Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to UAE and the Malayalam words in his speech yesterday, are an acknowledgement of a population that has long yearned for such recognition.
My father T.M.Nair arrived in Dubai in 1959. Until then he was working with Burmah Shell, Bombay. Ambition drove him across the seas. After a three-day sea trip from Bombay, he arrived to find a barren desert unlike anything he had dreamt of. The currency then was the Red Rupee, valued a bit lower than the Indian rupee. And his salary was one-third of what he had received in Mumbai. He thought then that he had made the biggest mistake of his life.
Having arrived, he stayed on and made the best of the hand dealt to him. Learning Arabic quickly, he found friends among the Arabs and the very few Indians. This was a time before the United Arab Emirates had been formed. The sheikhdoms were together called the Trucial states. This was a time of no roads, plenty sand dunes, unlike anything in present day Dubai. (The first paved road came up in 1961). Water was delivered to homes on mules. Air-conditioning was the greatest luxury and rare. Yet there were dreams in their eyes.
The Indians shared family-like bonds and firm friendships formed between Arabs and Indians. These relationships formed the foundation for growth when the country stumbled on oil in the mid 60s and early 70s. Several pioneering efforts were born from these friendships and I am so proud of their contributions to the building of this country. From the barren desert came up these beautiful international cities that became tourist and trading destinations for the whole world. Soon synonymous with excellent infrastructure and luxury, UAE also became home to the largest number of Malayalees outside India. It has to be said that of these large numbers, most were part of the workforce and not those enjoying the luxuries. Providing their families in Kerala with comfortable lives even when they have struggled in difficult circumstances in the Gulf, that was a generation of men and women who accepted exile from the green land they loved.
As a child I remember returning to Kerala on flights where the minute we saw the coconut tree infested land far below the airborne plane, some passengers would jump out of their seats, grabs their bags to leave and rush to the exit. The air-hostesses would hush them and force them back into their seats, grumbling about them being uncouth. But a deeper look would have revealed that many of these men were returning home after 4 or 5 years and were simply overwhelmed and emotional.
Unlike other countries Indian residing in the Gulf countries were not offered citizenship or opportunity to own properties till recently. So those generations remained Indians in every sense, utterly faithful in celebrating every festival, cheering every match and reacting to every election. The smallest news from India would create ripples among them. But when it came to their struggles, they had to stand – each alone, and no one ever told them that they mattered.
Over the years the NRI has also changed, merging with the multitudes of nationalities in the UAE. Today’s generation is privileged as they were literally born with the silver spoon and may be unaware of the arduous history their predecessors were part of. As I write this I realize that these words were uttered by my father to me.
It foxes me why the NRI community in UAE did not receive such attention earlier. Nevertheless I am glad it is happening now. Among the audience who listened to Prime Minister Modi, I hope there were some from those early generations, for it is they who deserved to hear these words and get the recognition the most. My father is no more, but I know how much it would have meant to him.