Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People is like a journal with a different pressed flower on every page, each distinctly fragrant and unique, yet still cohesive with the theme of the novel. Divided into three parts (or books) titled Limbs, Tongue, Flesh, and Veed, Temporary People is an anthology of distended stories, of different people all of whom inhabit the same plane. Unnikrishnan’s style of narration reminds one of Kafka and Murakami in the same breath.
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The novel binds together twenty-eight unique stories of the deplorable and sometimes downright dehumanizing experiences of immigrants in a way that creates clarity even in the chaotic, fragile lives that most of these people live in alien countries. The presence of narrators of all ages, genders and socio-economic backgrounds adds more flavour and authenticity to the experiences of the people. It manages to perfectly capture the hopes, longings, and sufferings of an immigrant who flees his economically inferior country in search of work.
Pravasi Life and Alienation
The revolving theme of Temporary People is the life of immigrants. And since a significant number of the United Arab Emirates’ immigrant population is Malayali, the word pravasi is used at regular intervals. The novel shatters the misconceptions that surround life in the Gulf country. Unnikrishnan slowly unravels the threads of dreams and expectations that many harbours when they go to work in the Gulf countries, dreams of making money and returning home rich, and expectations of a lavish life which are broken when they face the unforgiving heat and cold cruelty of the place. Many leave the complacency of their homes to make a life for themselves and return either in a casket or complete aliens to their families.
The first story itself in the book is about a woman who glues together and fixes broken, dying people. These people are primarily site labourers responsible for the construction of towering buildings that beautify the city skylines. They are the invisible, non-citizens of a global enterprise that sucks the productivity out of them and tosses their empty husks away.
For anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time in a foreign country, out of necessity, loneliness is a constant companion. According to Unnikrishnan, foreign nationals make up 80% of the population in UAE countries. Legal or illegal, they contribute significantly to the economy but still, are never made to feel at home. Unnikrishnan mines these feelings and recreates them in the characters of his stories. He speaks of the displacement, the constant shroud of invisibility that envelops these people who must due many barriers including law, language and even their nationality watch their own lives shaped as spectators.
In Nalinakshi, the author further explores these sentiments by using the word Pravasi which in Malayalam means “foreigner, outsider. Immigrant, worker.” But more than anything else the word stands for the forgotten ones and the absent.
In Veed, the narrator is asked by a relative, “No! he laughed. “Veed? Veed, where? Where aare you from?” The English equivalent of “veed” is “home” or “place.” In Malayalam, my parents’ tongue, “veed” encompasses a family’s soul, where ancestors are cremated, where the soil remembers your footprint. But in translation, as “veed” becomes “home,” the word’s power has ebbed.” To Unnikrishnan, this feeling of home, that the pravasis in these Gulf countries yearn for, is an important element of their identities.
The frailty of relationships
Charles Darwin’s theory on the survival of the fittest holds true in this alien land where each man must look out for himself or get swept away by the sandstorms of reality. Young children grow up with unavailable parents and learn early on to only depend on themselves. Like the little girl and boy in ‘Mushtibushi’ who grow up before their time in the face of a molester elevator in their building. The bond between most people is stretched thin due to distance, apathy and a growing sense of resentment towards self.
Many of the men in the stories have found their way to the Emirati countries in search of better lives and have left their families behind feeling a crippling sense of loneliness. They assuage their pain by having sex with prostitutes to satisfy their physical urges. The families of these men will remain blissfully unaware of how they lived there, their secrets shoved under expensive carpets bought from the souks on their way back to their homelands.
The only things that keep these men tethered to their sense of reality are thoughts of the lives that await them back home and the camaraderie they form with their fellow non-citizens. They are distinctly aware of all that they are missing out on, back home, all the births and deaths are sacrifices they make for the money. The biggest of them all, is being forgotten by those they leave behind.
In Temporary People, Unnikrishnan infuses humour into the stories to temper the prevalent seriousness. Further, the use of allegorical elements depicts the true realities of immigrant life and the inability of many people to choose better for themselves. It is this frankness that makes the characters in the story human, they too have their hands bound by the ropes of hunger and helplessness.
As most contemporary novels go, Unnikrishnan’s style of writing is fluid with ample use of colloquial language. He also imbibes his own cultural experiences and adds Malayalam diction (his mother tongue) to lend a personal touch to his prose.
Although many of the stories seem distended from each other in the beginning, the novel ends full circle and the reader will find themselves feeling familiarity with the clashing truths of the characters. There is a lot of chaos in the stories but Unnikrishnan contains this storm and houses it all in a greenhouse where his stories grow calm and unaffected.
As a reader who harbours a keen interest in international affairs, to me, the story was refreshing, read bereft of monotony or simplicity. The unique experiences of immigrant workers have been captured beautifully by the author in ways that the words ‘Gulf return’ cannot. Unnikrishnan with his expertise adds multiple layers to his stories and characters and manages to leave the reader content to ruminate on long after they’re done reading the novel.
All of this, his kada, his kadha, that he became a kadakaran, became his arabeekadha. That was his vidhi. You know, fate.
Overall a great read. If you’re someone who enjoys the works of Kafka and other deeply symbolic, layered works, you’ll surely enjoy reading Temporary People. Pay those extra bucks and flaunt it on your bookshelf.
Anyone who enjoys reading contemporary takes on international issues. The aura of nostalgia makes it a good read for expatriates too. For a similarly themed book, check out the review for Jasmine Days.