India Today - - LEISURE - —Shougat Das­gupta


Deepak Unnikrishnan’s stylis­ti­cally bold first novel, Tem­po­rary Peo­ple, is an ex­u­ber­ant take on a mi­lieu that the world of lit­er­a­ture has mostly ig­nored.

Mass im­mi­gra­tion from the sub­con­ti­nent to the oil-rich Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil states, such as Saudi Ara­bia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emi­rates, be­gan in the mid-1970s. Pop­u­lar with South Asian pro­fes­sion­als as fam­i­lyfriendly so­ci­eties with a ve­neer of First World comforts—in­clud­ing glit­ter­ing malls, fast food and in­ter­na­tional schools—th­ese places are now peo­pled mainly by such ex­pa­tri­ates.

And yet, Benyamin’s sur­real and ter­ri­fy­ing Malay­alam best­seller Goat

Days (2012) and a short story in Granta by BangladeshiBri­tish au­thor Tah­mima Anam (2014) are per­haps the only no­table lit­er­ary ef­forts to de­scribe their world—a world in which mi­grants can­not be­come cit­i­zens and ev­ery­one is a dis­pos­able guest worker.

Unnikrishnan’s par­ents moved to the Gulf when he was a baby. When he grew up, he fol­lowed the tried and tested path of mov­ing to the United States for col­lege. In 2016, he then won a con­test for new im­mi­grant writ­ing, which re­sulted in the pub­li­ca­tion of Tem­po­rary Peo­ple.

De­spite his mid­dle-class back­ground, Unnikrishnan chooses mostly to write about the work­ing class ex­pe­ri­ence of South Asians in the Gulf—the heat, the vir­tual slav­ery, the vi­o­lence and in­jus­tice and deaths. He does this in a gal­li­maufry of poetry, science fic­tion, prose sketches (on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions, ac­tual drawings) and lists—throw­ing in what­ever he can to ap­prox­i­mate the dis­ori­en­tat­ing, frag­men­tary na­ture of life in the Gulf. His novel is im­bued with Gulf flavour, to the ex­tent of even call­ing a chap­ter a ‘chabter’—a small, silly joke about the in­abil­ity of Gulf na­tives to pro­nounce the let­ter ‘p’, so that Pepsi be­comes ‘Bebsi’. Tem­po­rary Peo­ple is, with­out ques­tion, a novel of the Gulf, steeped in its cul­ture. Nev­er­the­less, it’s not al­ways suc­cess­ful. For in­stance, his editor should have en­cour­aged the dele­tion of an ex­e­crable chap­ter nar­rated by a Pak­istani taxi driver. That said, Tem­po­rary Peo­ple is an hon­est, some­times funny, of­ten scary and fre­quently sad study of a vast swathe of In­dian mi­grants whose lives have been mostly ig­nored— per­haps be­cause there is lit­tle to cel­e­brate and less that is up­lift­ing.

Tem­po­rary Peo­ple by Deepak Unnikrishnan Rest­less Books

252 pages, Rs 799

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