An excerpt from the Restless Books New Immigrant Writing Winner Deepak Unnikrishnan
This excerpt was originally published in Guernica.
In a labor camp, somewhere in the Persian Gulf, a laborer swallowed his passport and turned into a passport. His roommate swallowed a suitcase and turned into a little suitcase. When the third roommate, privy and vital to the master plan, ran away the next morning with the suitcase and the new passport, he made it past the guard on night duty, made it on the morning bus to the airport, past the bored ticket agent at Check-In, past Security, past pat down and a rummage through his suitcase, past using the bathroom once, twice, thrice, to pee, to shit, to sit, past Duty Free where he stared at chocolates and booze and magazines and currencies, past families eating fast food in track suits or designer wear, past men and women sleeping on the floor, past his past, past his present, past the gold in the souks, the cranes in the sky, petrol in the air, dreams in his head, past God and the devil, the smell of mess halls, past humidity and hot air, past it all, until he found an empty chair in the Departures lounge, where he sat and held his future in his palms. It was then the little suitcase sprouted legs and ears, and the passport developed palms and long fingers as well as a nose and a mustache, and soon after boarding call, at the very moment the stewardess checked his documents, the third laborer was asked to wait.
The stewardess needed time to figure out what protocol she should follow or what precedent the man and his possessions had set. The man preferred not to wait and ran as fast as he could through the door to boarding, past passengers who had already gone through and formed a line inside the tube with the little windows, waiting like blood in a syringe, now followed at an animal’s pace by the little suitcase on legs, ridden like a horse by the passport with the long fingers, a sight that both fascinated and terrified and caused personnel, propelled by some odd sense of duty, to stand in the way of the trio and block their path, to protect the plane and its pilots and cabin crew from what they couldn’t define. It didn’t matter what they did, it wouldn’t have mattered what they did because the man leading the charge, in an act of despair, opened his mouth wide to ask them all to get away get away, wide wide wider, until he swallowed the first person in his path, then the next, and the next, refusing to stop running, as the little suitcase did the same, opening and closing itself, running into people, sucking people in like a sinkhole, aided by the passport jockey, who assisted by stuffing those who fought desperately to escape. It happened so quickly, the running, the swallowing, the madness, the stuffing, that when the trio reached the aircraft doors, they seemed first surprised rather than jubilant, then relieved as pilots and the cabin crew stared from the other end of the tube, where everyone, including the remaining passengers, had now run to and watched them like cats watching dogs.
The little suitcase, the little passport, and the man caught their breath, inhaling and exhaling as though nails filled the air, while in the distance, like the sound of a million horses, well-meaning men with guns and gas rushed the gate where the stewardess had screamed then fainted. The trio realized it was now or never, abhi ya nahi, do or die, so they rushed into the empty plane, locked its door, with the little suitcase and the little passport finding seats in First Class and putting on their seat belts, while the man ran to the back of the plane and began swallowing everything in sight, starting with the two lavatories, the trolleys with the veg and non-veg options, the apple juice and the Bloody Marys, the seats and the magazines, the tray tables and the blinking lights, the blankets and the overhead bins, the socks and the TV monitors, the cabin air with its lingering halitosis and the candies, swallowing everything in sight, moving expertly from Economy to Business to First, swallowing even the little suitcase and the little passport, swallowing the carpets, the emergency exits, the airplane controls and smudged windows and the odor of pilots, slipping down the aircraft’s nose and continuing to swallow as he moved from the aircraft’s beak towards its base, swallowing wings, wheels, luggage, fuel, skin, presence, until the man was unrecognizable anymore, and had turned into an enormous jumbo, observed from the cordoned-off terminal by dumb-struck passengers and the men armed with guns and gas whose leader wondered on his walkie-talkie what sort of protocol ought to be followed here, but he needn’t have bothered. The plane had begun taxiing down the runaway, past other waiting aircrafts, ignoring pleas from the Control Tower to desist, to wait a minute, to lets talk this through, to whadabout the hostages, but the plane didn’t care, it went on its merry way, picking up speed, lifting its beak, tucking in its mighty wheels, returning its cargo.