Deepak Unnikrishnan on being a “cultural mercenary”

We interviewed Deepak Unnikrishan on his book, “Temporary People”. The interview has been reworked in three parts, centred around themes: space, writing, and cultural mercenariness.

Temporariness is a state, but for me it’s also reflexive. In other words, by default I have to believe that I will not remain in a place for long. And I am not talking metaphorically or philosophically – I’m talking literally. Then, if I am asked to leave, the trauma is easier to bear, and that’s something I have to live with, and that I’ve accepted and that makes sense to me. Here’s why. When I was in the States, I went with two suitcases, a briefcase (because I thought every student needed a briefcase) and a backpack. I did not unpack my suitcase for 4 or 5 years. So, my clothes were in my suitcase and that’s how it was for a very long time. I still do that. The house where we live in Abu Dhabi is not “complete” yet, because we still have stuff in suitcases. I don’t know why I do this, but this is how it is.

In the US I went as an F-1 student, with an F-1 student Visa. It’s a temporary visa, there’s a timeline associated with it. It’s two years, three years, five years depending on what the officer decides will be the duration of your stay. And then you are allowed to renew it, if you have to renew it, provided you still study.

After you are done as a student, you are offered what is called an OPT Visa, which means you are allowed to work for a year, provided you can find a job somewhere. Then to remain you either have to find employment with a company that sponsors a work visa, which is again attached to duration, or you return to school or university as I did, and then they give you another student visa.

If you are working for a company in the US that does not sponsor or is not willing to sponsor your green card, then you are fucked. You are basically under the obligations of your employer, as long as you have the temporary work visa, which is renewable after three years, annually, but at some point a decision needs to be made. This system is not very different from the system in the UAE, with respect to you being allowed to remain in the place provided you are attached to an employer or a sponsor, in some cases the sponsor being your parent, or someone else. So I did not see much of a difference, I really didn’t. In the US, because you have the myth of the American dream and the fact that “you are all welcome here”, you are almost lulled into believing that you can make it there, especially if you are a person of color, especially if you are a person of South-Asian citizenship, especially if you’re Indian.

In America, for instance, you have hyphenated identities. You are allowed to have hyphenated identities. For example, if you enter the US, you could walk around and say, “I am Italian-American”. In Abu Dhabi, if I go around in the souq saying “Hi, I am Indian-Emirati”, I’ll get laughed at. I mean, I would laugh at myself. But in the US, you have this illusion that you are allowed to cobble an identity from place A with the identity of the place that you are in, wherever you may be in the U.S. Most Americans will ask you, “Where are you from?” And if you tell them, as I used to, “Well, how much time do you have?” they’re not exactly sure how to take it, because they’re looking for one place, maybe two, and then you/they want to move on, because it’s the States, you got shit to do. Actually, if you want to tell them your parents are Indian, your mother grew up in Kenya, you grew up in Abu-Dhabi and don’t identify as Indian but as someone from Abu Dhabi, that you’ve been living in the US for a while and thus think you’re a little bit American too – how do you hyphenate that? You can’t.

USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] receives (last time I checked) hundreds of thousands of prospective green card applicants who hold Indian or Chinese nationality. Every country has a quota, and if you’re applying alongside thousands of others who share your nationality, guess what happens? A few years ago, not too long ago, it took on average of probably eight to ten years for you (if you were an Indian national) to transition from being on a work visa to a green card. That’s a long time. That means you have to work the same job until you get your green card. After you get the damn thing, all’s cool. Eight to ten years is a long fucking-ass time, man. So, again, we return to the concept of time. Because (for me), that’s how life has always been I have no choice but to think of how long I am going to be in a place.

So when I landed in the U.S. and people started asking me when I was going to apply for a green card or when I was going to apply for citizenship, the question took me by surprise, because I’d never thought of a country of wanting me.

People would ask, “Why don’t you become American?” and I was like “Why?”

“Because that’s what you do when you come here.”

“Why?”

“Because everyone wants to be American.”

For me, there’s a certain amount of arrogance built into this myth, where you will want to be American one day. Why?

I mean, you have to explain yourself because you are basically telling me I want to be part of a country that does not offer me healthcare when I am not employed, that does not take care of its aged, or of its infants, and I am not (ethically) happy about any of that. Then why should I be here?

I guess what I am trying to get at is – temporariness made sense to me when I was younger, but as I am getting older I think about movement more. The hardest thing for me in the States, and I keep returning to this periodically, is not being able to see my parents at will. If I had the money, for instance, and I wanted to go see them, I’d have to apply for a visit visa from the UAE consulate in Washington DC, and visas take time, even if it’s a day or two or three, it’s still a day or two or three. With an American passport I could just land in Abu Dhabi and get a visa on the spot. That changes things, it really does. I didn’t think of that when I was young, because I didn’t think I was allowed to even think of privileges like that. Now that I am older, and since my parents are ageing as well, I do think about it. I still have an Indian passport, which doesn’t do much for you. And because you have to wait in lines, and things end up being more bureaucratic than they ought to be and you realize that policies are racist, visa policies are racist, and you are not happy with it, you end up thinking like a hustler, which is what I think I have ended up becoming. It’s a good word, hustler. It basically means, at least in my head, someone who understands what the codes and the rules and the circumstances are, and who is willing to look for loopholes to understand how they would best benefit from everything in play.

So in my case that would basically mean being a cultural mercenary. I take what I like, and if I can figure out a way to get what I want, I will do it.

Yes, there are places in Abu Dhabi that mean something to me. I basically live in the block where I grew up, and that’s intentional. The first year I was in Abu Dhabi, once I started working for NYUAD, I was living on campus, for multiple reasons – contractual, primarily – and I was going crazy because I needed to be in the city. I ended up living where I do now because my parents were still around. I could bug immediate family whenever I wanted to. And the familiarity gave me a sense of – I wouldn’t say closure, but a sense of comfort: “Oh, I’m home”.

Personally, cultural mercenariness means you take what feels right, and you also take what you’re not allowed to. For example, my partner’s Bulgarian, she does Bulgarian folk dancing, and I was also introduced to a friend of hers who’s an expert in music by the Roma, people who’ve been maligned, mistreated, murdered, made fun of, the list is endless. Their music, though, isn’t something I take, but something I want. To savor, and often, to be in awe of.

Sometimes, it’s stand-up comics, the way they play with rhythm and music and melody. George Carlin, Richard Pryor…I’ll take all of them.

Sometimes, it’s rituals or habits. I was raised Hindu, but I don’t believe in anything. There are certain customs, however, that my mother made me get used to that I’m fond of. For instance, every time I leave for a place and my mother’s around, she invites me home and she lights the lamp and rotates it in front of the altar, and then I’m supposed to put my hand to the flame and prostrate before the gods. I think it’s a joke. I do it because it makes my mother happy – it’s the reason why I go with her to the temple. It provides her solace and I don’t want to make fun of her beliefs. I don’t need to understand everything.

I take part in rituals because of a combination of things; it’s also fair. When I say we were raised Hindu, I mean we were raised on the stories, stories that I have used in my book. Sarama [one of the chapters in Temporary people, editor’s note] is a tale from Hindu mythology that doesn’t exist and I made up, but the foundation is in the Ramayana. When I say I believe it’s fair, what I mean is that there are things that are important to my parents that I acknowledge. Faith is one of them, because it’s what sustained them while we grew up with very little if not any money. I would have jumped off a bridge (in their situation) and that’s not a figure of speech – they didn’t. To the best of my knowledge, I do not know why, where that strength comes from, I clearly don’t have it, but they did, and faith may be one of the reasons why.

Returning to the idea of ritual, it also offers me comfort. It’s not only something I take part in for my mother’s sake. Like I said, I’m aware of time, and my parents are not getting any younger, so when I returned to Abu Dhabi one of the first things I did was I tried to go home as often as I could, because for the first time in fourteen years (I returned to Abu Dhabi in 2015) all of my family was in the same city. That is no longer the case now. So I’ve had that experience for three years, and that might never happen again, so in three years I took as much opportunity as I could to live a normal life with my family – “normal” as when you just sit and say nothing because there’s no pressure to communicate, because you know the other person will still be there. There’s something wonderful about that. Although I still fight with my Mom about going to the temple, sometimes I feel that I’m ethically bound as a son to abide by certain rules.

Also, you do transfer importance to things or categories as you age. For instance, although what’s important to my parents is not important to me, I think I still feature somewhere in their top-ten list as they feature in my top-five, so we have a baseline to work and communicate with. We will disagree on many things – for instance, my parents will never read my book, my father tried and then he had a panic attack and stopped reading – but it’s okay even if they don’t know what I’m all about. When I called my mother to tell her I won the prize, she basically asked me what I had for dinner – that’s fine. In other words, I’m allowed to be me with them, which I like. So maybe that’s why I do it, maybe I’m also trying to compensate for the time when I wasn’t there.

When I’m told there are things I am not allowed, or expected to take, like certain kinds of privilege or prestige, most often related to visas and consular/bureaucratic policies, I’m going to hunt for some loopholes and I’m going to find them. So when I’m told, “You can’t do this”, I say, “I will do this, because I can and here’s why.” So it’s partly an attitude where you embrace what offers you comfort, but also push back against things that offer you discomfort. It’s not black and white either and it’s not required to be.

On the other hand, being a cultural mercenary also means that you play with everything that’s offered to you. Take the food we make at home. Sometimes, it will be part Bulgarian and maybe South Indian and, who knows, some Italian – depending on the day. I try to be careful, though, aware that I’m not only taking, not stealing, and that I’m also, as often as possible, respectful of and ethical about everything I appropriate.

In my courses, I use food a lot. Food is special, because you have to engage with it on multiple sensory levels. It could have been music, but everybody needs to eat. This is fundamental enough for me to build assignments around the topic. It’s also a matter of power, because when I send my students out to look for things or ask people questions, I’m always conscious of where they (my students) stand, especially if they have to interact with the so-called “working class”, because I want them (my students) to be uncomfortable too, and I think it’s important when you hesitate to ask someone something. For instance, I was in Bologna, which is one of my favorite cities, and I don’t speak any Italian, I walk into these places and point at things (basically a mini-dance, which entertains everybody), but it’s the kind of engagement that I think is also necessary, especially when I ask someone, “What do you like?” and they’re like, “Oh, shit, another helpless tourist – I like everything, pick something”. Every once in a while, you’ll have someone who smiles and says, “Let me show you something” or “Taste this”, and it might be incredible or something you’ll never try again, but this kind of engagement is relevant to me. I’m not sure whether I started off wanting to use food as a device to investigate diversity. At university in Abu Dhabi I started doing these projects simply because I wanted my students to eat in places that were student-budget friendly, where they would sit next to someone who was probably making less than their stipend. By accident things started to evolve, I wanted to see where I could go with this. And I also like to eat, so you have to marry your likes.

As for my favourite Italian food… It depends on who’s making it and the mastery of craft. For instance, I was in Noto and I went to Caffé Sicilia and I had a cannolo – I don’t think I’ll ever have another one, because what Corrado Assenza does with cannoli is incredible.

It also depends on whether it’s served to you with affection and love; also, when the company is right it doesn’t matter if it’s not the best thing you’ve eaten. That’s why food makes sense. Bourdain used to say that the one sound that absolutely saddened him was silence in a restaurant. In my case, it’s also the sight of a kitchen that’s never been used.

I’m also romanticising food, because I associate it with members of my family, especially my mother. And food’s got so many layers to it, whether it’s sitting down to eat, as you eat, once you are done. Also, I don’t normally drink coffee or tea. I only do that when I’m with friends or I have to visit family and they force me to drink the stuff. These rituals, or the offer of an aperitif, say “Would you like some cognac?” sit well with me. There are so many things related to the act of breaking bread that you can access and explore even further. I have undergraduates who can take a textbook apart or analyze text and talk for days about it, telling you why this sentence is here, the symbolism behind this and that. And then I take them into the kitchen and say, “All right, let’s make a meal.” And they look terrified.

Also, at least in the Western canon, there’s a certain way people are expected to teach; subjects are categorized and they have to be in blocks or zones, which I don’t agree with at all, but that’s why I teach the way I teach, because otherwise I’d get bored and if I’m getting bored, then my students are getting bored and that’s not fair.

 

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