Dubai, Here I Come Again!

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Dubai

Why it was great to be back once again in the beautiful city where I spent eight exciting years of my life

VANIT SETHI

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s I landed in Dubai on a sleepy Friday afternoon in the middle of a sweltering June (last month), I walked with my suitcase straight to the metro to board it for Business Bay, where my cousin would pick me up for his villa in upscale Jumeirah.

Though I was back in Dubai for a short, week-long vacation three years after I had left the emirate for my home country India, it never seemed that I had left the place. Not because it hadn’t changed – as Dubai keeps changing every minute – but because after having lived eight years over there, things were comfortably familiar. So, as I boarded the sleek Dubai Metro, there was a sense of déjà vu. For more than a year, I had used it to cover my assignments for the magazine where I last worked before returning to India.

The first thing that strikes you in Dubai is its spick-and-span orderliness. Coming from the chaotic traffic maze that is India, Dubai is a pleasant relief. I remember that driving there for six years was a pleasure, except commuting during the morning and evening rush hours from Sharjah to Dubai and vice-versa respectively.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to do much of that, as I used a private bus service that picked me up from right below my apartment in Sharjah, and dropped me just outside my office in Dubai Media City – a good 70 kms that took an hour and a half one-way. I utilised this period effectively by reading new novels, listening to music on an iPod, talking to someone on the phone, or simply dozing off.

Dubai World Central, the new airport that has come up in the city since my last visit.
Dubai World Central, the new airport that has come up in the city since my last visit.

The second thing is its glitzy opulence. Dubai wants to do everything bigger and bolder. The tallest building has to be in Dubai, the biggest mall has to be in Dubai, the largest business, residential or entertainment enclave has to be in Dubai – so on and so forth. In the international press, Dubai has a reputation of being on steroids, as it moves at more than double the speed of other metropolitan cities in the world. What others start dreaming of tomorrow, Dubai has already built it yesterday. When I first landed in Dubai in March 2002, I remember being overwhelmed by its towering skyscrapers. And now, there are many more, including Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest.

The third – and this is the most fascinating, according to me – is its confident cosmopolitanism. This is now reflected at its best in the metro. You see not just Arabs from different countries, but Europeans, Russians, Africans, Chinese, Filipinos, and most of all Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Seeing hordes of your countrymen there, you don’t feel out of home.

The place seems like a more organised version of India. Hindi films are predominant, Indian food is all over the place, and Indian languages like Hindi, Urdu and Malayalam can be heard everywhere. However, the most interesting part about living in Dubai is actually working there. On the job, in most offices, you have a truly multi-cultural environment. Interacting with colleagues from different nationalities makes your job much more challenging and creative. I’ve enjoyed working in three media companies in Dubai.

So, I was kind of missing this creative energy back home, despite the obvious comforts of living in your own country (not really material or monetary). And I also wanted to catch up with many of my old colleagues with whom I shared some good moments of fun (when things slip into the past, even awkward and irritating situations seem like fun).

As I walked into the office of the first newspaper I worked for in Dubai (Khaleej Times) one Sunday afternoon, my friends were delighted to see me (at least I hope they were). We talked of old times, friends and ex-colleagues who have gone to various places. We exchanged notes on what we were doing right now (nothing earth-shaking, obviously!), and we envisioned some plans for the future (like lording over a string of media companies). I left the place in a light and frothy mood.

Then, the next day, I checked into the publishing house I worked last before returning to India. It no longer exists, but in its place is a magazine-cum-coffee shop that allows you to browse glossy European art and culture magazines while drinking two spoons of awful, overpriced coffee (of course, you can buy the ‘intellectual’ journals, paying several pounds, euros, or its equivalent in dirhams). Beating a hasty retreat from this high-brow ‘adda’ (the pitfalls of being overcome by nostalgia), I wait at another venue for another friend and ex-colleague (she also worked in the same publishing house). This charming lady now tracks and pounces on Bollywood stars the moment they land in Dubai for film promotions and the like. She regales me with some funny and not-so-funny incidents, and swears there’s more hard work than fun involved in her assignments.

Well, from her Facebook posts, it appears she’s having a ball, and she responds with: “Well, that’s how it looks on FB.” Just as we’re chatting, another ex-colleague walks in with an accomplice. He’s busy, so I decide to meet him the next day.

Next, I have to meet another ex-colleague whose luck has taken him as far as Davos. Every year, he meets business honchos and political bigwigs at the WEF in snowy Switzerland, as part of his magazine assignment. He’s surprised to see me waiting at his office reception (I couldn’t inform him about my visit). It’s lunch time, so we pack off to a South Indian restaurant below his building and have Hyderabadi chicken biryani. Over the sumptuous meal, we discuss old times and friends – one of whom has gone missing somewhere in India (God knows why!). I tell him: “Hey, I’m not missing, you can see. So keep me in the opportunity loop, okay!” He smiles indulgently and hands out his card. Well, who knows?

Then, I call up my ex-boss, and we meet at a telephone exchange, as he’s waiting for a landline connection for his new office. He tells me he’s involved in producing some business documentaries for a popular Indian news channel. He outlines his new work profile, which seems quite exciting. Soon, his turn comes to submit his form at the counter, and so I’m off again.

In the next few days, I meet other friends, wife’s friends and ex-colleagues, some ‘contacts’, and relatives. In Sharjah on Friday (the UAE’s Sunday), I meet another relative and his family, a neighbour, and a friend. The relatives have a nice apartment overlooking the beautiful Sharjah Corniche, while the neighbour is a daring entrepreneur in the UAE’s transportation and cargo business. The friend – also an ex-colleague both in India and the UAE – meets me at a park around 10 pm (where I frequently used to take walks earlier). Even at that time, it was difficult sitting out in the open because of the heat. And we too talked of other people and events at our old office.

There were many other friends and interesting people I met, and many whom I couldn’t meet. Some of them I managed to talk on the phone, but regret not meeting them. There were others I’m sure I could neither meet nor talk to (a few were on vacation), which is a pity. An ex-reporter in Khaleej Times, who is now working in a UN job based in Singapore, landed in Dubai just a few days after I left. On FB when she posted her update, we felt sorry we couldn’t meet. And while I was with my cousin (who works with the Emirates group) and his family in Jumeirah, some of our nights were occupied with watching the FIFA World Cup.

Finally, on a Saturday evening – a week after I landed in Dubai – I was on my way back home, filled with pleasant memories. The Gulf Air flight was from a new airport miles away from Dubai. The flight to Delhi carried me via Bahrain, where I watched an interesting WC match in transit at the airport. Then, in the onward flight to Delhi, I catch the evergreen Hindi comedy Angoor, have a decent meal, and go to sleep with enough leg space (fortunately, I was near the Emergency exit). In the early morning at Delhi, it is cloudy with a slight drizzle.

The airport Metro is fantastic (truly world-class), reaching the New Delhi Railway Station in just 20 minutes, with only three stops. I catch the morning Shatabdi to Chandigarh, feeling terribly sleepy. Back home, I doze off in sound slumber till the evening. Thankfully, I still had two more days of leave before I resumed duty. How the week just flew!

I feel one must take a periodic trip down memory lane in the actual physical spaces of your past? For in life, when the past becomes a future, one can never say. Ciao!

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