It all started with a silver-coloured Zippo lighter, a special edition celebrating an anniversary.
The city was bathed in lights as the aircraft banked and the pilot began his final descent. From high above, the lights danced and shimmered like necklaces of gold running through the length and breadth of the night.
The wrench of leaving home, the family and the dogs, who had been companions for long, had suddenly vanished as the pilot parked. Immigration formalities, which are known to be the cause of allergic migraines in most parts of the world, were over before it had even dawned that a new journey was about to unfold. Calcutta was a cherished memory. Dubai was now home — at least for the time-being.
It was January 2000. The world had been spared the wrath of the Y2K, the millennium bug feared to damage data. The blustery wind of the desert night seemed more potent. That first drive from the airport to the Metropolitan Hotel is very vivid. The aircraft-shaped Emirates Aviation College, the glorious towers on Shaikh Zayed Road and the bustle of a Ramadan evening — the images will always be etched in the mind. But the stay in the UAE would be three years. That's it. The stint would recharge the batteries, refresh the body and calm the soul. And it would be back home, back to the greatest teacher of life — reporting in the streets of Calcutta, the venerable leveller of life. It's been 12 years since that erroneous thought. It's been 12 lightning years. It's been 12 enlightening years. It's been true higher education.
India, as the cliche goes, is a land of diversity. Every kilometre has a new language, a new cuisine, a new political thought. If three people gather at the roadside, the dawn of the new day might well see a new political party with an ideology that would promise magical metamorphosis.
So what possibly could the UAE, and more specifically Dubai, have to offer? At first bite, it felt like home. Language was not a barrier, the varied cuisine was a delight, just like home, and work was very much a part of the comfort zone. But Dubai has layers. This was just the icing.
The first trip back to Calcutta after a riveting year was going to be two weeks of fun-filled mayhem. The family. The dogs. The friends. The food. The old haunts. The euphoria lasted a week. And then there was a strange yearning. A yearning to return home. But wait a minute … Calcutta was home. The blues set in, and very quickly, indeed. This time there was no wrench leaving Calcutta, just a longing to be at Dubai airport. Did it take just a year to wipe out primordial bonds? Were those relationships built over decades that superficial, that flimsy?
An inward journey hushed away those dark thoughts. The bonds were as strong as ever. Only there was another home where the streets felt comfortable; where the mind loved the buoyancy of a vibrant society filled with hundreds of nationalities and cultures; where the soul felt at peace as dusk fell. And to top this all, the Emirati way of life, the warmth and the sense of humour had wound its way to the heart. And home, after all, is where the heart is. The heart was snug.
The Zippo lighter brought on a smile. It was 1997, Dubai was a transit destination. Dubai Duty Free looked dressed for a party. There was energy in the people. A quick purchase of the lighter was made with the thought Dubai would be a great place to live in. Fate smiled three years later. The bond has grown since, new friends have been made, haunts there are aplenty. The lessons have been learnt of varied people; of their cultures; their beliefs; their sentiments; their worries, their joys. The UAE and Dubai have a very different lesson to teach. It's an exposure to a whole new universe.
But what has been a wonder is the transformation of the land, from barren desert to an international hub in a span of just 40 years — a lesson for every government, for leaderships around the world. There are nations where natural resources are in abundance, but the leaderships are merely interested in self-promotion. And as this nation celebrates 40 years of the Federation, the people of the UAE, both Emiratis and expatriates, have every right to be proud.
Twelve years have passed since that initial declaration that it would be a three-year stint. Why the protracted stay? Is it the people? The way of life? The work? The land? The answer is all this and much more. It is something that gets into you and stays lodged. You are hooked — it runs in your veins. You have to live it to know why it is such an addiction. It is an addiction to the land and the people. And it will always live in your heart, because as the great songster Billy Joel once crooned about the New York state of mind, you will, before you know it, have a UAE state of mind.