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Pedestrians on a zebra crossing in Abu Dhabi (Representational image) Image Credit: Gulf News

Kumar smiled his way to our notice a year or so ago. You know one of those genuine smiles that etch creases into a person’s face and reach right up into the eyes almost lighting up the soul within.

His manners were rather endearing as he greeted each of us in turn. The gentle voice didn’t bear any irritable inflections from the searing July Dubai heat. Nor did any unnecessary complexes weigh it down as Kumar stood in his blue overalls, a blue hat squashed over his sweaty forehead, a broom and a bin propped up beside him.

Rather his was a voice tempered with humility — the knowledge that there were many things out there that he didn’t understand, such as why it had fallen to his lot to spend his prime years far from home and family, picking trash, dusting cobwebs, and throttling bulging black bags of rubbish before removing them from the public bins kept around the residential building he worked in.

Around him, well-groomed and coiffed residents emerged briefly through the fogged up glass doors and into the basement car park, tasting the blistering heat for a few seconds ... a few minutes... before hurriedly stepping into their BMWs and Mercs, and firmly shutting the door against the heat. Air con in full blast, and sunglasses perched on noses, off they went passing Kumar by.

And yet to this day, it has never seemed to me that he bears us any malice, as we live our lives and he his.

Elsewhere in our city live a mother and daughter. While the young 20-year-old — thanks to her education — has found a job in the accounts section of a good company, it is her mother who continues to serve as the family’s backbone. She doesn’t have a degree to her name — the result either of parental neglect, poverty, or her own lack of interest back in her childhood days.

Peppered with “sorries” 

And so she makes a living with skills she has picked up at home — sweeping, mopping and washing. Unlike Kumar, who is severely limited by his poor grasp of English, letting his smiles do all the talking, this middle-aged lady makes every attempt to learn the language and uses it without inhibition. Her speech is peppered with “sorries” and “thank yous” as she wears her humility and gratitude for all to see.

Then there is a 50-year-old lady who puts in 10-hour shifts, 6 days a week, at a salon, cheerfully engaging her clients in friendly banter as she goes about snipping hair, lathering on hair colour, buffing nails, exfoliating feet, and removing callus.

Give her a chance to talk about herself, and she will tell you about her son back home who is studying to be an architect. It’s quite evident that she has let go of all her own hopes and dreams and now shares those of her only son. Whatever she saves goes back home for his university needs and to her mother with whom he stays.

Heading to work and back

Like them, there are countless men and women for whom the daily grind isn’t a 9-5 job, or driving bumper to bumper through traffic while heading to work and back. Life for them isn’t about awaking to daily household chores and noisy, tantrum-throwing children and the every day school run. It doesn’t involve coffee shops, jogging on the beach, Yoga classes and a Friday brunch.

For them, making a living means having to take care of tasks that don’t rank on anyone’s career ladder unless poverty and illiteracy hound them. Tasks that no one wants to do.

Making a living means leaving their homes and families and villages and arriving on foreign soil where a bunker bed awaits them with space underneath for their meagre possessions. It means walking from bus stops to their workplace in the heat so as to save a few dirhams on transport. It means being alone with their thoughts and anxieties since those who love them are not around to share them.

They will gratefully accept clothes that have seen better days, shoes that ‘bite’, old appliances that have made way for new, dented pots and pans, electronics that have fashionably expired and all manner of hand me downs. There is no room for false pride.

Theirs are lives lived to the staccato rhythm of wake up, work, eat, sleep and repeat.

— Maria Elizabeth Kallukaren is a freelance journalist based in Dubai