“Below my building is a kada. You know, shop. With a kadakaran. You know, shopkeeper. This kadha. You know, story. Involves him. Kadakaran Moidu is what Amma called him. I called him Karate Moidu because he called himself Karate Moidu because he took lessons for a few months before breaking his wrist after falling from a chair, ending what would’ve been a promising Karate Moidu career. So now he had his kada, which became his kadha, that he turned into another kadakaran in Arabee Naadu. You know, Arabee Cundry. All of this, his kada, his kadha, that he became a kadakaran, became his arabeekadha. That was his vidhi. You know, fate.”
“In 1991, an English-speaking teen who went to an Indian school in Abu Dhabi was waiting to cross the street, when his tongue abandoned him by jumping out of his mouth and running away. Before the young man could apprehend and discipline the escaping appendage, it had grown limbs, a face, a mouth, a tiny proboscis, and fountain-pen blue hair, and thus, free at last, sprinted towards oncoming traffic, where it smashed into a massive vundy ferrying famished school kids who were released from the drudgeries of learning, causing all the nouns the now-deceased tongue had accumulated in its time in the boy’s mouth to be released into the air like shrapnel, hitting and injuring unsuspecting inanimate and animate things. Verbs, adjectives, and adverbs died at the scene, but the surviving nouns, tadpole sized, see through, fell like hail. Some, even accurately. The word Kelb found a mangy dog and settled in the mutt’s eye, puncturing its cornea. The word Vellum plummeted into a little puddle, where it sank to the bottom, meeting the word Maai. Both Vellum and Maai, troubled at first to discover each other, negotiated to cohabit as roommates.”
Fashionable polyglotism or semantic gymnastics? Neither. Deepak Unnikrishnan’s promising debut novel Temporary People, inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, is a phantasmagoria of migrant scenes and scenarios set in the United Arab Emirates. What connects the disparate stories with each other in this book are not common characters or narrative sequences, but the real and surreal worlds and words of the ‘temporary people’, the Indian /Malayali expatriates working in the Gulf.
Unnikrishnan is obsessed with the possibilities of language. When I ask him about the bleak world that he created in the book, he pleads guilty and says: “These are stories that may not be pleasant. The humour in them is dark, I will give you that. It makes people uncomfortable.” After a moment of self-doubt, he offers a way out: “But there are things that the book does with language. So if you want to think about joy, the fact that language is doing what it is doing in the book itself is my way of suggesting that the people in the book or their life are not broken.”
I agree on the language part but persist: “What about your portrayal of the Emiratis? Have you had access to their life and culture?” Unnikrishnan admits he has had real exposure to Emiratis only recently: “For the first time in my life, I am now in conversation with Emiratis. I am teaching their kids, which gave me a new perspective on what is life like here. As kids we did not have that experience. We just assumed things. The book in fact is a reflection of people who do not know the other and make up things about the other community. It is a book about people feeling unloved and judged.”
He asserts his book is not a ‘how to’ manual on what the UAE is. “It never should be. I don’t read Arabic. I don’t know what the writers are writing here. In that sense was there a lack of knowledge? You bet there was. Every writer operates with the lack of knowledge, with information that they do not have. And this is a book primarily about people who come here to live. I never had access to Emirati life. These are tales. Or puzzles. And they should not be taken in any other way. Mine is not a book about confrontation but about conversation.”
We discuss the near absence of great Malayalam writings depicting the Gulf experience, which is rather strange. Given the Malayalee addiction to literature and the presence of large numbers of Gulf Malayali writers, this literary drought is inexcusable. Malayali presence in the Gulf has been a part of the region’s and Kerala’s history for close to half a century. The Gulf needed affordable labour, and the Malayalees, jobs. As such, it is the story of a simple symbiosis, complicated neither by over-expectations nor by collective disillusionment.
I suggest to Unnikrishnan that his is the first major ‘Malayali novel’—though not a ‘Malayalam novel’—that seeks to portray the Gulf experience. He talks about Malayalam films portraying the Gulf life that had an impact on him over the years. Unable to read Malayalam, he has had no direct familiarity with Malayalam literature, which he regrets. I point out the unmistakable imprint of Arundhati Roy’s prose in his style of writing and play with language. Both of them actually tried to translate Malayali lived experience into the English language. He says The God of Small Things was one of the first ever books he read from start to finish.
“I don’t know if she influenced me, but reading the book gave me joy. I have not traced my literary lineage, but if I have to, it has to be to the writers I read and to the films I watched. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children are books that I loved. When you read a writer who commands the language, you feel wonderstruck. I don’t want to tame the language, but to release it to achieve its true potential. Because I am a product of this city, Abu Dhabi, it has to be a part of my lineage. But when I left this place I began thinking about it, processing the experiences, all the diverse emotions that come with it. UAE is home for me,” the writer stresses.
I argue it is the temporariness of the expatriate experience that kept the remittance economy in Kerala going. Prospects of naturalisation would have diverted the dreams of the future away from the home state. He concurs but adds the uncertainty of the experience causes deep pain. “I suffered it much when I was here. I do even now with my job at the New York University, Abu Dhabi. When the contract is due for renewal, you lament your temporariness. It is all the more painful when you are not well off. We grew up without much money at all. I know what it means to be poor in the Gulf. I lived it. But later I got admission to a very prestigious art school—School of the Art Institute of Chicago.”
I ask Unnikrishnan why all his Pravasi male characters came across as sexually frustrated and downright sexist. He says in the 1990s Abu Dhabi was a city of men. “When you have a city populated largely by men, they tend to talk about things in a certain way. I went to the Indian School in the boys’ shift. In that kind of a place, there is a certain way in which you talk about women. I wanted it to be in the book intact.”
For Unnikrishnan, writing about expatriate life in the Gulf is part of documenting his own family history. “So many relatives from father’s and mother’s side lived here. Some of them died here. So when I think of the UAE, Abu Dhabi specially, it is home, in a sense that I cannot put on paper. I cannot claim it that way. I can certainly claim it with respect to what I remember. There is so much emotional investment that people have put into this place. My parents did. I don’t know what is written about all these in Malayalam. But in English it has been rarely tackled. In my desi gene, I feel a responsibility to talk about these things. That is why I or the book uses a certain kind of language to express that experience,” he avers.
(Shajahan Madampat is a cultural critic and commentator.)