'Sharjah' Mohan arrived by bus in 1976 wearing bell-bottoms, aviators, a checked orange shirt, and a top hat. After a quick look around, he ambled to the village square, a short distance from Krishnan Kutty's teashop. He waited a few minutes, removed his hat, placed it by his feet, and got to work. True to script, he pulled out a rabbit. The tea sippers didn't pay the feat any mind.
The rabbit sniffed the afternoon air, hopped towards the pepper tree situated approximately twenty feet from Krishnan Kutty and his patrons. There, upright on muscled hind legs, the animal produced a magnifying glass, held it towards the sun, then burst into flames. The tea sippers stopped sipping.
Through the smoky haze and the smell of burning rabbit, the tea sippers and fast-appearing onlookers from different points and angles noticed a poker-faced 'Sharjah' Mohan stretching rubber-like limbs, as though he was preparing to run to the moon and back in under a minute. Before anyone could ask him where he came from, Sharjah Mohan dove into the hat head first, like a seabird. Tea sippers and onlookers surrounded the hat, chicken shit to investigate further. Then Krishnan Kutty had an idea. Kodhu! he yelled. Kodhu!
A mild-tempered stray tamed by teashop scraps woofed a lazy woof as it heard its name being called. Obliged to respond, Kodhu trundled towards his master's scent, in time to see Krishnan Kutty drop steaming rabbit bones into 'Sharjah' Mohan's hat. The excited canine dropped its tongue and wagged its tail, licking the hat's brim, preparing to taste juicy marrow, when a large object was flung from the hat's innards, high into the air, just missing the terrified dog. It was a 21' inch Akai Color TV. As the pooch fled towards the safety of the teashop, another object was being pushed out. Assistance! 'Sharjah' Mohan shouted. The men moved towards the voice, latching on to the protruding edifice, tugging and pulling and cussing and shouting for minutes that felt like hours, extracting a roof, then what the roof came attached with, a house.
I have a house like this of my own, said 'Sharjah' Mohan, after he introduced himself to the tea sippers. It took him five years, he said. He was making so much money in Sharjah, it was crazy. Bullshit, said Krishnan Kutty – no man should make that in five years. But I did, assured 'Sharjah' Mohan, inviting them in for a tour of the place, smiling thanks as a tea sipper carried the dented Akai on his head.
The house, two stories, built to actual scale, was made of wax. The furnishings were also wax. The vegetables in the fridge were wax, ditto the cupboards in the bedroom, and the imported china and silverware in the kitchen. There was a wax baby in the crib, a wax scooter in the driveway, even an attached wax garage anticipating that wax car. I swear on my baby boy's health, 'Sharjah' Mohan said, five years could lift your futures – companies are desperate for employees.
A woman with lice in her hair, the wife of the man who carried the TV, inquired about the logistics involved in sending a man to the Gulf. 'Sharjah' Mohan named a sum; a bargain, he added. He offered a discount and reassured her that he'd be helping with the paperwork. He even volunteered to accompany the husband to the Gulf, as long as everything checked out. It's a bargain, woman with lice confirmed with her husband. A bargain, expectant mothers reminded menfolk. Bargain, sons informed parents with badly bitten nails, as crickets chirped and frogs lassoed bugs with their tongues. Bargain, 'Sharjah' Mohan smiled when asked about women, as shiny-eyed youth gladly poured homemade hooch.
A month later, the menfolk left. 'Sharjah' Mohan arranged four flat-top lorries to take them to the airport. They left with fresh passports, secured work permits, and a suitcase each. They all got haircuts, nice shoes, and kissed their lovers long and hard. They stashed their cash in secret pockets and some packed enough provisions for a month. Don't worry, 'Sharjah' Mohan promised weeping relatives, they will be back in a year – fatter and richer – and in five, they'd be ready to retire.
In 1986 'Sharjah' Mohan returned to explain why the men he recruited hadn't returned/written/called in ten years. There's a way to lure them home quicker, he'd say – companies are still short on people. The former teashop proprietor Krishnan Kutty, whose son Kuttan bid his father adieu on a flat-top truck, grabbed 'Sharjah' Mohan by the collar, and knocked his top hat – which the man still wore – to the ground. You're not getting the women, he yelled. Let them decide, responded 'Sharjah' Mohan, as he picked up his hat, before tilting it sideways, the way a busker might after a show. I have letters, he said, and he looked Krishnan Kutty in the eye. The old man stared right back. He observed 'Sharjah' Mohan's brown eyes cloud, then clear, revealing in them the silhouette of a man writing a letter in ballpoint ink, sealing his thoughts in an envelope with his own saliva. Krishnan Kutty's son, Kuttan. The envelope he used resembled other envelopes, which began spilling out of 'Sharjah' Mohan's hat, covering the ground in a pool of paper. Read what news your boy sends from the Gulf, 'Sharjah' Mohan said, before filing false claims.
As Krishnan Kutty fell to the ground sifting through mounds of paper for his son's letter, he sensed other hands doing the same, poring through cursive lettering for signs of news – the fingers of women. The busiest among them was the woman with lice in her hair.
My family has lived in the UAE for almost forty years. I was raised there; my sister was born there, and continues to reside in the country with my parents. I've never lived in the country of my birth; the UAE has always been my closest definition of home. My parents are from the Indian state of Kerala, a land where vestiges of the Gulf can be seen almost everywhere. It is where I've heard people/relatives remark that there are places in the state where young men and women don't exist. Like their fathers and mothers before them, they've left to seek their fortune in the Gulf, around the same time their parents chose to return. This piece, part of a longer work of stories, attempts to examine the conundrum of the migrant/guest worker, the necessity to leave the homeland and the lack of control over one's return. The work is also an attempt to write new fables about temporary people and the spaces they inhabit, irrespective of status or citizenship.
Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi. His first set of short stories, Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacup (2004) was published by Vijitha Yapa Publications (Colombo, Sri Lanka). His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Drunken Boat, Himal Southasian, Bound Off, The State Vol IV: Dubai, and in the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana (Zubaan Books, India). He has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where on scholarship he completed the manuscript for his first work of fiction set in the Gulf.