“Two years.” I said to my friends and relatives as we packed bag, baggage and buckets before leaving for the UAE. “We’re going only for 2 years,” I assured them all. “We’ll be back before you say United Arab Emirates,” I added for good measure, more to console myself than the near and dear ones who had assembled to wish us bon voyage on the day before we left India.
We landed at the Abu Dhabi International Airport in the wee hours of a chilly morning in October, a pile of luggage in front of us and two little sleepy and cranky twin boys behind us. I wondered how we would adjust in a strange new country.
If you think about it, two years is quite a long time to stay in a place. Would we make new friends? How about the things we were familiar with? Would we get them here? Should we have packed some more rasam powder and tamarind? Some pickle maybe? What about the home-made ghee I had left behind at the last minute? Maybe I could have brought along some curry leaves and green chillies too?
I asked for some at the vegetable shop near our building a few days after arriving and as the chap handed over a bundle of each, I did some quick calculations. Oh my gosh! Way too expensive, I thought and promptly categorised both under the ‘luxury items’ list, which seemed to grow longer as days passed.
“How much in rupees?” seemed to be our constant refrain for quite a few months as we learnt the conversion game and later convinced ourselves we didn’t really need those things after all!
It’s strange how a place grows on you. It’s not so much the actual place, but the familiarity, the bonds, the relationships we form that slowly bind us to a land or a city; and I found them in the strangest of places — the Baqala (the local grocery store) nearby, whose Bangladeshi owners invariably handed over extra packets of chips to my boys, the Malabari vegetable shopkeepers across our building with whom I share a hilarious camaraderie, the Sudanese neighbour who suddenly revealed one day that she had studied in Bengaluru many years back, the Lebanese bakery on the next street whose bakers declared proudly to me that they had learnt a smattering of Malayalam because it was ‘good for business’ and whose faces comically fell when I informed them that it wasn’t the language I spoke.
As the years passed by, my boys grew bigger and taller and the city of Abu Dhabi grew and expanded, and 2 years slowly grew into 22 glorious years. But our mission ‘we’re returning at the end of the year’ continued most religiously!
Every time a new project was announced in the nation, we shook our heads and told each other quite mournfully, “We won’t be here when this one comes up.” So technically speaking, we should have left long before the Burj Khalifa came up; and then again before the Grand Mosque and the Yas Circuit and the Metro and the numerous amazing monuments and other sights.
And so it was that in the beginning of this year when 2021 was declared as ‘the year of the 50th’ to mark 50 glorious years of this wonderfully vibrant country, we couldn’t break our own traditions could we? I looked at my husband and asked him the million-dollar question — would we or would we not be here to witness the golden jubilee celebrations on Dec. 2 — the UAE’s National Day?
Well, the day passed with its accompanying pomp and fanfare and we haven’t packed our bags yet, so I guess that’s one more to be ticked off on our list.
Now, there’s a brand new and massive temple coming up at Al Rahba in Abu Dhabi which is scheduled to be completed in a couple of years. Which brings us to the trillion-dollar question — Will we or will we not be here then?
Radhika Acharya is a freelancer based in the UAE and author of two books Adventures of JP family and Girl from Goa.