THE GULF MIRAGE
UNNIKRISHNAN WRITES ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF WORKING CLASS SOUTH ASIANS IN THE GULF—HEAT, VIOLENCE AND INJUSTICE
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