Rediscovering my desi roots in Dubai

Indians celebrate Diwali in Bur Dubai. — File photo by Shihab
Indians celebrate Diwali in Bur Dubai. — File photo by Shihab

While the rest of the world rests on laurels of nostalgia and feel-good classicality, this city has its breakneck tempo of evolution where almost no place is out of bounds.



by

Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 17 Jun 2021, 10:02 PM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:13 PM

Dubai is a city that changes every day. Something new, something different, something repurposed, something reinvented. In that sense, connections in its topography are never really “set”. While the rest of the world rests on laurels of nostalgia and feel-good classicality, this city has its breakneck tempo of evolution where almost no place is out of bounds. Obviously, that applies to the range of Little India properties that abound in a city which is the second home to an overwhelming percentage of the expat (Indian) population: most of these spots seem like they are nesting in a transit lounge, waiting to catch a new flight in order to take on a fresh pair of wings. But while the eco-system around the Little Indias changes every now and then — a facelift, a change of address (in the vicinity), a rebranding of a business core proposition, a new extension — the DNA remains the same.

When I came to Dubai in 2008, I started living in Bur Dubai. It is one of the Indian “ghettos”. Please, why not a more “cosmopolitan” area, I was immediately asked. At that time, it was a case of convenience. I put up in a hotel in Mankhool for a couple of weeks and had formed a “bond”. “There is familiarity,” I’d say firmly. “I know the lie of the land.”

I continued to live in the same neighbourhood (though I did move from one building to another) for the next 10 years. “It’s like you never left India — it’s just more organised and orderly,” exclaimed whoever came to visit me from India.

There were the obvious touchpoints. Supermarkets had a better showcase of desi brands and ingredients. There was a FabIndia. Indian-Chinese restaurants. Beauty parlours — not rarefied salons, though there were many of those too — with Madhuri Dixit and Priyanka Chopra posters at the entrance. Ayurvedic treatment centres. A deluge of gold jewellery offerings — in clusters.

A friend used to be a top banker — the sort who have penthouses in Downtown or on the Palm. But he chose to live on Rolla Street in Bur Dubai. His wife was the major influencer in that decision. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else because this is the best of both worlds: home comforts and an international lifestyle.”

“What ‘international’?” new Dubai-types would scoff each time I narrated that story. “Face it, you — and your banker friend — live in a ghetto.” I honestly didn’t care.

There have been times when I needed something horribly ethnic in India — when I went back on vacations — and couldn’t find it there as easily I’d do in any of Dubai’s Little Indias. A colleague told me he carries a particular brand of Darjeeling tea, made in India, for his father back in India — it’s a fight to find it in most stores in Delhi whereas he gets it here easily. Curry leaves. When I’m in Delhi or in Kolkata, only a few shops store them. Here, go to any shop around the corner, and they’re there peeking out of plastic packets on a shelf, waiting to be picked up. Brands of Made-in-India pickles, ghee and soaps that I never knew existed are now mine for the asking.

In Delhi, there is the Sarojini Nagar market; it sells exports rejects alongside a flea market-ish array of goods. But it is best known for clothes and accessories. Cheap and trendy. One of my flatmates in Delhi (when I lived there) was from Montreal, and when she moved back to Canada at the end of her two-year posting, she sent me a message complaining how behind the fashion curve markets there were: “I miss Sarojini Nagar.”

The hustle and bustle of Sarojini Nagar, where everyone still flocks to despite the booming mall culture, is replicated in Meena Bazaar — probably Little India’s most popular signpost. There’s not a single Bollywood fashion cue you will miss here. People visit this “area” for all kinds of things (including India-made electronics), but I go to check out the fashion quotient that bursts at its seams. Intersperse your walking trail with a quick papdi chaat and lassi, and you’d think you are in Janpath or Linking Road.

sushmita@khaleejtimes.com


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