The book “Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf” by Rejimon Kuttappan brings to light the lives of the oft-ignored undocumented migrants through stories of six Indians in the Arab Gulf.
Our complicated and fragile global economy relies on the unacknowledged labour of a subterranean network of undocumented migrant workers. In the absence of documents to speak for them, their human rights are systematically abused, their voices ignored, their existence refuted.
Delving into histories, both personal and national, the author lays bare the lives of people betrayed by their own into human trafficking, into poverty, and into exile in a land that only glimmers with promise.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Winter is the best time to be in any Arab Gulf country. The temperatures range between 23 and 27 degrees Celsius on the plains. And both at the hilltops and in the deserts, it is much lower, sometimes even dipping to 5 degrees Celsius. No sweat and no stickiness, it is the perfect time to walk along the lit-up streets of Muscat. The sidewalks and roundabouts are like gardens. All flowers resemble Oman’s national flag’s colour, red and white. The air in the streets during these days is filled with tikka kebab’s spicy flavours and strawberry-flavoured sheesha smokes.
In the 2011 winter, when I was walking back home through Ruwi, I took a shortcut through the sidewalks of the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, which would help me reach the taxi stand behind Badr Al Sama hospital in less time.
I saw a young man, looking weary, staring at me. I understood that he needed help. He was standing near a Pakistani eatery, which was famous for lamb and lentil soup.
He wore a green-striped shirt, torn on the right side, and wrinkled trousers. I identified him as a Keralite. So, I shot my question. ‘Enthu Patti? (What happened?)’,—the usual question any Keralite would ask a stranger who he identifies as being from his part of the world.
While I may enquire about what his difficulty is, it may not be necessary that I help him. This is understood where I come from. I could just enquire about things and listen to his litany, but I could walk away without helping him, too. However, I don’t usually do that. If I ask someone what happened, I usually try my best to help them.
Here too, I was ready to help him. When I asked again, he said he had not had any food for the last two days and was surviving on the water kept for the public near the eatery.
When he came close to me, I found that he was stinking slightly. When I told him that, he felt bad. He told me that his name is Majeed and that he had arrived in Muscat last week. He had not yet got a place to stay.
‘I use the public toilet near the taxi stand. However, as they don’t allow me to take a shower there, I couldn’t. And even if I do so, I don’t have a dress to change into. I came from a police lockup, brother . . . they released me when they realized that I would become a burden for them. During the daytime, I roam around here. I beg for food. Sometimes, I am lucky. When night falls, I sleep here outside this mosque,’ Majeed said.
In a few sentences, Majeed shared the story of his Muscat days. From those few lines, I realized that he had a different story to tell compared to what the majority of stranded workers in the Arab Gulf relate to . . .
Exploited by the employer, abused for questioning human rights violations, and beaten up by the master . . . running away, approaching the embassy, not getting a favourable response . . . stranded on the streets, struggling for food, with no way to return home . . . . A struggling family back home, ailing parents . . . paying lakhs to get the visa after getting cheated by the agent, pending loans . . . leading the worker to attempt suicide . . .
This would be the story of most migrant workers in any Arab Gulf country. Only the name, place, degree of exploitation, and suffering changes. Having written stranded workers’ stories continuously, I developed a bad attitude. When a worker approached me to tell his story, I would say, ‘ . . . just tell me the name and place’.
For me, only that part changed. The rest remained the same. But I soon realized that all stories are not the same. Yes, every person has a unique story to tell.
Here, too, I assumed Majeed’s story would be somewhat similar to what I have heard. But what he said about being thrown out of the police station was interesting.
I wanted to listen to his story and help him. So, I took him to the Pakistani eatery and ordered two Pakistani naans and two chicken curries. It was only around 6 p.m., so we were a little early for dinner. We had to wait for the food. It would give us time to talk. Additionally, I was not in a hurry to go home because my wife and son had returned to India for the delivery of our second baby.
Majeed went to the washroom. From my seat, I could see him washing his face and staring at the mirror. On the right side of the mirror, a poster of Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan’s movie Don had been pasted. In the Arab Gulf, Bollywood actors and actresses are favourites for Arabs and Pakistanis. There are even Arabs who sing and enjoy Mohammed Rafi’s hits. And interestingly, the Pakistani restaurant was playing some soulful Sufi songs.
Majeed returned to the seat. He picked up some tissue paper, wiped his face, crushed it into a ball, and kept it near the water jug. This always irritated me.
But I didn’t express my annoyance as I didn’t want him to feel distant from me. I knew that if he feels brotherhood, he will open up. Majeed started to tell his story.
Excerpted with permission from Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf, Rejimon Kuttappan, Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.