In 2016, Deepak Unnikrishnan won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, with his then-unpublished manuscript, Temporary People. The prize awards US$10,000 and publication to a first-time, first-generation American author.
Now usually found in Chicago, Deepak Unnikrishnan is a first-generation American author from… where? He grew up in Abu Dhabi, but his parents are pravasis, the Malayalam word for migrants and temporary workers.
Unnikrishnan explains in the introduction to the now-published book that, as the son of pravasis, his departure from Abu Dhabi was inevitable: “The UAE does not grant citizenship to its foreign labor force or their children.” Temporary People uses linked short stories which incorporate a variety of forms—official reports, transcripts of interviews, lists—to build up a fractured, kaleidoscopic portrait of migrant workers in the UAE. These include, among others, a girl who has been sexually abused in an elevator, and who thinks the elevator itself is to blame, an unqualified woman who acts as the nurse patching up men who’ve fallen from construction sites, and, in a sci-fi twist, workers grown from seed with predetermined lifespans. But the surreal individual stories are secondary to Unnikrishnan’s use of language.
Unnikrishnan’s language is manic, and wild, and wonderful.
What does it mean to be a pravasi? Unnikrishnan does not provide a definitive answer; the final chapter, indeed, is in its entirety: “Pravasis=”. There isn’t a question mark, although the reader is surely bound to see one. But while he can’t provide an answer, he is apparently trying to use language to define, as well as to illustrate, pravasi existence—sometimes through strategies as simple, and as powerful, as listing words such as temporary, people and cogs which can be attached to pravasis. Unnikirishnan suggests one way pravasis hang onto their own selves by conjuring a language so lively it defies the numbing effects of being belittled and dishonoured. He explains in his introduction that he uses:
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.
Unnikrishnan’s language isn’t just “jazzed up”; it’s manic, and wild, and wonderful, and often quite confusing—but confusing in a good way that makes outsiders of English-speaking readers, and thus forces them to imagine what it must be like to be a newly-arrived migrant worker, faced with a barely comprehensible language, in a barely comprehensible country.
It is difficult to give a sense of Unnikrishnan’s style in brief snippets, but he includes a story in which an English-speaking Indian boy in Abu Dhabi is abandoned by his tongue, which, in an apparent nod to Gogol, jumps out of his mouth and runs away. Alas, his tongue meets with an accident which sends all the nouns the boy has ever learned flying into the air. On the words’ landing, there were mistakes:
The word(s) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hit a window, but the word most apt to hit the window, Khiraki, crashed into a light bulb. Some words for animals, like Kelb, found the right animal, but most words found the wrong animals. The word Poocha, perfect on a cat, landed on thawing mutton. Himar maimed a chicken’s beak; its English equivalent Donkey, speared a pigeon’s throat. The word Paksi landed on housefly’s thorax, missing the mynah on the lamppost.
Since the nouns had been expelled so violently, many ended up mangled:
These damaged nouns, like Wifebeater, and Veed and Secret Police, were everywhere, unclaimed, hanging off rafters, store signs, pedestrians.
There was racial confusion:
The word Arabee attached itself to a Mumbaiker man and wouldn’t let go while Hind refused to be pried from a Local’s knee, just as the word Saaipu plunged into a Sudanese woman’s vein, swimming like a tapeworm towards the woman’s brain, as a white Eurasian woman/lady looked on before noticing two writhing nouns Kaalia and Blackie, copulating on her wrist.
The crazily inventive smashup Unnikrishnan describes is also a description of his own style, as well as a description of what happens to language “when a country’s main demographic are people from elsewhere.”
Things—tongues, passports, suitcases—taking on a life of their own and running off is a recurring motif, as is things-running-off’s close cousin, metamorphosis. Never mind Kafka’s man metamorphosing into a cockroach, in Unnikrishnan, massed cockroaches metamorphose into humans. They learn to walk upright on two legs, they fashion clothes out of garbage, they learn to make inarticulate sounds, and then to speak. Here’s a narrator who’s done his best to squash and spray them into oblivion:
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… I got my first response. Yes Boi, a little.
Cockroaches metamorphosed into humans as a metaphor for migrant workers is shocking, and shaming, as is so much else in Temporary People.