[BOOK REVIEW] The Migrant Report by Mohanalakshi Rajakumar

51zDMW4XrrL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_It was with some trepidation that I started on The Migrant Report by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar. A murder-mystery set in a Gulf state (**shush!**), involving lower-income migrant workers.

These were my 3 main fears:

  • The book would remove the invisibility cloak migrants in the Gulf don, only to reveal a negative characterisation.
  • It would tug at the stereotypical emotional strings of the migration narrative. 
  • It would dehumanise them.

Two of those fears were completely misplaced. And, yes, there were those emotional strings of family, ailing mother, poverty, but only to the extent a work of fiction demands.

First with the good stuff:

  • Every character in the book is sketched with great sensitivity and nuance. As in her earlier works, Mohana’s brings a lot of insight and layers to her male characters. Be it fresh-off-the-boat Manu, or the well-meaning but always in trouble Daniel, or Ali, the Qatari cop, and even Nasser who only makes the occasional appearance. She wills us to fall a little in love with these strange men.
  • Not one for great details or long-drawn out scenarios, the author still manages to vividly represent the many relationships in the book. Cindy and Sanjana, Maryam and Daniel, Daniel and Sherif, Manu and Santana, Maryam and her family, Maryam and Ali. She brings out daily frustrations and stifled aspirations even within brief exchanges between the characters.
  • It requires courage to write a book such as this. Not just about migrants, but the secret lives of expatriates, while still being one. That she has done well, mining the experiences of her many years living in a Gulf state herself.
  • The book manages to not bracket migrant workers as being completely helpless, and shows them as resourceful people. Without being patronising, it manages to show them as strong people, even if in weak situations.

What could have been different:

  • The book is self-published, hence does not have the advantages and resources of a publishing house. It could do with a good bit of editing and proofing. Chronology of events is mixed up in places. Also, its Gandhi, not Ghandi (Americans!).
  • The book covers a wide range of plots and lives and the author seems to have rushed through it in many places. Spending a little more time on some of the scenarios would have enriched the book the mysterious happenings at the labour accommodation; Manu and Sanjana’s relationship; Maryam and Ali’s interaction; the disconnect between Cindy and Paul.
  • At several instances it seemed like the writer thought of a great idea, but instead of developing it, just drops it there between the pages, running away to meet the next shiny idea. Maybe that’s what a sequel would address. Maybe.
  • While the expatriate environment and that of the Arab household has a sense of familiarity, the brief look into Nepal and the labour accommodation seems borrowed. More research would have helped.

I am not sure I would classify it as a crime-thriller. Not yet.

Do pick up the book, it’s definitely a good read. I read it in just a day and a half. That’s not to say it’s an easy read. The loneliness of the characters, their struggles and the faint reflection of our own lives will leave you thinking about the sequel.

PS: May I also suggest you pick up Love Comes Later & Dohmestics by the same author? They both give rarely available insights into life in the Gulf.

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It’s not just migrant rights. It’s people’s lives, Qatar.

Fourteen years ago, after reporting on a very interesting general election in India, I headed to Doha.

I had reported on child labour and abuse, NGOs swindling foreign funds in the name of HIV/AIDS awareness, blood bank scams, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. I worked as journalists are supposed to.

Then I came here and read insipid press releases, and rehashed agency stories for the local newspaper. Every now and then I would manage to write pieces I was proud of, for publications in India. But most of the time I didn’t. Though more recently, I have the freedom to explore issues that don’t make me see myself as a stooge.

In the last week Guardian has published some very strong pieces on Qatar, on its slave labour, its abuse of migrant workers, its stark inequality. You can read that here and here. There were other articles, but those were written without any understanding of Qatar, by armchair journalists, so I won’t share them.

That migrant workers here are abused and ill-treated is no secret. It’s there for all of us to see… and turn away and focus on our fancy cars, our latest smart phones, and the next holiday destination.

Which is fine. C’est la vie. What really draws my ire is when people start denying the situation. When they talk about the environments the workers were escaping in the first place, as if that justified their treatment here in Qatar.

I have seen horrible things here. Child jockeys bitten by camels, grown men pleading for kindness, and oppressed women being physically bullied by their wards. And yes, I’ve seen worse things were I come from; the country which is the main supplier of cheap labour. But there is a vital difference… people don’t stop complaining and speaking up against these issues in India. They have a voice.

Obviously, Qatar doesn’t ‘get’ journalism or free speech. They are used to press releases and people fawning over its wealth. It doesn’t understand that it’s not a journalist’s place or concern to sugarcoat the bitter realities.

You see, they want to be criticised in a manner that doesn’t demonise them, or force them to look within (and squirm). They want to be seen as the super rich benefactor who reaches out to the needy in Indonesia and Pakistan, in Sudan and Palestine. What about the needy on your own soil?

I am here now, finding myself disagreeing with both the critics and those in denial.

I do believe there is hope, and that not everything is black and dreary. Neither do I believe we need to sit back and allow Qatar to work at its own pace to bring about change. This is not a Montessori system, for goodness sake!

Criticism, brutal criticism, brought about a fabulous change some years ago. In 2000 Qatar won the right to host the Asian Games in 2006, and the WTO was scheduled for November 2001. It was under immense pressure to prove it was a worthy host for both, and at that point it wasn’t the plight of labourers, but that of children being starved and used as camel jockeys. It had no choice but to ban the employing of children as jockeys. Not out of the goodness of its heart, but because it made political and business sense to do so.

Likewise, migrant rights will be taken seriously only when Qatar feels the pinch at a political and international level. Not when it ‘realises’ the errors of its ways, as some naive souls (offended and saddened by the criticism) seem to believe.

What does it take to depress me? An hour in the departure terminal.

I

It’s the brown cartons that grab my attention. Cling wrapped and tied many times over with a nylon rope.  How many meals of only kuboose and pickle, how many hours of boredom, how many weeks of hard work, how many days of self-deprivation… what did it take to buy that flat screen TV to win your kids’ favour? What did it take to buy the dozens of scented soaps and powder that your family is so used to now? In response to your wife’s whispered long-distance request, how many pairs of coarse, cheap lacy underwear have you hidden right at the bottom? At what cost could you afford the many tins of Tang and Nido milk powder?

Your collar is frayed, your slippers are worn out, and yet there is that gold rope around your neck and a gemstone-set ring on your pinkie. What will that buy you back home? A plot of land? Maybe a car that you can rent out?

How many weeks will your welcome last? Until the gifts fade into new needs, maybe? Or after the wife has been impregnated? Then into one small briefcase you will pack a bottle of pickle and a packet of chips, a new shirt, and a fresh list of wants that you will tick off over the next two years, as you countdown for another flight home.

II

Then there you are, still in the trademark jellebiya that distinguishes your kind from the rest of us. Did you not have the time to change into travel clothes? What do you have hidden in that one tiny shoulder bag? Who will welcome you home? Are there children, aging parents or maybe even a lover who will make-up for your months and years of abstinence? Or did you manage to hoodwink the system to find a few clandestine joys.

Do tell, what’s in that small bag that seems to weigh you down so much? Have you shipped a few cartons home already? Tricycles, microwave, a set of non-stick kitchenware, boxes of Nivea and cartons of Yardley soap. Yes? Oh, that’s good then. No? Oh…

III

And you over there, with that tiny baby in your arms. Why do you weep so? Yes, your parents are leaving. But do you have any idea how lucky you are to have managed a visa for them to visit you? Even if it were just for 4 weeks… Do you know that my children go home 2-3 times a year, because their grandparents don’t get a visa to visit them? It’s an impossible situation, because they are old and Asian. So stop crying, and hold up that baby. This is not such a bad place to bring up your kid, even if their grandparents might not be able to visit them again.

IV

You are going on a holiday right? Business class, it seems. Why do you look so sad, then. Because the minute you enter the airport, the countdown to the end of your vacation begins, is that why? Or the thought of going to your ‘home country’ which with every passing year becomes more foreign and strange to you? The concerns of the privileged bore me. Yawn!

V

Hey you, the one with two big Rawnaq bags and the bottle of ZamZam water. That’s all? Aren’t you my old taxi driver bhai, when the rattly orange ones still plied the Doha roads?  Didn’t you have a beaten up Datsun, the one with beaded trinkets covering every inch of the dashboard? See, I remember, because you had a story for every trinket. Daughters No.1 to No.5 made a few, but the majority was made by your wife and mother.

Is there now a picture in the very first page of your photo album, a space you saved for your heir? Did you finally have the son you so wanted? The singular purpose for the flight you took home every two years, a flight you could ill afford. You look old bhai. More wrinkled and tired than I remember. Your once-white shalwar khameez has browned with wear, but I know you will return with a couple of fresh white sets and one black for the winter.

Do you run an illegal taxi service now? Or have you joined your brothers in Souq Haraj as a coolie? Two years you drove me around Doha, and I don’t know your name still.

What’s in that Rawnaq bag bhai? Could anything be prettier than what the women in your family weave for you? Will you remember me if I came up to you to say salaam?

VI

I am distracted. There is a child crying. A very cute curly-topped pre-schooler dressed in a spotless white thobe. He is clinging to his nanny. The nanny hugs him tight. Her mudhir, the sponsor, watches over them. The little fellow says something in Arabic, that could only mean “don’t leave me Annie.” The father tries to console his son, but looks quite worried himself. Annie, kisses the little boy, and hands him over to the father. She looks a little sad, but she looks happy too. She pats her fake-LV bag, yes the passport is in there, so is the exit permit and flight ticket. She is wearing a Bebe tee. Maybe a hand-me-down from curly-topped’s mother. She gives one last wave and walks away to join the immigration queue.

The father waits, distraught child in his arm. His phone beeps. He checks his SMS–the Metrash service confirms that his ward has cleared immigration. He heads out, hugging his wailing son.

VII

I hear another child cry. Ha! She’s mine.

“I go Indiyah awso.”

I stop gaping at the people around me, to give you attention, to respond to your plaintive cry.

Yes, akka is off for three weeks of exclusive attention, before we join her. No, you can’t go ‘awso’. You are too little.

Akka leaves, only a little sad to bid adieu.

I carry you though the milling crowd, as you cry and scream. I trip on an open suitcase.

VIII

I glimpse your worried face, before you go back to sorting your luggage. It’s your suitcase, is it? What do you leave behind and what’s worth paying excess baggage for? Thirty kilos is a piddly allowance when you go home only once a year, or worse two.

How can you fit in the proof of your affluence and your love into so little a provision? Do you disappoint your son (the remote controlled chopper) or your daughter (the fake Barbie set) or your sisters (bottles and bottles of Enchanteur powder). You should probably leave behind the packets of cashews and spice. Are you aware it comes not far from your native village?

IX

You are the last passenger (or a hopeful one) I see before exiting the terminal. Don’t you know that the polite gentlemen has no power over your expired passport. That how much ever you plead, he can’t let you board the flight. You have to go to your embassy and get a paper, I hear the official explain to you. Do you register that? Or are you too stricken to understand what’s happening. How did you get your exit permit with an expired passport? How come your sponsor failed to notice the expiry date? Could I have been of any help to you? I guess not.

I am more of a talker than a doer…

…Just like the rest of you, right?