Deepak Unnikrishnan’s new novel, Temporary People, is out today from Restless Books. It is the winner of Restless Books’ first-ever Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
This book shines a blinding, unapologetic spotlight on the UAE’s foreign national workforce, illuminating the realities and unrealities of an existence in flux. Like the fallen construction workers in the chapter “Birds,” who are patched up with “duct tape or some good glue,” this collection feels like it was cobbled together from a larger, scattered whole, using any tools and materials that were on hand; something that is now stretching its limbs, learning, feeling, growing. The blend of languages, cultures and genre elements holding it all together is definitely some good glue.
The 28 chapters in this collection are divided into three sections: “Limbs,” “Tongue” and “Veed.” One of my favorites, belonging to “Tongue,” is “Glossary.” In it, “an English-speaking teen who went to an Indian school in Abu Dhabi” loses his tongue one day when it leaps from his mouth, grows arms and legs, and propels itself into traffic, causing a massive accident. His vocabulary explodes, sending Arabic and Hindi and English and Malayalam words to wreak linguistic havoc redefining the world wherever they land.
In “Limbs” are two speculative story-chapters, “In Mussafah Grew People” and “Le Musee,” which chronicle the personal and global fallout of a government program to grow the perfect worker from seeds. The “Canned Malayalee Project” produces “fruits” that are harvested and then “cerebrally customized” before they are dispatched to whatever industry requires more worker drones. That is, until group of rebel “fruits,” who refused to be led out into the desert to die, disrupt the system, instigating decades of war. “Le Musee” is the title of a fictional novel that depicts the display (this is where I started thinking about George Saunders) of a hand-picked group of war prisoners, ordered to pair off and live in a staged village as they would in peacetime, every aspect of their lives (and deaths) available to the people who wiped their culture out. But unlike in a George Saunders story, they are not paid even a pittance for their time, and in Unnikrishnan’s tale the novel inspires the abduction and creation of real-life “Displays” in the rebel Commander’s safe house.
In the third and final section, “Veed” (“Home”) is a chapter continuing the story of “Blatella Germanica,” a young boy’s battle against the sentient cockroaches that have invaded his family’s run-down apartment building. But in this chapter, Boy is now a man living in a cold city “where the lake is a masquerading sea.” Certain he is reliving the infestation of his youth, he reports an insect sighting to his landlord, Laurel, and reminisces on his wars with the cockroaches:
“I’ve seen first-hand the perils of infestation. I’ve seen ungodly things. What the bugs become. I’ve seen them pretending to be other things. At night, I’ve seen unmentionable things, heard frightening things. Roaches in little shirts and trousers and skirts, in panties and briefs, roaches who spoke what we spoke, roaches who taught themselves to walk vertically. Roaches who turned human.”
There are parallels to Kafka here, but several paragraphs later I was distracted by other parallels, more sinister and immediate than any, I think, that could be found in the pages of a Kafka story:
“Maybe someday these indolent bugs will emerge from the bathrooms in droves, dressed like professionals or labor or like my dumb super who doesn’t speak a word of English and simply smiles, speaking American with an accent, dragging us from our beds, tying us up, taking us to our own bathrooms, pushing us down those sinks, flushing and kicking us out and moving in because it’s time. … Before I whack the bug, I check if it’s wearing shoes or a skirt or a jacket or a tie or crotchless undies made of putrid garbage, whether the bug’s taking notes, whether it’s attempting to walk upright. I watch it before making my move. Then I get as close as I can to this thing, corner it almost, and ask, Do you speak English? Yesterday, Laurel, I got my first response. Yes, Boi, a little.”
Temporary People is bright, scary, imaginative and alive. Spun in inventive prose, these are the stories of those who break their backs building the Gulf's “towering monuments of wealth.” It is new and necessary, and I hope you will read it.
Publisher: Restless Books