A Tale of Three Tri-Cities

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dubaiLiving in the three tri-cities, from India to UAE, has taught me a great deal – from the art of taking life easy to sharing a zest for life to broadening my outlook

VANIT SETHI

The last few days of a fading year and the first few days of a new year are a good time to re-evaluate yourself and the life one has led – not just in the year gone by, but in several summers and winters. In the mood for a time-space travel, I plunged into the past, to figure out what has shaped my life in the past half century. I realized that the places you live in shape your identity and destiny in several ways. And your identity keeps changing as you move across cities in pursuit of a new job, career or livelihood. The more one travels, the more new ideas influence your thinking. And every place, every city and country has something new to offer – you have to be willing to accept it.

In a normal human lifespan of about 80 years, if one can live in four cities across the globe, you would have still lived 20 years on an average in one place – a good enough period to let the place grow on you, before you decide you need a fresh, new set of experiences. Of course, one does not plan life so methodically – for more often than not, your fate decides your life. However, your fate is also what you make it, very often through planning and striving. Sometimes you are just tossed around, especially in your younger years – you may protest and resent, but eventually you accept it as your fate.

In these contemporary times, when the whole world is a global village, more and more people are travelling across continents to make a new life for themselves. Many people travel to escape the miseries of their homelands, but many more travel these days, I think, in pursuit of a dream – the dream of a better life, career, opportunities etc. At different stages of your life, you need to turn a new page, or move to a new chapter – and sometimes to open a new book altogether.

In my life too, I have moved across cities within India and outside. Primarily, I have lived in three cities for sufficient periods of time, and three others for very short spells. The three cities where I spent a significant amount of time are Hyderabad, Chandigarh and Dubai. All the three have grown and expanded, or merged with nearby towns to become tri-cities. So, I shall discuss, in some detail, how these three tri-cities – Hyderabad-Secunderabad-Cyberabad, Chandigarh-Mohali-Panchkula, and Dubai-Sharjah-Ajman – have shaped my life and outlook.

Hyderabad's iconic Charminar
Hyderabad’s iconic Charminar

Hyderabad-Secunderabad-Cyberabad: I have spent the maximum amount of my life in this tri-city – a total of about 30 years. Some of the best years in my life have been spent here, when we lived inside an educational campus.  I had my first crush in this campus, with a girl who was my neighbor. I was in high school then, and quite at a loss to understand the tumult within me.

I returned to this tri-city six years later, after completing my higher education in Chandigarh. I found my first job as an English teacher in a public school here, and later drifted towards journalism, where I remained for the rest of my life, so far. I left this tri-city in December 2002, when I found a job in Dubai.

This tri-city, despite its last three letters, is actually a very good place. It’s a mini-India, where you meet people from every corner of the country. The culture of the place is also a unique synthesis (Hindu-Muslim, North-South). The language of this tri-city – Deccani or Dakhani – is a curious mix of Urdu, Hindi, Telugu and even Marathi and Kannada. It has been popularized in many Hindi films.

There are quite a few differences within this tri-city. Hyderabad is primarily the old, walled city on the south of Musi river (now just a drain), with a predominant Muslim population. Most of the tourist spots of this tri-city are in this portion of Hyderabad – Charminar, Salar Jung Museum, and Falaknuma Palace etc.

The newer city of Hyderabad is on the north of Musi River, where a huge lake – Hussain Sagar – divides Hyderabad and Secunderabad (north of Hyderabad). Secunderabad is largely a cantonment area, with a significant civilian population too. It is cleaner, neater, greener, and less chaotic than Hyderabad, which is true of most cantonment areas. The last ten years before I moved to Dubai, I spent in a rocky hill area of Secunderabad called Gunrock Enclave, which had a significant population from the armed forces.

I never lived in the newest, glittering hi-tech city called Cyberabad – which houses top IT companies and MNCs – where much of the development in the tri-city is now taking place. Cyberabad competes for international limelight with Bangalore. The shiny, glass-and-steel structures of corporate India in Cyberabad are a total contrast to the old havelis of Hyderabad, as well as the British-style bungalows of Secunderabad.

This tri-city of H-S-C has taught me the value of friendships across communities, as we used to celebrate all the festivals – from Diwali to Eid to Christmas, and many others – together with people of all communities in the university campus. In the larger city too, many people celebrate these festivals together.

H-S-C has also taught me never to take life too seriously, with its often-maligned ‘chalta hai’, ‘light le-le’ attitude. It is more important to live the moment than think too much about tomorrow or the day after. Perhaps, that’s why for typical Hyderabadis, parson could mean even 20 years later or 20 years earlier.

That easy-going, jovial attitude has given us the world-famous Hyderabadi biryani and the addictive Irani chai. And the best part of this tri-city is its weather, which is lovely for at least nine months of the year.     

Chandigarh-Mohali-Panchkula: I was born in Chandigarh, and have lived here at different times, for a total period of 10 years now, with my present base also in this City Beautiful. If I have to tell someone to which part of India I belong, it has to be this place (though I prefer to be called a pan-Indian, or better still, a global Indian). The reason is not just because I was born here and lived my impressionable youth here. It is also because both my parents, who were refugees from West Punjab – now in Pakistan – met, loved and married in this modern city. This city became the home of many Punjabi refugees from across the border.

My maternal grandfather was a part of the Chandigarh capital project from its beginnings in 1952. This city was the dream of many uprooted Indians, as they saw in it a glimpse of the country’s promising future. They could leave behind the stifling traditions of the past and participate in independent India’s new growth story.

Nehru’s vision of a truly modern city also inspired them. My mother grew up with the city, and my father found a job here, which provided him the springboard in his career as a university academic. Both of them found an anchor here after the traumatic events of the Partition, and they built their life bit by bit from here. I owe it to this city for being born to such wonderful parents (both of whom are no more).

Chandigarh has always fascinated me. The city’s master plan designed like a human body, its wide open spaces, numerous gardens, the backdrop of the hills, and its prestigious educational institutions are a big attraction for many people in the region.

The city – a union territory – has now grown by encompassing two satellite cities Mohali and Panchkula in Punjab and Haryana respectively. The three cities are commonly called Chandigarh Tricity. Today, this tricity attracts people from all over India, and many foreign students to the Panjab University, which has been ranked as the best university in India recently (beating even the IITs) by the Times Higher Education world university rankings. I am proud to have studied in this university, and lived on its beautiful campus for two years during my post-graduation. Some of my best moments of my life have happened here, with the university campus providing a rich intellectual and cultural environment.

While Mohali and Panchkula too have flourished because of the attraction of Chandigarh, they offer a healthy competition to each other, and in trying to emulate Chandigarh, they surpass themselves. Mohali is now famous as the venue for many cricket matches.

The prestigious Indian School of Business (ISB) has its second campus here, after Hyderabad. Many IT companies too have their offices here. Lying towards Chandigarh’s southwest, it offers affordable living options. Panchkula – on the other hand – is more upscale than Mohali.

On Chandigarh’s northeast and closer to the hills, many retired people prefer to settle down here. Panchkula competes with Chandigarh on its shopping and dining options, with many branded stores and multi-cuisine restaurants. It has several parks too, providing a wholesome life.

This tricity of C-M-P has taught me the art of being flexible, because of its constant weather changes round the year. When it gets too hot in the summers, the monsoon rains provide relief. When you have had enough of the wet, sticky weather, the lovely autumn arrives with its balmy days and pleasant evenings.

But soon, it gives way to the chilly winter – with its fog, mist, rain, hail and sleet. Just when the chill gets to your bones, the wonderful spring springs a surprise, with its colorful fragrant flowers.

And the short spring gives way to the long hot summer again – the cycle is repeated every year. Many people don’t like these weather extremes, but I think they give one a taste of all seasons – their delights and despair, which is what life is all about.

This fashion-conscious city also internalized in me that there is a dress for every occasion. I love the way C-M-P residents enjoy every season, and always come out well-dressed – ready to work, play and party hard. The Punjabi zest for life is infectious, and you can’t be unaffected by it.

Dubai-Sharjah-Ajman: In 2002 March, an opportunity arose to visit the Dubai Shopping Festival, along with my sister and brother-in-law. Impressed by the tall buildings, wide roads, huge shopping malls, multi-cuisine restaurants and multiplexes, I decided to try my luck in this modern emirate of the UAE.

And so, I dropped my resume at a couple of publishing houses. I came back to Hyderabad not too sure of getting a job in Dubai. But out of the blue, one evening I got a call from Khaleej Times to come for a one-week trial in September. There, I went to Dubai again, and at the end of the week, I was told to get ready to join them. Within three months, I was back in Dubai to join Khaleej Times. Since then, I lived a little over eight years in the UAE, and came back to India in early 2011 to look after my ailing father.

The eight years I spent in UAE have been some of the most fruitful years of my life – personally as well as professionally. Within Dubai, I got a chance to work in two newspapers and a string of magazines.

Dubai has kept changing in front of my eyes during these eight years. Some of the real estate, entertainment, and housing and tourism projects here have been phenomenally out of this world. The world’s best architectural wonders are now happening in Dubai, which makes it the most happening place in the world today.

We, however, lived in Sharjah, a neighboring emirate – like most people working in Dubai do, to save on house rent. Sharjah, in the north of Dubai, is a relatively conservative emirate as compared to the modern, bustling, cosmopolitan Dubai. It is called the cultural capital of UAE, famous for its museums and cultural centers.

Life is much more relaxed here than in hectic, pulsating Dubai. The best part of living in Sharjah was the 12th floor central AC apartment, from where we had a distant sea-view. We loved this flat so much that we never changed our accommodation even once. Everything was convenient and within reach – supermarkets, restaurants, parks, and cinema halls.    

However, we were closer to Ajman – another emirate north of Sharjah – than to Dubai (south of Sharjah). Ajman is UAE’s smallest emirate, largely populated around the coast. Ajman is focused on beach tourism, and has lovely resorts all along the coast.

These resorts and hotels are filled with night clubs – Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Filipino, African, Russian, Lebanese etc. – where you can have free-flowing booze with live bands of singers and dancers.

The beach waters are warm and gentle. Many people converge on Ajman from the neighboring emirates on weekends for entertainment in the night clubs. Families too can be seen picnicking on the beaches.

I and my family would often visit all the three emirates from time to time for shopping, dining and other outings. All kinds of cuisines are available in this tricity of D-S-A. Indian cuisine is the most popular, and so are Hindi movies, not only because of the large Indian expat population (they outnumber the locals), but also because they are liked by most Arabs and other Asians.

Since Keralites constitute the largest chunk of the Indian population in the UAE, South Indian restaurants are very popular, and Malayalam films also run in some movie halls. You hear a lot of Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Bengali and other Indian languages spoken here.

Dubai is truly cosmopolitan, housing more than 120 nationalities. It is UAE’s most liberal city, where you encounter people from all over the world. Living in the tricity of D-S-A, you are compelled to interact with different races, communities, and nationalities. That broadens your outlook, as it has mine. For example, I discovered I had a lot in common with many Pakistanis (who can become your best friends here).

We love the same food and movies, and almost speak the same language (Hindi-Urdu). When we interact with locals and other Arabs, we discover that many of them – especially the older ones – love Indians, as they have frequently been to India and admired the diversity of our culture and the vibrancy of our democracy.

When we meet Westerners – especially those from UK – we find that many have strong links with India from the time of their forefathers. Many of them hop over to India when they get short breaks. When we meet the Chinese, we feel we both are part of the rising Asia and BRICS grouping, and when we meet the Russians, we have our old national friendship that makes us feel closer.

So, the UAE and the tri-city of D-S-A have broadened my outlook and dispelled some old misgivings I had about certain nationalities. It has taught me how to work in a multi-cultural environment. It’s real fun when you meet people from all over the world – in malls, trains, on the streets, and in offices.

And the best part about Dubai is the number of events you have here round the year – the film festival, IT expo, litfest, foodfest, media conference, and to top it all, the Dubai Shopping Festival – the ultimate retail and entertainment extravaganza. I had the privilege of covering most of these events and interviewing some celebrities while working with a current events magazine. Life is indeed good in D-S-A.

Thus, as you can see, the three tri-cities have taught me various things in life – from the art of taking life easy, to sharing a zest for life, to broadening life’s outlook. That’s why I believe one should not merely travel across the world, but also live in a few places to assimilate various ideas that will make you a global citizen – so vital in today’s shrinking world.

 

 

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