BookBrowse Reviews Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan

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Temporary People

by Deepak Unnikrishnan

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan X
Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan
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    Mar 2017, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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With absurdist touches, guest workers of the United Arab Emirates embody multiple worlds and identities, and long for home.

In this powerful and innovative collection of 28 short stories, Deepak Unnikrishnan presents a window into the lives of the "temporary" workers of the United Arab Emirates, immigrants with no path to legitimate citizenship, generally employed in the service or construction industries, often under deplorable conditions. The view is disconcerting, surreal, and, perhaps most remarkably, sometimes hilarious.

One of the most affecting stories concerns a woman whose job involves healing construction workers who have fallen from Abu Dhabi's tall buildings, which she does by gluing, taping, or sewing them back together. A series of interrelated pieces revolves around genetically engineered laborers grown in a Dubai lab and their attempt at a rebellion against their creators, an apt metaphor for disenfranchised migrant workers who likely feel similarly objectified. In one brief account, a young man's tongue detaches from his mouth and flees, expelling words all over the street and inciting pandemonium. Some of the stories are short fables, a few are more like poems, simply lists of thematically related words:

Temporary. People.
Illegal. People.
Ephemeral. People.
Gone. People.
Deported. Left.
More. Arriving.

In the epic "Blatella Germanica," Unnikrishnan draws from Homer, Kafka, and Orwell to narrate the rise of a militant group of cockroaches in a tenement building who stage a heroic stand against a bug spray-wielding boy. In a later story, Unnikrishnan flips the point-of-view to provide the exterminator's account, at which point it becomes a parable of immigration anxiety from the perspective of a native, worried the roaches will come back "in droves...dragging us from our beds...kicking us out and moving in because it's time."

If it isn't obvious, this is a fantastical account of the lives of the UAE's immigrant work force, an oppressed people living in poverty and without the rights of citizens, and it is not intended as a documentary of the situation, though readers may be inspired to look into the facts for themselves. Of Indian origin, Unnikrishan grew up in the UAE before emigrating to the United States for college. His own parents were temporary workers with no path to citizenship for themselves or their son. This perspective informs Unnikrishnan's work. He notes in the introduction that his intention was to explore "how temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, fables and language(s)," which he does, ably.

The linguistic element is particularly noteworthy—expressed here is a polyglot pastiche of English, Arabic, and Malayalam, which is the official language of the Indian state of Kerala, and Unnikrishnan's mother tongue. The characters even employ the incorrect or warped pronunciation/spelling of a non-native speaker—a magic phone becomes a "fone," one character wants to go to "Yourope," and the book is divided into "chabters." Consequently, some translation efforts are required to fully understand the text, but Unnikrishnan is careful to clarify words that are absolutely integral. The word "pravasis," for example, which means "expatriate," "foreigner," etc. is used repeatedly, as it captures the major theme of the book.

While a few of the stories narrate alienation and loss, the author's tone is largely humorous. His characters have names like "Chainsmoke," "Big Fella," and "Suitcase Face." We are told that the employee-growing laboratory hired a scientist famous for growing a human brain and made him "Head Researcher." Unnikrishnan is equally skilled at describing the macabre, like a cockroach's "copper-colored egg purse polished like crystal." There are intriguing visual elements to the book as well, including crude drawings and blacked-out text meant to mimic censorship.

The whimsy can become a little overwhelming, like watching a very long Wes Anderson film. If the humor sounds like it is in poor taste, it often is, to say nothing of the more outrageous narrative elements like the apartment building plagued by a child-molesting elevator. That being said, there is a long literary tradition, from Jonathan Swift to Kurt Vonnegut and George Saunders, of making a political point via the inappropriate and absurd, and with this profoundly clever debut, Unnikrishnan exhibits the potential to join the ranks of these luminaries.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review first ran in the April 5, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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