Return of the natives

For expats, going back ‘home’ after a rarefied stint in the UAE calls for lifestyle readjustments and recalibrations. How tough — or easy — is it to find your feet in ‘chaotic’ countries like India and Pakistan?


Sushmita Bose

Published: Fri 19 Mar 2021, 9:04 PM

After 29 years in the Gulf — 23 of which were in the UAE, Dubai more specifically — Kannan Ramakrishnan and his wife Kamini are packing up, and moving back to Bangalore for good. Other than tending to a bundle of paperwork, they are both caught up with the logistics of shifting: possessions and personal effects gathered over three decades — alongside memories — have to be wrapped, at times bubble-wrapped and shipped across a metaphorical bridge. It’s a fairly protracted process, one that acquires a sentient dimension, a poignant shape of its own.

It can be emotionally draining, and confusing. You are at crossroads, you don’t know what home means any more. Is it ‘back home’ or is it where you were all this while, where screens atop carousels in the arrival section of the airport beckon with ‘Welcome home to Dubai’?

“Yes, I’m a tiny bit apprehensive — any change, where you are being pulled out of a comfort zone, is fearful,” says Kamini. Getting used to a routine in the UAE is easy. “So I’m trying to brace myself for infrastructural struggles in India and hoping to strike a balance between the teetering AED-INR equation.” She laughs. “I won’t be able to ‘time’ my schedule like I did here: be out at 9am, run errands and get back in time for lunch, doesn’t work like clockwork in India.”

She will have to “retune”. But she draws strength from her daughter, who, born and raised in this region, moved to India a few years ago (on her own accord). It took her six months to “readjust to life in India”, but now she loves it. “She’s always telling me how ‘real’ yet ‘casual’ her life is there, and how she’s less ‘spoilt’ and more dressed down.”

Kannan intends to put his best foot forward: he’s bidding goodbye to an “organised” corporate life in the auto sector, and launch into a new phase of his life. There are niggles. “Filing taxes is going to be a bother I suspect, although my financial consultant has promised it’ll be a breeze.” He’s also not too thrilled with the current climate of ‘intolerance’ and ‘polarisation’ setting in back home. “I know a lot of it is just talk and social media rants, but there appears to be something amiss.”

Having said that, he plans to not be a quibbler. “I have to be accepting: I’m not going to complain why traffic is mismanaged or why roads aren’t wide enough, that’s just silly.”

For these two, figuring out the lie of the land will only happen once they “return”. What about those who’ve already hit the stride?

‘Embrace the chaos, and you start seeing the method in the madness’

By his own admission, Dev J Haldar never missed India while he was in Dubai. A few people back home, yes, and maybe the “Red Fort or Victoria Memorial” once in a while. But now that he’s back in Delhi working as an associate creative head for a top media company, he misses Dubai terribly. “The roads, the cars, the ‘international lifestyle’, the food — Dubai is a global food capital, in one small neighbourhood you’ll get everything from Kohlapur to Kentucky. Gosh, I miss so many things!”

He puts it down to his spending his entire 30s in Dubai, from 2006 to 2015: he grew with the city, palpably felt one with it. India, on the other hand, is so huge, “I am a small dot.”

An opening in radio got him to the UAE, and soon he expanded his base in other domains — teaching, blogging, handling food PR.

“I’d not planned a long-term stay, but then Dubai kind of got to me and I was hooked.”

His wife and kid left for Delhi, and six months later he decided to follow suit; he refused a “great offer”, “returned” for good after a decade. When he landed, “It was like watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, India is an assault on your senses — but embrace the chaos, and you start seeing the method in the madness.”

It took Dev a few months to get used to people’s aggression, but then again he liked the fact that one could be “vocal” if they wanted. “You know, I am a very cynical person but, despite my cynicism, it’s amazed me how much India has progressed — especially from a digital standpoint.” There is nothing, for instance, that he can’t get delivered at his doorstep at the touch of an app button. Or when 2020 threw up a slew of challenges, “how we reacted, especially in the digital domain” was exemplary. “I also like how people have evolved and are empowered to do their own thing, like quitting fancy jobs and branching out into cool, unconventional stuff.”

Corporate structures and cultures, he maintains, have been a pleasant surprise — much better than he expected. “Take something like mental health, it was a ‘non-issue’ when I’d left India, but it’s really been amped up, we do workplace workshops on mental health, there is a rigour, not just social media posts.”

The other aspect of UAE life Dev misses is hobnobbing with “120 nationalities”. He’s started taking care of it in a new way: by replacing nations with states. “There is so much variety in India, customs, language, food, I’m now making a conscious effort to appreciate the nuances.”

Even as he is overwhelmed with nostalgia when he sees a friend’s post on zipping around in a red sports car on SZR, he points out, “Have you seen how fantastic some of the Indian highways are?”

Before adding, “Most stretches, that is.” But, “let’s not amplify problems, let’s seek the best out and go with the flow.”

‘I never, ever wanted to leave the UAE’

Saliha Waqar came to Dubai from Lahore at 22 — straight out of college, having secured a job in a multinational bank. She lived in the UAE for “only” two years — from 2008 to 2010 — but those were glorious years. “I never, ever wanted to move back.”

“I was very young, and therefore Dubai really made a big impression.” She wanted to fly, it gave her wings. Her list of “loves” are a litany. The independence, both financial and social. The freedom to be. To go out at any time in the night. To wear what she wanted, without anyone judging her. To be able to call her building maintenance guys in the middle of the night to fix a leaking pipe. “I gelled more with Indians than Pakistanis — isn’t that strange given both countries always appear to be at each other’s throats? Out there, it was level playing field, my best friends were Indians.”

She also loved how everyone, “like everyone”, had access to privilege. “As a 22-year-old, in my first job, I could visit designer stores and not feel intimidated — that’s unthinkable in Pakistan. And as a banker I observed how easy it was to have access to credit.”

Those days, “I used to get worried that I did not miss anything about Pakistan while being away from home,” Saliha giggles. “It still disturbs me, makes me ponder.”

Upon return (“My mother emotionally blackmailed me, that’s why I came back!”), she completed her MBA from LUMS, where it was very “international” and cosmopolitan. “I was in a bubble, so didn’t feel out of place.” It was only when she started working a couple of years later that it hit her. “The difference in work culture is very stark… in Pakistan, there is bureaucracy, if I want to meet my department head, I have to go through different layers. In the UAE, I could walk into anyone’s room and strike up a conversation.” She missed the “intellectual connections”. “What was worse was that since I was a Dubai-returnee, somehow people believed I had to be brought back to Planet Earth.”

But she’s gradually assimilated herself back into the groove. “I refuse to get cowed down, so I take a Careem at 10 from work if need be.” She admits — sheepishly — Pakistan has come a long way. “You have supermarkets and creature comforts, life can actually be quite sorted if one stops seeing the glass as half-empty.”

Saliha still considers those who have come back from the UAE to be her “inner circle”, they have a more relatable cultural context, she feels. But these days, she’s too set in work and family life to remember her stay in the UAE all the time. In moments when she does throwbacks to Dubai, she asks herself if she can do it all over again. “I don’t think I’ll be able to, social and family pressures suck you in, change you... you have to readjust.”

She likes to live vicariously, so whenever people she knows who live in the UAE toy with the idea of moving back to Pakistan, and seek her advice, she tells them, “Do not move back if you can help it. And if you are moving, you better make sure you have a damn good reason.”

‘Don’t fall into the trap of comparisons’

“Everyone has their own coping mechanism, but it’s important to not fall into the trap of comparison,” says Jaydip Sengupta, who moved back to India after a 10-year-long run in the UAE. “Every place is unique, has its own pros and cons and learning to make the most of what you have is the best way to go about it.” And yes, always be thankful and never have complaints.

In 2006, Jaydip used to head the sports section of a national newspaper’s Kolkata edition, basking in a “comfort zone”. He decided to move out of it when an offer came his way to work as a journalist for a Dubai-based English daily. “I knew people who had moved to the UAE and had stayed back — so I thought there must be something in that: the lure of a ‘better life’, sure, but also the lure of getting exposed to something bigger and grander than what I had experienced in India.”

He had given himself three years, tops, but, like many others he knew, stayed on for 10. They were “wonderful”. “The UAE provided me with so many opportunities: to live a luxurious life, to see the world and to fulfil my dreams as a journalist.”

But when the time came for him to leave, he had unstinting clarity: “My parents were getting old and they needed me by their

side, as did my wife and son [he was born in Dubai but they wanted him to be schooled in India] who had moved back a couple of

years earlier.”

There was a kind of ritual Jaydip used to practice during his tenure in Dubai: he used to have this on/off switch which came into play every time he visited Kolkata. “I could shut out everything else — as if I had never left. And the same would happen once the flight landed in Dubai after the vacation was over.”

What also helped was that he loves living in his hometown, Kolkata, and had never really got looped out of it — and the fact that the transition “was planned” to be smooth. “I have the ability to move on very quickly, so I never had second thoughts, never really looked back.”

‘I left Dubai broken but it was the best decision I ever made’

Writer/journalist Sonya Rehman has a flash of the time when she felt a “visceral disconnect” with her “surroundings”. She had just landed in Lahore, on holiday, the only time she “visited home” during her less than one year stint in Dubai. “I had two suitcases bursting at the seams with gifts for my family (all the shopping deals and discounts made me quite the shopaholic).” It struck her immediately how she had already “begun to unconsciously make biased comparisons between Dubai and Lahore. Dubai, for me, represented a First World newness, this glimmering fantasy minus imperfections — [where] whatever you wanted could be yours. And there I was in Lahore, the grime, the sweat, the struggle, the old demons.”

She’d moved to the UAE in 2015 to work for a well-known publishing house based in Dubai because there was a “huge desire” in her to live abroad. “Better opportunities, better life.” Earlier, she’d spent a year in New York (doing her Masters), where the bar was raised.

Sonya’s work life, as it turned out, didn’t exactly meet her expectations; it “caused me severe mental and emotional anguish from the get-go”, and finally the stress got to her. She returned to Lahore.

“Initially, it was tough, but I decided to hunker down and ‘make things work’ for myself. My mother has always been a survivor navigating Pakistani society as a single, working woman with children, and I think I learnt it from her — she’s always told me, ‘When the chips are down, kick up some dust’ — and that’s what I did.”

She still misses the UAE, especially the friends she made. “They were my saving grace during my work ordeal. With them, I felt I was on perpetual holiday: dining out, beach combing, checking out art galleries, festivals and plays… I think I miss the art scene the most, I wish I’d explored it more and experienced that side of Dubai because it’s quite rich (no pun intended!).” But again, while she was in Dubai, she missed her photo-walks in Lahore “desperately”. “There was nothing more that I wanted to do than grab my camera, hop into a Careem and shoot down to the Walled City — and spend the whole day taking photos and eating with other

photographer friends.” Which is what she’s doing these days, a lot, besides working on her first fiction book for children, slated for release in a few months.

Today, she realises her trepidations about finding her feet “back home” were simply “perceptions inked with fears and worries”. Of course, Lahore has its cons; but it has its pros. As does Dubai. “I left Dubai broken but it was the best decision I ever made. I hope I’m able to live in Dubai again at some point, be it for a short stint, or a longer project.”

What would her advice be to fellow returnees?

“Be mindful of your judgments when you move back. Sure, life is perfect in many ways outside your home country, but don’t come back and view your patch and your people through the lens of intolerance.” Instead, “use your experience and your privilege to bring what you’ve learned overseas to those who need it most.”

In other words: “Give back. Always give back.”

More news from Opinion