Excerpt: Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan
Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People comprises 28 linked stories about foreign nationals in UAE. This excerpt includes the author’s introduction and a story about a fantastic phonebooks Updated: Jul 20, 2017 11:51 IST
Deepak Unnikrishnan on Writing Temporary People
In 2001, I began life in America as a migrant of fortune. I had left Abu Dhabi for the United States to attend college. I was twenty. For my parents, Indian migrants and temporary workers who lived in the UAE, my departure was inevitable. The UAE does not grant citizenship to its foreign labor force or their children. I fully expected the American Embassy to reject my student visa application because my father was broke. Yet at the embassy, I wasn’t interviewed. I was simply asked to return the following week to collect my passport. In Jersey, where I received my BA, I worked as a library assistant, resident assistant, gardener, and mover. In New York, I worked for a television station and when I moved to Chicago by train to pursue my MFA on scholarship at the Art Institute, I held three jobs to cover rent and food. After graduation, struggling to find steady income, almost out of status, I housesat and watched other people’s dogs, as I polished the manuscript for Temporary People, the reason I moved to the Midwest.
Temporary People is a work of fiction set in the UAE, where I was raised and where foreign nationals constitute over 80% of the population. It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave.
Fiction has barely addressed the so-called guest workers of the Gulf, their histories, myths, their struggles and triumphs. Beginning with three construction workers escaping labor camp, the twenty-eight stories in Temporary People, divided into three sections (Limbs. Tongue. Home) examine temporary residents like them and the homes they have left behind, and illuminates how temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, fables and language(s). The book employs an amalgamation of the English language tampered with by Malayalam slang, finessed in an Indian school on Emirati soil, and jazzed up thanks to American, Arabic and British television. The book also explores the mispronunciations and word appropriations that take place when a country’s main demographic are people from elsewhere. If Salman Rushdie’s work toys with the English language and George Saunders’s writing presents dark hyper-real satires, Temporary People , in 60,000 words, attempts to do both, and take the conversation a step further by presenting the Emirati street, face, and sounds
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 the 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 into the 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 make 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.
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