#DesiBooks10QA: Rejimon Kuttappan on the serious risks of telling stories about undocumented migrants

About the author

Rejimon Kuttappan is an independent journalist and a migrant rights defender. He was the chief reporter for the Times of Oman until he was deported back to India in 2017 for exposing human trafficking and modern slavery in the Arab Gulf through a front-page news story. He now writes for the Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), AFP, Equal Times, Migrant Rights, Middle East Eye, The Hindu, Times of India, The Caravan, Wire, The Leaflet, and various other Indian news portals. He has done two media fellowships with the International Labor Organization (ILO) on labor migration and human trafficking, and one each with TRF and National Foundation of India (NFI) on forced labor and Gulf migration, respectively. Kuttappan is also a researcher for the Migrant Forum in Asia and has worked as a consultant for the ILO and International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). His 2019 narrative journalism collection, Rowing Between Rooftops: The Heroic Fishermen of Kerala Floods, tells the stories of heroic fishermen who rescued thousands from the 2018 Kerala floods. Kuttappan belongs to the Panan Dalit community of Kerala. Historically, Panans were ballad singers who narrated the acts of the then great warriors and kings. He wishes to continue this storytelling legacy through his books and writing. He lives in Kerala and can be followed at @rejitweets.

About the book

Our complicated and fragile global economy relies on the unacknowledged labor of a subterranean network of undocumented migrant workers. Despite their vital support to host economies, governments continue to turn a blind eye to these migrants’ woes without any consequences. In the absence of documents to speak for them, their human rights are systematically abused, their voices ignored, their existence refuted.

The women, as is often the case, suffer under the dual attacks of patriarchy and anonymity. Exigencies of bureaucracy ensure that the children are often unregistered and even lack passports. The result is a truly exploited populace without much relief in sight. They survive on sheer courage and perseverance, shedding blood, sweat, and tears that end up fueling the thumping home and host economies.

In Undocumented, journalist and migrant-rights researcher Rejimon Kuttappan brings to light the lives of these often ignored migrants through the stories of six Indians in the Arab Gulf, and through them, voices the plights of millions more. Delving into histories both personal and national to establish where we are and how we got here, 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.

In Undocumented, Rejimon Kuttappan brings to light the lives of often ignored migrant workers through the stories of six Indians in the Arab Gulf, and through them, voices the plights of millions more. #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. It was one of the first English desi books I read while doing my bachelor’s in physics. The narrative style and Roy’s masterful storytelling impressed me. Those days, I was also a part-time librarian. Malayalam books by M Mukundan, Paul Zacharia, and P Sachidanandan (Anand) are still my favorites.

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

I am a journalist turned writer. And this book is narrative nonfiction. I also read more Malayalam books than English ones. That said, though I haven’t read these, City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain by Andrew M. Gardner and Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil by Andrea Wright might be of interest to readers who want a more academic take.

[Editor’s Note: For fiction, please try Temporary People, an award-winning short story collection by Deepak Unnikrishnan. Or Goat Days by Benyamin, translated from the Malayalam by Joseph Koyippally.]

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

Books like mine, which go behind the scenes to tell the stories of those who aren’t allowed a voice, often involve serious risks. I’ve lost my job for reporting such stories. I’ve risked my personal safety: been taken into police custody and had legal cases filed against me (which ruled in my favor eventually.) And I’ve risked my financial security, which is tough as the sole breadwinner of my family. Still, I believe that we need more such books about migrant workers from India who are not allowed their basic rights; books that aren’t academic or scholarly but filled with compassion and respect.

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

As I mentioned above, much of my reading is in Malayalam rather than English. Last year, a slew of books won Kerala Sahitya Akademi awards and I’d like to find some downtime to check some of them out.

5. The desi book that you believe should be read and known more and why.

We’re seeing more translations of Malayalam literature into English now, which is bringing some attention to them. Still, I would like to see some of my earlier-mentioned favorite writers get more attention beyond our communities: M Mukundan, Paul Zacharia, and P Sachidanandan (Anand).

“I would like to see some of my earlier-mentioned favorite [Malayalam] writers get more attention beyond our communities: M Mukundan, Paul Zacharia, and P Sachidanandan (Anand).” ~Rejimon Kuttappan #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Write regularly. Stick to your schedule. With narrative nonfiction like my book, you have to also invest ample time—as my agent advised me—to recollect and research the incidents being included with as much depth and detail as possible.

“With narrative nonfiction […] recollect and research the incidents being included with as much depth and detail as possible.” Rejimon Kuttappan’s #writingtips #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

There are only a few books on labor migration. Most of them are academic ones written by scholars. And a few others are fiction but they rarely give a full picture. I am a journalist and an activist. My reporting beat was and is labor migration. Daily, I come across a couple of real-life struggles of labor migrants in the Arab Gulf. While filing a news story, I can’t always use the narrative longform. So, when I decided to write a book on labor migrants and while writing this narrative nonfiction book on labor migrants, what motivated and kept me going was the opportunity to finally reveal deeper details about how labor migrants are struggling and to explore the policy fallouts that push them into their struggles.

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

I have been doing stories on labor migrants in the Arab Gulf since 2009. I have done two fellowships with International Labor Migration and one with Thomson Reuters. All were on labor migration, forced labor, and modern-day slavery. I became a resource person for ILO labor migration fellows and Reuters fellows too. Despite doing more than 2,000 stories on labor migration, having several exclusives which even shook some Arab nations, I was seen as simply a journalist despite being a researcher for ILO, ITUC, and MFA on labor migration. I majored in Applied Physics. So it was difficult to do a doctorate in labor migration. The literary success of this book will, I hope, help me earn more respect among labor migration expert groups.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

I’m a new writer. My journalistic labor migrant stories and understanding of global tools in labor migration helped me to get this Penguin book deal. Beyond that, I’m still finding my way around the writing world. I’m grateful to see people like Dr. Shashi Tharoor endorse this book on social media (he also gave a kind blurb that you see on the front cover.)

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

I hope that readers will understand that all is not well in labor migration from India to the Arab Gulf. There is still a lot of exploitation, human trafficking, modern-day slavery, forced labor, marginalization, political and legal issues. When Indians, especially Keralites started to migrate to Arab Gulf during the early 60s as labor migrants, despite being undocumented, they were welcomed. They built the Arab cities, most of them, as the best in the world. But now, after sixty years, in 2020, when labor migrants are undocumented, they are being handcuffed, jailed, abused, and deported, despite the world talking more about human rights, workers rights, welfare, and social protection.

“…all is not well in labor migration from India to the Arab Gulf […] exploitation, human trafficking, modern-day slavery, forced labor, marginalization…” ~Rejimon Kuttappan on reader takeaways from his book, Undocumented #DesiBooks10QA @DesiBooks

Rejimon Kuttappan has a new book out: Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf. His journalism can be found here.

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