'We belong in the UAE, it makes us feel secure'
Having spent 75 years in Dubai, Maghanmal J. Pancholia is the oldest Indian expat in the UAE
You must have heard of many old-timer Indian expats who have seen Dubai burgeon into what it is today - a world-class city. But this man in question is not merely one of the oldest Indian expats but one of the most successful Indian entrepreneurs in the Gulf. Fondly known as Maghaba, the chairman of the Arabian Trading Agency, Maghanmal J. Pancholia, has spent 75 years of his life in Dubai, after landing in the city in 1942 to join his father and brother who were already here.
Now 93, the living legend of the Indian community in the UAE, Maghaba was among the first lot of 250 Indians who landed in Dubai for the pearl season in 1942. And these were only people of his community, the Thattais (Sindhis) from India who came to Dubai and set up their commercial activities in textiles, pearls, gold and money exchange.
More popularly recognised as the founder of the Indian High School, the Dubai-based Indian entrepreneur not only made a mark in business but also established the foundations for the Indian expatriate community in Dubai. "We belong to the Thattai Bhatia community from India, which is the oldest expatriate community to have moved to the then Trucial States (UAE now). It is a close-knit and closed community with about 10,000 members worldwide.
"I have seen Dubai grow from a small sleepy pearl-diving hamlet with no electricity, no tap water, and no roads to now a city that never sleeps. The speed at which this city has not only caught up but risen to become a dynamic metropolis that ranks high in global economic performance is what amazes me. And the credit goes to earlier the late Ruler of Dubai, Shaikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, and later His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai."
Seeking a better life
Following his family tradition, most of the male members of Maghanmal's family sought a living in the Gulf. His grandfather came in 1860 when the emirates were called the Trucial States and were under the British rule, followed by his father in 1895. In effect, his family had been here for a good 200 years when Maghaba, arrived on the scene.
"Our main business was to finance the pearl industry, apart from textile and food consumables. There were no modern day amenities and life was hard, therefore we kept our women back home."
"We were always connected to this area in business and could not think of settling anywhere else but Dubai. No sooner a boy in the family turned 12, he would be sent here to assist in business. He was first in the family to pass matric, attend college and as part of the tradition, he was sent to Gulf," Maghaba said.
The Pancholia family in one frame. His immediate family members are also long-time expats here.
Although he got married in 1943, he was the first in his family to bring his wife here in Dubai after 1957, when he got electricity in Dubai. Maghaba was the first person to start an electricity company here in 1957. Dubai's formal electricity company was established only in 1961 and Maghaba was a shareholder and director on the company's board for 20 years.
Talking about his family life, Maghaba says, "I have two sons, two daughters, who are all here now. Educated in Mumbai, they all moved to Dubai eventually. They could have settled wherever they wanted but they chose Dubai because our community does not only have business relations with Dubai but also deep attachment since we have been here right from the beginning. No other place could ever permeate our minds other than Dubai."
"My kids were born and educated in Mumbai but visited me regularly here. And now since they are all here, we have retained the joint family system."
"We belong here, we love Dubai and we have always been respected and protected here. When I came to Dubai first, there was no police force here but the Ruler always ensured that the small numbers of foreigners doing business here were given protection. And all this mattered much. Despite the lack of basic comforts, life was simple and our interpersonal relationships, as well as our ties with the local people, were based on trust, love, and affection. We were all like a big family."
UAE and India: Ties that bind
Elaborating on the strong connection between the expat community and the rulers, Maghaba states, "We could interact with the rulers, attend their majlis and tell them about any issues we were facing and they would take action immediately. So problems were solved quickly."
Quality of life
"Life here is much better now with modern amenities all thanks to the ideals of the ruler of Dubai and his vision. Dubai is now compared to the best places to live in the world and we could have never imagined such a transformation decades back. But due to God's grace and ruler's vision and effort, it has reached where it is."
Pancholia with his sons, grandsons and great grandsons. Now 93 years old, Pancholia was among the first lot of 250 Indians who landed in Dubai for the pearl season in 1942
A simple man, Maghanba goes for a 3km walk in the morning and evening around his villa. "I don't see many cars, it is peaceful here. I don't think this level of quality life, (pollution-free and not as crowded as the lanes of Mumbai) would have been possible in India."
Tradition of joint family
Although the joint family system used to be a norm during his time, the tradition is now giving way to nuclear families. "In Thatta, my father and his two brothers stayed together in one plot with segregated houses. My father had five sons, of which three were married with kids. All of us stayed in the same house."
However, Maghaba feels he is lucky that he is staying with his son and his family in their villa in Dubai. This, he says, wouldn't have been possible in their hometown Mumbai.
"We are happy to be here because not only we have all the amenities but all our family members and community members. Can you imagine a mosque and temple existing peacefully just at a stone's throw in India? I doubt that. But here our 110-year old temple and the Juma mosque in Bur Dubai are barely few feet away and we are free to practice our religion and ceremonies."
Talking about the tolerance in the UAE, Maghanba said: "The UAE is relatively more tolerant towards beliefs and cultures of other communities. Besides churches, temples, and gurudwaras, we have also been allowed to establish cemeteries and cremation facilities, thanks to the magnanimity of the UAE's ruling family."
"One of my favourite quotes that I believe captures the spirit of Dubai is that of His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai - "In the race for excellence, there is no finish line".
We conclude our conversation with his last thought - "I salute the ruling family's vision and confidence and wish them continued success. Dubai has always dared - dared to dream big and dared to defy cynics."
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