5,500 Kilometers of Evocations: Bombay – Dubai – Mumbai

Over the course of 30 years, the author has seen family and distant relatives migrate from her little village in south India to the dusty outflanks of the Emirates. She pieces together the invisible but established chains of aspirations that bind her clan together in imagining Dubai.

Dubai Maal + Disco Chain
I first encountered Dubai through two rather innocuous channels: my olfactory and my epidermal. My ocular faculties were busy engaged with the text. It was the late-80s, and I was a chubby 5-year-old whose nose was always stuck in the glossy pages of the Russian Misha magazines and the colorful swirls of Folk Tales from Around the World. Unlike other kids who were weaned on the staple Indian diet of Chandamama and Tinkle comics, my father’s affinity for world culture and National Geographic Magazine, meant that we, my elder brother and I, were treated to medieval Slavic stories and Assyrian Art rather than our home brewn ghostly vetaal. My uncle from my mother’s side was paying us a visit. He was a businessman and owned a factory in Bombay which manufactured ‘covering’ jewelry. Although ‘covering’ is still used as a colloquial term in Mumbai, it is so conspicuous in its nomenclature for alluding to its cheap constitution of pital (Hindi word for brass) and tamba (copper) hidden beneath gold or silver plating.

So, uncleji was in the midst of expanding his business and had just returned from a trip to Dubai. This was his bi-annual Mecca, a trip to network with jewelry devouts and seek inspiration from the designs on display at hundreds of shops and street stalls, where authentic gold is sold. Uncle’s laborers worked 30-day, 14-hour shifts to replicate Emirati designs on Indian oxidized and gold-plated metals, and these would eventually find their way to our ears, neck and hands. Family was always ‘First Come, First Served.’ Our pride was richer for the insourced designs, “This is the latest attraction in Dubai. You won’t find this in Zaveri Bazaar’s sona walla yet!” or for that matter, Mohammed Ali Road, Bhendi Bazaar or Crawford Market—the eponymous jewelry lanes of Bombay.

And truly, you wouldn’t find the jewelry designs sourced from the Emirates at any of the Hindu sona walla’s display cases. The gold-plated circular hoops, garlanded with tiny beads in all colors of the rainbow; bangles marked with geometric patterns; disco chains, some slim and twisted, others chunky, that came with a single ‘dollar,’ a pendant in the various shapes that mathematics produced; jhumar or chandelier type bird cages and the tightly-woven, chain-mail like wrist cuffs whose weight was a pleasure to feel against your skin. There was something very sophisticated about even the most simplest jewelry, or perhaps, my child’s eyes saw something fantasy-inlaid in the gold that for the first time didn’t come from our local family jeweler, but from somewhere foreign, and was thus, granted a status of value. The disco chain, especially, a staple of every jeweler in the 1970s and 80s, has been the cause of many a tangled tale for women around the world, as its curled and jumbled surface pulled the hair growing around the lower part of our necks. I imagine every jewelry box that guards this chain preserving a couple of withered, brown-black-blond-hennaed hair clinging to its tiny hook.

Gold as Religion
I grew up fascinated with the almost pathological demarcation of designs claimed by each of Bombay’s community; gold spotting comes easy in a city which sees people from every town and municipality of the country crossing borders to call this megapolis a foster home. One could ascertain the religious denomination of a woman, sometimes based solely on the accoutrements on her person, including head gear, clothes obviously, the presence or absence of certain traditional makeup, shringaar, and most importantly, the gold she wore. You only have to catch a glimpse of the mangalsutra (as it is known in north and west India) or thaali chain (south India) that married women wore, the upper strings of which would be visible through the pleats of a saree, the wrappings of the dupatta or the collars of the dress. The neighbor to our right, Jincy aunty, a Keralite Christian, would wear subtle gold on her person, a simple disco chain with the crucifix as pendant, small yet broad-banded hooped earrings, and slim bangles; the neighbor to our left, a Kutchi Muslim from Rajasthan, would wear these heavy kadas, totally plain looking bangles, almost the color of clarified butter, with big, hooped earrings that would reveal the tears in her ear lobes – always petrified me, that one; the Mahashtrian neighbor opposite our flat would wear these colorful magenta-bottle green glass bangles interspered with slim gold bangles, a black-beaded mangalsutra with a locket that resembled a flattened dumbell, and silver toe rings.

And this was the norm noy only for the city’s mainstream sects (whose prayer calls and bells dominated our daily rituals); the traditional castes and the tribal folks living on the fringes of the city’s existence would have their obvious and specific identity markers in the jewelry they wore. The Kolis (the fisherfolk) who lived along the beachy-suburbs of Bandra, Khar and Juhu, wore very peculiar, heavy, coin-like neck pieces, a variant of which the Tamils and other south Indians wore, which we call kasamala (money chain). The Kutchi Muslims, many of whom dealt in textile trade, wore gold that was thick, with fine scroll-like detailing and curliques inlaid with Kundan stones and Mina work. Meenakari has a very interesting provenance outside of India. Mina or enamel work inlaid on gold, using variety of colors, came to India by way of craftsman from Lahore to the court of the ruler of Jaipur, Raja Sawai Man Singh to the province of Mewar in Rajasthan in 16th century. In Minakari, an ornament is crafted in gold or silver and then the artist draws the desired design that is then outlined by the engraver to make the enamel adhere firmly. The enameller then brushes the ornament on the engraved design with special colours called meena in red, green, black, yellow, blue. If you traveled across the length and breadth of the city, you would spot the banjaras or gypsies, adorned from head to toe with silver jewelry, coin-like lace work sewn on to their shawls, heavy, jhallar (chain) earrings attached to their hair on either side of the forehead, multicolored beaded chains around their necks, scores of thick, but hollow silver kadas engulfing their arms, and solid silver anklets around their ankles. I guess argentum was the first word they learnt to speak.

The mid-1990s saw a transfer of loyalties from the designs of your traditional family jeweler to the ones you saw advertised in the urban magazines and national dailies of the counry. Femina and Women’s Era carried full-page, glossy ads of gold jewelry designed by big Marwari or Jain jewelry-chain owners, modeled by reed-thin, shoulder-exposed, dusky models, with their atrocious pink lips and intricate hair styles. The much-traveled uncleji from my mother’s side, who was once again in the throes of expanding his covering jewelry business, now designed and deployed variations of not only the Dubai maal but also what was the Indian flavor of the season: Bollywood fashion. Cross-pollination and synthesis in design are, after all, hallmarks of our ancient land and its people. This was the time for the ascendancy of Bollywood, when costume jewelry and film fashion began to have a profound infleunce on the aesthetics of the urban, middle class girls and their mothers. To be ostentious about your gold is definitely an Indian trait, but this was the era of the divas, Sri Devi, Jaya Pradha, Rekha, and Meenakshi Sheshadri, south Indian sirens who didn’t ostensibly display any kind of yellow glitter in their onscreen avatars, but rather, went the way of diamonds, stones and pasty gems, as demanded by the colorful, gaudy and garish films and songs of the time. Instead of spending thousands or lakhs on an original gem, one could spend a mere hundred rupees on covering items and instantly ape the look of our celluloid goddesses. This also had bonus benefits: compliments of your Gujarati, Kutchi and Marwari neighbors who, having surrptitiously kept track of our (my mother’s and mine) jewelry oeuvre, exclaimed that our dazzling collections “rivalled the stars” – not in the skies, but “of Bollywood”.

I often wonder about the rather Indian way of christening a thing for its obvious characteristics, and covering gold was one such example. Wouldn’t it have made more business sense to come up with a term other than ‘covering’, a term that didn’t allude to the jewelry’s artifice, especially if you consider the subcontinent’s obsession with sona. At birth, the child is girdled around the hips and lovingly manacled around the ankle and wrists with gold cuffs and bracelets. We can keep adding to this tally as we age, through the naming ceremony, following our first tonsure, gilding our first footprints in 24 karat gold leaf, and from then on the tally is maintaned for strict purposes of marriage bounty, and then, coming full circle by passing on the grandmother’s and mother’s gold to the grandchild.

While diamonds were Marylyn Monroe’s best friends, in India, they weren’t in circulation until the late 1970s and began as cottage industries. For dowry, especially, the measure of value in terms of a carat could not be compared to the solid weight of a tola, a British unit of measurement. Remember those Hindi film dialogues where the evil mother-in-law asks her glossy-maroon-lips-biting, timid daughter-in-law if she has brought sau tola (100 tola) gold? As for Platinum, it was an unheard of element, so gold had plenty of mileage. In my teenage years, as I rebelled against mother’s constant missive to deck myself in womanly adornments – and make myself presentable to the relatives with eligible bachelors, she would tell me that the yellow metal had healing properties and would bring a glow to the face and body of the wearer. Although I didn’t put it beyond her to invent this new non-medical therapy, I did take to wearing a smattering of neck, ear and finger pieces for a while. Who doesn’t like a glow on their face!

Rupaiyya for Dirhams
While none from my Tamil Muslim clan crossed the Pacific or Atlantic to test the shores of America and Britian, scores of relatives – single men, married couples, families and sometimes, three generations in a family, did make a 5,500 kilometer journey to set up shop and life in Dubai and its sister cities. No one quite remembers about the First Family who shifted to the Middle East in the early 60s. There also seems to be no definite pattern to the subsequent voyages of other relatives, who moved to Dubai, Sharjha and Abu Dhabi in the 70s. You have to understand that it was not an easy future these men contemplated, rather it was the search for a life that would surpass the narrow reality of what their village and outying towns of Tamil Nadu would offer: setting up petty shops, owning cloth, grocery or spare parts shops, or working as supervisors in workshops and cottage industries.

These village outliers, who dared to cross the seas in search of fortune, were barely out of their teens in the 1960s. They came from large, undivided families and grew up in the luxurious lap of post-Independent southern India. Their fathers dealt in silk, ivory, sandalwood and precious stones, traveling to Ceylon, Thailand and Malaysia—just a hop away from our little village in southern India—in exchange for satin, porcelain and gold. With money flowing like silk and honey, education was not much of a focus for the sons of wealthy businessmen, as they too were expected to follow in their father’s footsteps. Reality was much more complex. The traders gradually lost their foothold overseas and saw diminished returns from business. Many of them literally squandered their wealth on multiple marriages, raising a dozen kids, maintaining expensive tastes in porcelain and chinaware, added to which was a preoccupation with rich food and sweetmeats that invariably affected their health, and following the habits of the idle wealthy that saw their rupees figuratively mothballed by the passage of time. This is the slow decay they desperately wanted to leave behind and rekindle their father’s and grandfather’s Midas touch; South East Asia was plotted territory; the Middle East beckoned.

The earliest of these voyagers traded the remainder of their ancestral gold and bet on a future where the value of the dirham would be treblefold the price they paid for it in rupaiyya. One wonders what contacts they had, apart from perhaps salutary and tenuous networks in the trader circles forged by their fathers. However, they did manage to helm comfortable lives as early as in the 60s and 70s, by setting up modest department stores and working as managers in offices, hotels and manufacturing units. Their success prompted the next generation of youngsters in my village to follow suit in the 80s; not all of them left behind their grand bungalows and the predictable life of a shop in the town or municipality, only the really brave or the really curious decided to try their luck in the Emirates. My uncle, from my father’s side, and several cousins, each set up temporary residence in the outskirts of Dubai. Since none of them had any savings following their Matriculation and nothing of any substance passed on from their fathers, they would have had to rely on the support of friends who had already secured steady jobs or on the largess of the twice or thrice removed relatives, who had by now become one of the many permanent fixtures of the Indian community in the Emirates. These youngsters found work as cash counter operators in department stores and supermarkets, or as overseers in godowns and industrial units.

While it is true that many of my now aged uncles and cousins migrated to Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi two decades ago, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Muscat were not far behind for several others in the village. By the time I hit my teenage, close cousins had moved to Saudi Arabia in teaching jobs and management roles in consulting firms, architecture firms and oil companies. This was generation next, who neither relied on the old glory of their forefathers or the semi-educated but business acument of their fathers, and instead focused on moving out of the village to near by cities to secure graduate degrees in science, mathematics and English literature. I cannot be so clinically generic and say that my village folk were not highly educated earlier, considering the fact that the bar of education keeps rising every generaiton. However, from anecdotal evidence I can say this: my father was one of a few handful of men who studied for a graduate degree in mathematics and went on to secure a job in a bank in the Bombay of the 70s. On the other hand, his batchmates in school, gravitated towards business, setting up shops, or working in the railway; a very few became lawyers and doctors and moved to other Indian cities.

The next-generation of cousins, who were a couple of years older to me and sought jobs in Dubai and the neighboring countries in the Middle East during the 90s and the new millennium, were still not biting the American bullet. I personally knew several of Gujarati, Marwari and Punjabi neighbors in Bombay, migrate to the United States in the 80s and 90s, but didn’t hear of more than a couple of families from my clan moving to Europe. Since the only ever dream I nurtured was to study and then work in the U.S. or in London, it always left me curious as to why my cousin brothers didn’t try their luck in the West? Someone suggests religious reasons, the safety of working, living and raising your family along with your faith-based brothers and sisters. Honestly, Dubai was never seen as a religious entity in the way that we know Saudi Arabia to be. The Emirates was always a place to enrich yourself materially and my cousins did that. Dubai did not fail them. They built homes and raised their kids not in the heart of the city, but in the distant flanks, commuting hundreds of miles from home to work, and reveling in the freedom that an electrified, glitzy, glamorous, and cosmopolitan State had to offer.

Senteur Lavande Anglaise
Books are great nourishment for the young mind, but the body needs its source of material comforts too. Nothing could match the luxury of being anointed by the sweet, floral, headiness of lavender combined with the milky, buttery texture of cream. These exotic salves and spirits were offerings from the Middle East pilgrims as they paid their annual homage to their blood kin, back in the sub-continent. News of their arrival would be announced well in advance. You remember how landline phones of the 90s would have a special ringtone for long-distance and international calls? A quick yell to mother in the kitchen, before I would dive to pick up the phone and answer in my most ‘Enid Blyton-honed’ cultured voice, ‘Hello, whom I am speaking to?’ The diction of Asalamu Alaikum alone would confirm whether these were relatives from Mumbai, or from my village on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, or from overseas. A girly and garbled ‘walaikumsalam’ would be followed by ‘are you well, when are you coming, what are you bringing for me’ spiel.

The children of the family are spoilt for choice with gifts from these foreign-settled relatives. Behind the scenes, though, the politics can be bitter, petty and cruel. Those who dwell in the villages expect annual tributes from the urban sophisticates, and those in the city expect generous endowments from the overseas royals. It’s based on the assumption of ‘relative’ affluence (pun intended!); the further you live and work from your village, the more the relatives back home see you as someone with means and resources. It is expected that travelers from cities and foreign countries arrive with a suitcase filled with goodies for extended relatives and every member of individual families. Because of the projected glitter of Dubai as a rich Emirate and a city of plenty, we assume that our relatives also partake the same wealth.

I wasn’t endowed with such empathy. I was happy to receive velvet bedspreads, my first gold filigree work bracelet, Nivea body cream (no lotion at that time), bars of white Jergens soap (was there another color, I would feel cheated if I now chance upon the existence of a pink-colored Jergen!) and my maiden perfume gift from Dubai, Lily of the Valley parfume de Yardley.

As I write this 15 years later, recollecting the moment of tearing open the crinkly, transparent followed by the small, slim and sharp-edged cardboard box, I sensed, before seeing, the perfume bottle. I dip my nose to the covered nozzle and smell this intense, concentrated scent of something that was I was to learn was lavender. There was this sense of the universe squeezing itself into this patch of intoxicating fragrance. I couldn’t stop inhaling from the cap of the bottle. And true to a child’s hoardish nature, I would not immediately use it, safekeeping it in the Godrej cupboard locker for close to three months, worried that either family members or I would deplete its contents. I instintively knew that such a treat would not be bestowed again. At least I didn’t have to hide my stash from my elder brotherm who was least interested in the flowery, feminine scent and instead was happy pouring over his kilograms of chocolates, fancy stationery and watch!

Come to think of it, I don’t even know how the real lavender flower smells like! For most of us, Yardely’s bottled version is the closest we would ever get to knowing that a flower with such an exquisite scent exists. Yes, even this would be a pollinated version though, blended with lighter notes, oils, fixatives, solvents, extracts and compounds. So, while my idea of lavender is necessarily contaminated, this has had no impact on my lifelong love for the perfume, a scent which I continue to use even today. In subsequent years and even until last month, I have been gifted Yardley soaps, Yardley body sprays, Yardely talcum powders, a host of cosmetics, kerchiefs, canned products, chocolates, dress materials, hair accessories, but never the Lily from the valley. My most strongest association with Dubai would always be the parfume de Yardley.

Pilgrims into the Millennium
When I look at the lives of my cousin sisters-and-brothers from my generation, and their young children, I think about the vast distance they have crossed, metaphorically. They have unmoored their anchors from Indian shores and call either side of the Gulf their home now. I labor over the idea of what home means, when your childhood friends, your Kutchi Muslim neighbor, your parents, college buddies,  and your brothers and sisters are no longer tethered to you, physically. I try to imagine their cultural underpinning, their involvement in civic life and political legacies, their interest in forging binding ties with their neighbors, all of which is a mandatory and celebrated part of being in one’s motherland. Their roots are not underground, but aerial, exposed, different in its phenotype, absorbing the myriad pollens of ideas, language, diet, changed habits, new ways of coping with traffic, with religion, with safety, and with friendship. They are also learning how to live with loss, loss as they understand it, not how who sleep in our ethnicity might perceive it. And most importantly, they are re-framing what satiety and happiness can come to mean, when distance and time severs any scope of falling back on the comforts of remembered joys.

Or is this an imagined pain, conjured by those who have been left behind on behalf of those who have flown the coup? Am I placing too much of importance on the idea of being (Indian) and belonging (to India) that I cannot imagine whole sets and sub-sets of my blood ties and those with whom I share bonds of affinity living optimally in a land far from what they were most familiar with, water, earth and home. When I raise these sentimental points in family discussions, the expatriates share the minutiae of their lives to convince me that their alienated self is not much different from how their lives would have unfolded in India, in fact, it is much better economically and materially in the Middle East. Home is not rooted to the Earth or to the coordinates of a village, but in how well you can claim to have achieved a sense of well-being and comfort, and how your children thrive in the company of friends, picking up the new language as fluently as their mother-tongue, and internalizing the mixed culture of the Arab world and the overseas Indian community, au naturale.

My kid cousin sister, a generation younger to me, interrupts the conversation, eager to know if I watched the latest episode of the Star Plus (that great carrier of Indian tradition) soap, Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon?’, and I give her a bemused look. Her mother questions my surprised look and tells me that they watch, enjoy and religiously follow all the Hindi, Tamil and English serials that we do here, in India. Of course, satelitte television and its 493 channels doesn’t surprise me. I am obviously aware, as I keep up my cousins’ Facebook updates and Likes, that they are crazy about these soap operas, just as I am. They also celebrate all festivals in school and in their neighborhood, exchange sweets and cooked meals with neighbors, go out to malls, parks and theatres on the weekends, shop and dine out when ever they fancy, and have access to excellent educational facilities and employment opportunities for the children and the father. So, life couldn’t get any better.

Perhaps I haven’t kept pace with the changing dynamics of a globalized world, where culture is a transportable and transplantable commodity. What I imagined culture to be, a vague and nebulous concept that could only be experience in situ, is a reified experience. The things that went towards building my sense of identity as an Indian, including books, movies, music, clothes, conversatons, food and rituals, are available at every Amazon.com potal, Café Coffee Day lounges and KFC outlets, and in the posh boutiques and malls of every urban city. What I thought was rooted in geography and place memories, like the sensation of phantom limbs, is actually rooted in the mechanisms of migration: the very thing that one might be afraid of losing when moving to another country – a sense of what one is and where we come from – is perhaps reinforced and strengthened in an alien land, where it becomes all the more obvious and commonplace to carry with you that sense of displacement. Yes, this negotiation is fraught with pain, with insecurity, and also with a sense of longing, but perhaps it is compensated by other, equally valid goals: a sense of physical well-being, of being economically independent, being among people who are similarly testing uncharted waters, and of discovering new ties that bind together the next generation.

This sense of discovery is what my father missed, when it was time for him to consider a stint in Dubai. I was just born that year to my family of three, including my 6-year-old brother, and father received an offer to work in an Emirati bank. I am sure he must have struggled with the decision, labored over the possibilities of missing the boat, of having to choose between family and work – because the move would entail leaving us for quite some time before he would be in a position to call for us. We know of many women in the village and cities of my community, who live with their parents-in-law and meet their Dubai-Saudi-returned husbands once a year. Soon, they have kids and the children grow up knowing about this special guest called ‘dad,’ who stays with them for 30 days in a year, and showers them with love, gifts and pamperings, and then disappears. We knew of mothers and daughters-in-law who spent their entire lifetimes being more of a companion to each other, than they ever would to their son and husband who was perpetually earning a living in Dubai. My father would have probably risen up the ranks of the globally-branched bank, as he has done so in his three-decade-long tenure in India. We would have all been well-off, happy to be materially enriched by the souks of the desert, and not struggled under the schedule of a nationalized-bank aided growth in India. The course of my own life would have taken a different path as well. In life, these probabilities are games of chance. My father probably forsook the chance to make more money, but he bet all his cards on love and family. And that’s a voyage that is no less courageous in its execution, as it was in its conviction.

From the sheen of gold and the scent of lavender, to becoming the mall destination of choice for the sub-continent, the posh emirate today is as much a space for reminiscences for me as it has evolved into a tower of aspirations for the next batch of graduates in my village, newly-married couples (planning their honeymoon), seasoned couples (planning a quick vacation during the Great Dubai Shopping Festival) and other close relations (who travel for business and leisure). Sometimes, I imagine my alternate reality in Dubai, away from the struggles that entail a life in India. But I cannot regret a life that was never mine to choose. That was someone else’s destiny. For what it’s worth, I think Yardley would probably not be half as exquisite as it remains for me today, if it hadn’t traveled through 5,000 kilometers of evocations.

Published in The State, Volume IV, May 2013 | You can buy a hard copy or PDF of the magazine.

THE STATE is a publishing practice based out of Dubai, U.A.E. It investigates South-South reorientations, alternative futurisms, transgressive cultural criticism, the transition from analogue to digital, and the sensuous architecture of this “printernet.”


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