exists in the UAE for non-citizens. If a foreign loser loses his or her job or reaches retirement age (60 in most companies), they need to leave, irrespective of how long they have lived in the country – or even if they were born there. (Unnikrishnan 2017b)
The temporariness of the only place one could call home bears heavy on the space and time. To be temporary is in fact to be devoid of that space which can record one’s growth, that permanence against which the vagaries of time can be indexed as such. It is from the vantage point of this transience that Deepak Unnikrishnan approaches the question of migrant labour in the Gulf. Priya Menon notes that the novel lends words to the occulted everyday of the now disappeared labour which hangs on like a spectral presence on the Gulf (Menon 2020). Temporariness becomes the state of being which casts life in a double-image, as if in a split-screen, like in the simultaneity of thinking and not thinking, being and not being, which lends the labouring life in the Gulf a ghostly nature:
Once the last brick is laid, the glass spotless, the elevators functional, the plumbing operational, the laborers, every single one of them, begin to fade, before disappearing completely. Some believe the men become ghosts, haunting the facades they helped build. (Unnikrishnan 2017a, 3)
The novel/loosely-connected-short-story-collection recounts experiences of migrant labourers in the Gulf in a non-realist manner, experimenting with techniques of story-telling. In this novel you find bodies of labourers falling off under-construction sky scrapers stitched back to functionality, a rogue scientist who farms labourers to mount an insurgency, a cockroach who walks, dresses, and speaks like humans, and other magical realist circumstances, prodding one to ask if magical realism wasn’t written off as obsolete a bit too early.
With the naming of the sections as Books and “Chabter” (to allude to how Arabic doesn’t have the p sound), with Arabic numerals for the Books, with sections of varying lengths, some of them as short as a paragraph of a few lines (e.g. Book 2 Chabter 6, 8; Book 3 Chabter 1), and with varying themes, some bizarre and some quotidian, with varying genres at play, and some chapters just a collection of words (Book 1 Chabter 3, Book 2 Chabter 4), but with sections which are within books but not within a Chabter, the book strives against a realist form which would make the labouring lives transparently and inertly available. The truth of migration is to be sought not in the inner being of the migrant but in his or her very presence as a body that has come to be where it was not. In the gig economy that has become of the modern world, the copyrighted fonts and the amoebic migrant body are the mirror images of each other.
One could argue that when Unnikrishnan infuses his novels with words and signs that do not fit into a narrative order and exists merely as signs and pictures, it is precisely the labour of reading as a liminal zone between understanding and incomprehensibility that is called upon, in a world that is on the one hand dominated by the decisiveness of machine reading, and on the other by the permanent state of flux – the pressures to change jobs, be flexible, migrate, run away, run for life. The liminal zone of incomprehensibility is the very condition of the migrant and the ethic this world requires. A migrant is like the clones of labourers grown in labs of the Arabian desert by the rogue scientist that Unnikrishnan writes of. Any attempt to decode the inner being is a flawed act.
With Temporary People we have a (in)decisive novel of migration – where the tendency is not towards exploring the inner subjectivity of essentially singular people caught between multiple nations and cultures, but of people whose inner substance is inaccessible to us because after all we do not live in a world which makes sense from an arrogated godly vision, but humbled by our own vulnerability.
Ghosh, Amitav. 2002. “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel” in The Imam and the Indian: Prose Pieces. Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher and Permanent Black.
Menon, Priya. 2020. “’Pravasi Really Means Absence’: Gulf-Pravasis as Spectral Figures in Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People”, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00856401.2020.1719628
Unnikrishnan, Deepak. 2017a. Temporary People. Brooklyn, New York: Restless Books.
Unnikrishnan, Deepak. 2017b. “Abu Dhabi: The city where citizenship is not an option”, The Guardian, Dec. 13. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/dec/13/abu-dhabi-citizenship-uae-foreigner-visa-india. Last accessed 26 September 2019.
Shafeeq is an Assistant Professor at Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.