It took novelist Deepak Unnikrishnan 10 years to write his award-winning ode to the immigrant worker
In ‘Chabter Nine’ titled Nalinakshi in Deepak Unnikrishnan’s debut novel, Temporary People (Penguin Random House, 2017), an 80-year-old woman from Nadavaramba, Thrissur, Kerala, relays her understanding of the Malayalam word pravasi, which literally means outsider. Having made the Gulf her home several decades ago, Nalinakshi draws from her own experiences to weigh in. “It means you’ve left your home. You’ll have regrets. You’ll want money, then more money. For a few weeks every year, you’ll return for vacations, but mind you, you return older…blacker. Someone’s going to tell you so-and-so died. And it’ll be a shock, because you didn’t know. When you write your book, address my Hari personally, and tell my beautiful, beautiful boy, tell my son, that’s what it always meant: absence.”
Temporary People, Unnikrishnan’s decade-long project that finally culminated in a book, captures the range of the migrant-worker experience in the Gulf. Simple, sensitive, and often surreal, the layered stories allow readers to ponder the life of these people, their realities and their restlessness. And yet, it is also a story of celebration. “I wrote the book for people like my parents, and for my uncles and aunts, and for the boys I went to school with,” says Unnikrishnan, 37,who teaches two writing courses titled The Outsider and Street Food at New York University Abu Dhabi, “But it’s also a shout-out to sound and language, and strangers and food, and hope and loss.”
With his roots in Kerala, Unnikrishnan was born and raised in Abu Dhabi, and went to college in Chicago and New York. As a result of having negotiated the experience of simultaneously being an insider and outsider nearly everywhere, his narratives possess a rare credibility and insightfulness. “I wrote [the chapter] Mitsubishi way back in 2003, at a moment when I began to feel that writing was important,” he says. “When I wrote it, in a form unrecognisable to what the chapter became, I wondered whether a book was possible, but I wasn’t sure about its architecture or language. Then as my mind and knowledge brewed over time, so did the idea of the book, and I realised that I was writing about why being from Abu Dhabi, irrespective of circumstance, mattered to a bunch of people.”
At The Hindu Lit For Life event in January, Temporary People won The Hindu Literary Prize. It was also the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. “How do I feel to have won two prizes in different countries for something that took so long to write, and got rejected by publishing houses both in the US and India for reasons as varied as the intent of the book—why it operated the way it did, or their uncertainness about how to sell and market the book? Let’s go with surreal, then vindicated, and then relieved,” he says.
Philip Cheung (Deepak Unnikrishnan)