Beginning with the story of three laborers swallowing their passports and suitcases causing them to turn into passports and suitcases themselves with arms and legs, then spiraling into the trio trying to escape into an airport, attempting to escape their labor camp – the rush of absurdity contained in those first few pages gives one the impression that Temporary People will not be like your typical novel.
In his debut work of fiction, Deepak Unnikrishnan immerses the reader into the whirlwind life of guest-workers in the United Arab Emirates. “Fiction has barely addressed the so-called guest workers of the Gulf,” Unnikrishnan states in the introduction. This collection of 28 short stories is meant to correct such oversight and exclusion. By infusing elements of absurdity that would make Franz Kafka smile with a magical realism evocative of Salman Rushdie, Unnikrishnan takes the reader down the rabbit hole of life as a guest worker in an empire, where identity becomes displaced within the never-ending borders and towers.
In “Glossary,” the tongue of an English-speaking student in Abu Dhabi suddenly escapes from his mouth, running out into the streets, until it is hit by oncoming traffic. Verbs and adjectives die, but some nouns survive, falling onto objects and people, haphazardly giving them new names. “Mushtibushi” tells the story of an apartment elevator that eats people, with latchkey children (mispronouncing Mitsubishi as “Mushtibushi”) having the responsibility of offering sacrifice to it. These colorful, fantastical tales, among others, paint portraits of the effects of colonization, imperialism and global capitalism – forces that create and contribute to the absurdity that guest workers find themselves in.
Whether it’s Anna, in the story titled “Birds,” who tapes construction workers back together after they’ve fallen from buildings, listening to their trials and triumphs as she reassembles their limbs, or the phone in “Fone” that allows laborers to teleport as they make calls, seeing their children on the other end, or, at it’s worst, seeing their spouse cheat on them – a kaleidoscope of dynamic stories are presented and even at their most absurd, a layer of humanity remains.
Along with inventive storytelling, Unnikrishnan’s blurring of genres and cultures evokes the sense displacement and disorientation that guest workers endure. Poetic, profane, visceral and mesmerizing, Temporary People is a captivating read, and it certainly makes a name for itself as one of the most unique books of 2017.