Migrant Vernaculars: Deepak Unnikrishnan’s “Temporary People”

By Jacob Rama BermanApril 12, 2017

Migrant Vernaculars: Deepak Unnikrishnan’s “Temporary People”

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan

FEW CONTEMPORARY GLOBAL ISSUES are as politically charged as immigration. The American media raises the subject on a nearly daily basis in the context of debates about assimilation, national identity, crime, and terrorism. The success of anti-immigration politicians in both the United States and in Europe has raised the stakes for those who see immigrant communities as integral to the American experiment and part of the very fabric of the American experience. The contours of American literature, for instance, would be unrecognizable without the contributions of Jewish, Irish, Italian, and Asian immigrant writers, or, depending on how one chooses to look at it, without the contributions of the ancestors of European settlers and forcefully transplanted African slaves. Yet does the experience of migrancy, or of permanent itinerancy, without the possibility of citizenship and/or cultural assimilation, demand a different affective vocabulary than immigrant writing? Does it demand a different aesthetic approach — one that emphasizes temporariness as both a mood and a mode?

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s debut novel Temporary People takes as its subject the migrant communities of the United Arab Emirates. It both fits neatly into the category of Global Literature and shares much with a tradition of immigrant American writing that grapples with institutional racism and individual alienation. Ultimately, though, Temporary People is about a set of experiences that is unique to the Gulf and to its system of migrant labor. The UAE, a country with roughly the population of New Jersey, has the fifth largest stock of international migrants in the world. Foreign nationals make up 80 percent of the resident population in the UAE and 90 percent of the workforce. These foreign nationals do not have the protection of citizenship, have no political representation, and are subject to the often arbitrary and abusive dictates of a sponsorship system. The UAE is a case study in hegemony. In a series of “Chabters,” Temporary People delves into the lives, imaginaries, myths, and vocabularies of the Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Filipinos who make up UAE’s subaltern class. Unnikrishnan, writing from the perspective of the proletariat, creates a vivid bottom-up vernacular history of the modern Gulf oil state. Yet his book also poses poignant questions about migrant identity more generally.

The promotional material for Temporary People compares the novel to the works of Salman Rushdie and George Saunders, but reading Temporary People had me thinking about a different work of writing that explored migration through interlinked experimental vignettes, Jean Toomer’s Cane. Alternating between prose, poetry, spirituals, and dramatic dialogue, Cane examined the lives, aspirations, and origins of the African-American community at a time when much of that community was relocating from the rural South to the urban North. Cane was published in 1923 and has come to be critically regarded as a classic of both High Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Of course, Temporary People is about a different community in different circumstances and would be more properly categorized as postmodernist than as modernist, but both books share a formal restlessness and an interest in turning that restlessness into aesthetic explorations of how a marginalized cultural community navigates its relationship to a dominant, and often racist, national culture.

In a “Chabter” titled “Kloon,” a character named Chainsmoke acquires part-time work selling laundry detergent in Dubai grocery stores. The job requires him to dress as a clown, as well as carry around a dirty clown doll. The corporate pitchman tells a group of assembled trainees that the marketing angle is a “simple idea”:

Two clowns, one supermarket. Clown One, y’all, spotless, happy. Clown Two … this one’s dirty, depressed. Happy Clown wheels Dirty Fellow, like this. OK? In case customers miss y’all, tie this to trolley.” He grabbed the balloon. “Kids like balloons. Kids come, parents follow.”

The binary simplicity of the company’s marketing strategy belies the abject racial positioning of those temporary people who are employed to execute it. A teen girl in one of the stores where Chainsmoke works warns her younger sister: stay away from the clown — he is “dirty.” “‘Black clowns don’t exist, Saarah. Look at his neck, fingers’ she told her sister in Arabic.” While the little girl endearingly calls Chainsmoke “Kloon,” her older sister taunts him by calling him “Blackie.”

Dressed as Happy Clowns, migrants such as Chainsmoke are treated by their Gulf host society as the Dirty Fellow. In his clown costume, Chainsmoke endures a series of physical, verbal, and sexual humiliations from store employees and customers alike. In each of these encounters, Chainsmoke reveals his status relative to others through linguistic cues. On one of his first days working in a supermarket, Chainsmoke encounters an employee who disapproves of the way he exaggerates the effect of his costume by swiveling his hips:

An employee dressed in black and white disapproved, “Hey, man!” he bellowed in Hindi. “Crazy or what? Decency!”

Chainsmoke stopped, turned. Laughed so the man could hear, then walked like a whore again. In bigger heels.

Because the employee speaks Hindi, Chainsmoke can safely reject and satirize the criticism by doubling down on the “whore” walk, but when the language is Arabic or English, Chainsmoke has no such power. In one such instance, Chainsmoke has been recruited into a perverse form of prostitution, whereby an abaya-clad woman in a limousine pays him to masturbate in front of her while still wearing his clown mask.

As Chainsmoke fiddled with his pants, she cussed. Transitioning smoothly from English to Arabic, insulting his family, his future sons, his comatose prick, his cheap briefs. Animated, her body pulsed. Her rage contorted her face. And as Chainsmoke struggled with his clothes, her tongue continued to riddle him with words spiked with toxins. And like that Chainsmoke’s comatose cock stirred.

Abaya noticed. “You like Arabic?” she cooed, cussing quietly now.

Chainsmoke’s prick rose like vapor.

“It’s a beautiful language,” Abaya purred in English. “Two fifty.”

If Arabic is the language of seduction, English is the idiom of business. Though he can speak both Arabic and English, Chainsmoke, an outsider who smells of “curry,” is native to neither and is thus subjugated both sexually and economically by Abaya. The lives of the men and women that populate Unnikrishnan’s novel are often profane, rarely happy, and always lived at the intersection of overlapping linguistic and cultural codes.

Unnikrishnan emphasizes the relationship of language to status throughout Temporary People. In the coming-of-age story “Monseepalty,” a group of Indian migrants plays soccer together in empty parking lots — parking lots that have been turned into makeshift playgrounds claimed by boys of different nationalities. “For a few hours we were all temporary inhabitants of Moonseepalty,” the narrator explains, “an ephemeral football-mad province of many complex cultural parts powered by nationality or race.” This “ephemeral” vision of community, however, is eventually shattered as the fault lines of belonging become evident once the police arrive to break up the games. While the Indian migrants scatter and hide, a shirtless boy from a group of Arab players walks “boldly towards the waiting patrol car, like his father owned the world.” The kid and the police shake hands, share a joke, and then the Arab boys return to playing soccer: “Bug-eyed, we cursed him, his fucking language and all his fucking ancestors.”

Language and masculinity are intimately connected for the Indian migrant boys; the “Arabee” boys, the narrator explains, have the “balls” that the Indian boys lack. The Arab boys not only have cultural status, but also, their command of Arabic signifies their permanence and belonging in the community. They are afforded the protections of the state, because they count, whereas the Indian boys do not. The vision of “Moonseepalty” is a chimera, or more properly, the community to which the Indian boys belong offers only a bastardized version of municipal belonging. After one of the Indian boys, “Tits,” has his bike stolen and is then harassed by the police for reporting it, the migrant soccer crew feels disrespected and is looking for some kind of revenge. They happen upon a lone Arab boy and begin timidly throwing stones at him, but when the Arab boy turns and challenges them, the status difference between the two groups is definitively announced through language:

“You crazy?” He spoke English now. He then held his index finger up to his temple and drew circles in the air. With Arabic, he tightened our dicks, with English he lopped them off.

Figurative emasculation becomes literal: Tits, egged on by the narrator calling him a “pussy,” physically attacks the Arab boy. When the Arab boy’s friends come to his aid, none of the Indians help Tits. As a result of the beating, Tits is permanently mutilated. The story ends with Tits’s revenge — not on the Arab boys who crushed his balls, but rather on the narrator who abandoned him. Inter-communal violence resolves itself in forms of intra-community violence that challenge the very notion of community.

With one notable exception, characters do not reappear from one “chabter” to the next. Each chapter is a stand-alone experiment in conveying the experience of temporariness, and therefore the structure of the novel itself embodies the fragmentation of the community bonds that Temporary People tracks. The voices in the novel are rich and varied but held together only by the common thematics of impermanence and abjection. In this impermanent world of fragile bonds, friends betray friends, brothers betray brothers, mothers abandon children, and children leave parents behind — it is the world of the “pravasi,” the foreigner, outsider, immigrant who forsakes his own culture for another and thus can never be trusted. “Ever since Hari could crawl, I knew he would be a wanderer, destined to be a pravasi,” one mother laments: “As soon as he started to walk, he walked his skinny ass all the way to Dubai.” “Only for a short time, my mother promised when she left,” a son complains “but the shortness has grown longer, many years, almost twelve, and now I am grown.” There are no success stories, per se, in Temporary People — no stories of integration into the host culture or triumphant return to the land of ancestors.

Temporary People probes the cultural anomie of the pravasi, but out of that anomie new cultural forms emerge — hybrid myths of origin and self that are born from the vernaculars of migrancy. The character “Gulf Mukundun” is named such because of his “Gulf-party connections, Gulf-party money and Gulf-party status,” but despite Mukundun’s seeming integration into Gulf society, he is forced to return to India under a cloud of shame after he is caught “shagging a man.” When his son questions him about what happened, why he was sent to jail, Mukundan answers by telling the boy a story about how, while in the Gulf, he learned to “become a building.”

He began moonlighting as a mid-sized hotel, admitted Mukundun, charging patrons even more, eventually getting caught because these things don’t stay secret for long. Angry officials lugged him off to jail, then to court, where he was made to promise he wouldn’t turn into a building or a hotel without a permit ever again.

No matter his status, Gulf Mukundun is still a migrant stuck in a kind of permanent adolescence, in which he requires permission from the authorities for his activities. Mukundun is finally released only after he has given part of himself to the Gulf, a part he leaves behind. “The jailers turned that part — ‘what I gave!’ — into paste,” Mukundun explains, “smeared most of it on the walls […] diluted the rest of it in water and mopped the floors. It was how they would keep him there, leave that part of him there.”

The stories circulating on the pages of Temporary People work to render an invisible community visible. These stories push back against narratives of collective impermanence through the creation of mythologies that connect home and away, as well as past and future. Yet the novel simultaneously details the profoundly debilitating effect “temporary” status has on cultural, as well as familial, bonds. Mukundun disappears one day to the relief of most of his family. His brother burns him in effigy to signal his death, even though he is not dead, just missing. The only objection comes from his son, who has taken to rubbing himself with bricks in an attempt to learn how to become a building himself. The boy’s mother reacts by asking him if he, like his father, “thinks about boys.”

Unnikrishnan’s “chabters” are attempts, through acts of storytelling, to preserve what has been left behind by migrants, as well as to document what they have created. These stories introduce readers to Malayalee laborers grown from seed who eventually rebel against their masters, to elevators that molest children, and to a crew of mobile caregivers who tape injured workers back together after they have fallen off of the buildings on which they are working. The novel also immerses the reader in family origin stories derived from the Bhagavad Gita. Surreal science fiction fantasies sit comfortably next to the folk lineages.

In his autobiography, Toomer called Cane a “swan-song,” an ode to a cultural identity that was being radically altered by African Americans’ movement into urban centers and mechanized labor. Though Temporary People marks a similar movement, away from rural villages and folk traditions, its characters express no nostalgia for the world left behind. Instead, they look relentlessly to the future, thinking of the past only incidentally and then often only in terms of vengeance or loss. The borders between here/there, then/now, home/away are not permanent, but they are not permeable either. The mother who complains about her son who left to Dubai explains that “by the time you have done the math in your head, everything you’ve missed, what’s been gained, you’ll come to realize what the word pravasi really means. Absence.”

Rather than engage in nostalgia, Unnikrishnan traces how various forms of absence mutate his subjects. His characters are like the neologisms that they use — neither of this world nor of that, but something new. Without the consolations of citizenship or status, Unnikrishnan’s migrants become global vagrants, circulating in a kind of interstitial no man’s land where they morph from one identity to another, but never find home. Consider Suitcase Face:

Buy Suitcase Face a ticket so he is welcomed at O’Hare as a tourist. Then change his name. Turn him illegal. Put him behind the wheel of a Lincoln Towncar. Make him drive until his wife forgets her husband, his son avoids his father. Make him drive until the immigrant rues the reasons he fled, until looking at the green card hurts. Observe.


Dr. Jacob Rama Berman is an associate professor of English at Louisiana State University. He is the author of American Arabesque: Arabs, Islam, and the Nineteenth-Century Imaginary (NYU Press, 2012).

LARB Contributor

Dr. Jacob Rama Berman is an Associate Professor of English at Louisiana StateUniversity. He is the author of American Arabesque: Arabs, Islam, and the Nineteenth-CenturyImaginary (NYU Press, 2012). He lives in New Orleans and writes about the 19th century, Arab-American culture, and Islam in America. 


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