Malabari Pangs Along Persia Sands
Deepak Unnikrishnan’s explosive debut novel Temporary People, a dystopian portrayal of life of Malayalis in the Gulf, has got rave reviews abroad and he is being hailed as the fresh, young voice in fiction. Here, first excerpts from the exceptional book.
Chabter oneGulf Return
In a labor camp, somewhere in the Persian Gulf, a laborer swallowed his passport and turned into a passport. His roommate swallowed a suitcase and turned into a little suitcase. When the third roommate, privy and vital to the master plan, ran away the next morning with the new suitcase and passport, he made it past the guard on night duty, onto the morning bus to the airport, past the bored ticket agent at check-in, past security, past pat down and a rummage through his suitcase, past using the bathroom once, twice, thrice, to pee, to shit, to sit, past Duty Free, where he stared at chocolates and booze and magazines and currencies, past families eating fast food in track suits or designer wear, past men and women sleeping on the floor, past his past, past his present, past the gold in the souks, the cranes in the sky, petrol in the air, dreams in his head, past God and the devil, the smell of mess halls, past humidity and hot air, past it all, until he found an empty chair in the departures lounge, where he sat and held his future in his hands. It was then the little suitcase sprouted legs and ears, and the passport developed palms and long fingers as well as a nose and a mustache, and soon after the boarding call, at the very moment the stewardess checked his documents, the third laborer was asked to wait.
The stewardess needed time to figure out what protocol she should follow or what precedent there was for the man and his possessions. The man preferred not to wait and ran as fast as he could through the door to boarding, past passengers who had already gone through and formed a line inside the tube with the little windows, waiting like blood in a syringe, now followed at an animal’s pace by the little suitcase on legs, ridden like a horse by the passport with the long fingers, a sight that both fascinated and terrified and caused personnel, propelled by some odd sense of duty, to stand in the way of the trio and block their path, to protect the plane and its pilots and cabin crew from what they couldn’t define. It didn’t matter what they did, it wouldn’t have mattered what they did, because the man leading the charge, in an act of despair, opened his mouth wide to ask them all to get away get away, wide wide wider, until he swallowed the first person in his path, then the next, and the next, refusing to stop running, as the little suitcase did the same, opening and closing itself, running into people, sucking people in like a sinkhole, aided by the passport jockey, who assisted by stuffing in those who fought desperately to escape. It happened so quickly, the running, the swallowing, the stuffing, the madness, that when the three of them reached the aircraft doors, they seemed at first surprised rather than jubilant, then relieved as the pilots and cabin crew stared from the other end of the tube, where everyone, including the remaining passengers, had now run to watch them like cats watching dogs.
The little suitcase, the little passport, and the man caught their breath, inhaling and exhaling raggedly, as though nails filled the air, while in the distance, with the sound of a million horses, well-meaning men with guns and gas rushed the gate where the stewardess had screamed and then fainted. The trio realized it was now or never, abhi ya nahi, do or die, so they rushed into the empty plane, locked its door, and the little suitcase and the little passport found seats in First Class and put on their seat belts, while the man ran to the back of the plane and began swallowing everything in sight, starting with the two lavatories, the trolleys with the veg and non-veg options, the apple juice and the Bloody Mary mixes, the seats and the magazines, the tray tables and the blinking lights, the blankets and the overhead bins, the socks and the TV monitors, the cabin air, with its lingering halitosis and mint-candy smell, swallowing everything in sight, moving expertly from Economy to Business to First, swallowing even the little suitcase and the little passport, swallowing the carpets, the emergency exits, the airplane controls and smudged windows and the odor of pilots, slipping down the aircraft’s nose and continuing to swallow as he moved from the aircraft’s beak towards its base, swallowing wings, wheels, luggage, fuel, skin, presence, until the man was not recognizable anymore and had turned into an enormous jumbo, observed from the cordoned-off terminal by dumbstruck passengers and the men armed with guns and gas, whose leader wondered on his walkie-talkie what sort of protocol ought to be followed here, but he needn’t have bothered. The plane had begun taxiing down the runaway, past other waiting aircrafts, ignoring pleas from the control tower to desist, to wait a minute, to let’s talk this through, to whadabout the hostages, but the plane didn’t care, it went on its merry way, picking up speed, lifting its beak, tucking in its mighty wheels, returning its cargo.
Expat. Worker.Guest. Worker.Guest Worker. Worker.Foreigner. Worker.Non-resident. Worker.Non-citizens. Workers.Workers. Visa.People. Visas.Workers. Worker.A million. More.Homeless. Visiting.Residing. Born.Brought. Arrived.Acclimatizing. Homesick.Lovelorn. Giddy.Worker. Workers.Tailor. Solderer.Chauffeur. Maid.Oil Man. Nurse.Typist. Historian.Shopkeeper. Truck driver.Watchman. Gardener.Secretary. Pilot.Smuggler. Hooker.Tea boy. Mistress.Temporary. People.Illegal. People.Ephemeral. People.Gone. People.Deported. Left.More. Arriving.
Near jawazat road, there used to be an ordinary looking kadakaran who owned a little kada. In the back, where he kept the surplus Basmati rice, the colas, the cooking oil, and the hardcore porn, was what some customers sought him out for, a fone. The device resembled a rotary phone, but it wasn’t a phone; it was a fone. The fone did the one thing you would expect a phone to do: it could make calls. However, it couldn’t receive any. The fone’s main purpose was teleportation. A man could use the fone to talk to his wife, and as his wife cried softly into the neighbor’s phone, her husband would hover over her, like a giant bee, seeing his wife cry like that, feeling satisfied that his wife could cry like that, content that he could see her cry like that, even though she wouldn’t be able to see him, or even know that he was there, so close he could see the dirt on the back of her neck. And he was so happy he could see her cry like that. Or a woman could be speaking to her daughter, a daughter who hasn’t learned to form words yet, but is instead biting the phone, like it’s meant to be bitten, drooling into it, as her father steadies her wobbling body, coaxing her to talk, to speak, pleading with her to perform something worthy for her mother, and the woman sees all of this, her husband encouraging their child to say something, anything, as long as it’s a word, any word, it didn’t matter as long as it was a word. Or the phone simply rang and rang and no one picked up, even though the fone caller was in a state of bliss, itching to tell someone that he’d been promoted, that he was happy, that he needed to tell people he was happy to feel happy, that he needed to see people pretending to be happy in order to be happy. So the fone had its uses, but its usage was regulated by the kadakaran. It would break if too many people used it, he said, and I don’t know how to fix it if it breaks. So a person could use the fone only once a year. One couldn’t tell one’s friends about the fone. They had to find it. Stumble across it and the kada itself was like stumbling across a Kurdish-speaking macaw or a wizard in a bar. Then once one knew what the fone did, one put oneself on a list and chose a date and time. If one were smart, one didn’t choose religious or public holidays, or a late-evening time. One wanted to be sure the person one was calling was home, because one only got one fone call and it had to count. On the appointed day, one cut work by calling in sick, made one’s way to the kada, and made that call. Then when one hung up, one would make an appointment for the next year.
If Johnny Kutty hadn’t called his wife, maybe the fone would still be in operation.
Johnny Kutty was married only a month before a distant relative found him a job as a car mechanic’s apprentice in Dubai. Johnny Kutty bought phone cards and called his wife once a week. He called his friend Peeter’s STD booth, and Peeter sent a helper to fetch Johnny Kutty’s wife and they talked frantically until the card ran out. When Johnny Kutty discovered the fone, he couldn’t wait; he made an appointment for the next available date. On that fateful day, as Johnny Kutty hovered over his wife in his friend Peeter’s STD booth, he noticed Peeter sat there, smiling at her, and she at him. He offered her cold cola, which she sipped using a straw, blushing as she did so, blushing, Johnny Kutty couldn’t be sure, at Peeter’s attentiveness or because of what Johnny Kutty was telling her, of the things he wanted to do to her—dirty, dirty things—and she nodded and blushed, and blushed then nodded, smiling all the time, smiling until it drove hovering Johnny Kutty crazy, until the phone card ran out.
Quickly, Johnny Kutty made the next available appointment for the following year, but he continued to call his wife every week using a regular pay phone. It wasn’t enough anymore. He imagined all sorts of things: that she was drinking cola, that Peeter had bought bottles of cola only for her, that he put the straw in himself, that he sucked on that straw after Johnny Kutty’s wife left, that he licked the tip where her lips and spit had been. When his young wife shared she was pregnant a few weeks later, Johnny Kutty knew then that his life was ruined. That night, he broke intothe kadakaran’s kada and called Peeter. The phone rang and rang and rang, and Johnny Kutty was sure Peeter wasn’t managing the STD booth, which was also the front portion of his house. Peeter, Johnny Kutty knew, was busy with Johnny Kutty’s wife, and had no time to answer phone calls from his best friend, too busy cuckolding his best friend with his friend’s young wife, the bitch who loved cola. As he realized what his wife had done, Johnny Kutty started hating his once-happy life, destroyed now by his cheating wife and his once-best friend. He wished he wasn’t in that kada by himself, standing next to that fone, the fone that broke his heart, a device that may have done the same for countless others, and thus needed to be put down. Exterminated. So he got to work. Johnny Kutty poured fifteen liters of cola into a bucket the kadakaran used to clean his kada, and dropped the fone into the fizzing liquid, holding it down as it were a person, drowning it, drowning the people it contained. Then he looked for match boxes, piled them next to the bucket with the dead fone, then poured three tins of cooking oil on the floor for good measure.
He lit one match and watched it drop. When the shurtha at the police station told Johnny Kutty that he could ake one phone call, he told them they could do whatever they wanted to him, but if they asked him to phone someone or brought a phone to him, he would die, and for a man to die so many times in one year was not normal, and he said he probably wouldn’t survive that, which would be a shame, because he had been through a lot.