The jobs of expatriates in the UAE have a shelf life. When retrenchment or retirement comes around, they have to return to their home countries. Everyone is aware of the reality.
Many of them have spent a massive part of their lives in the UAE that their home countries tend to be like holiday destinations, mainly to unwind. For them, relatives may be the only reminder of the bonds to the homeland as most friendships would have waned. Yet, the myth of return persists.
These expats face massive problems when they return to rebuild their lives in the land of their ancestors. So bad that they yearn for a return to the UAE. Mamu is one such person.
Mohammed Ukkayil Abdullah was Mamu to everyone. Colleagues and friends loved Mamu; many didn’t even know his full name. Everyone at the Gulf News newsroom went to him for everything: from office stationery to WAM pictures. And he would deliver them every single time.
That isn’t a surprise. Because he’s been around for nearly 40 years, and he knew everyone in the organisation. He knew how everything worked and who could assist. It helped him to help others. And he loved it.
He loved his job so much that he used to be the first person in the office. That’s when he was moved to the morning shift after years of night shifts.
All that ended in June 2019, when Mamu ceased to be an employee. At 64, he retired. And fell into a vacuum.
It was a vacuum with no job and no friends. He didn’t have friends outside the office. The move back to Kerala, a south Indian state, exacerbated his misery. He was a stranger in his homeland: no friends, no acquaintances. He’s left them behind in the UAE.
All he had was relatives. His childhood friends had moved away; he lost touch with most of them. A couple of them in his neighbourhood were busy with their lives and business. They didn’t have the time for Mamu. He felt lonely.
Whenever friends called from Dubai, Mamu would wax eloquent of the days in the UAE. The bustling office and the busy weekends at his Sharjah home: those days always brought a smile to Mamu’s lips. They are just a memory now.
Memories, Mamu has aplenty. “I started from zero. Gulf News and the UAE gave me everything,” he said. “I was 22 when my brother in law brought me to Dubai. Over the years, I earned and saved enough to build a house and get my sisters married off. It helped me get married and later educate my son,” Mamu added.
When he joined Gulf News in 1979, Mamu couldn’t get a typist’s job. But he needed a job. So he started as a newsboy initially and worked his way up. He finally got the job he wanted: his typing skills were legendary. And by the time he bade farewell to the firm, Mamu had become a senior data entry operator.
The office occupied a large part of Mamu’s life in the UAE. But unknown to him, the country had played a huge role in his life. For 40 years, it was his home. Which means he had spent more of his life in the UAE than in India.
That made him the patriarch of his family in the UAE. “My nephews and nieces would turn up at our Sharjah home every weekend. One of my sisters lived in Dubai. My brother would come all the way from Abu Dhabi to spend Eids with us. The house would be alive with laughter and fun,” Mamu reminisced. He loved it. Loved it all.
He misses it now. Misses it badly. “It’s a bit better now. Because of COVID, my son is working from home. His family is with us. So I get to play with my grandson,” Mamu said.
Initially, he struggled to cope with the way of life in his home state. “I used to be home only for vacations. So I didn’t have the time to get used to ways here (in Kerala). I couldn’t build new friendships near my home since I used to return to Dubai in four weeks. So everything was new to me,” Mamu said of his travails in rebuilding his life in Kerala.
COVID-19 made the bad situation worse for Mamu. Six months after he relocated to Kunnamkulam in Trichur, Kerala went into a lockdown. “My troubles started right there. Paying something as simple as the electricity bill was a chore I hated since I had to go all the way to the office. Shopping for groceries too wasn’t easy since the elderly were asked to stay home. Those are no longer issues after my son came home,” Mamu said.
For someone who spent the best part of the day in the office, he has plenty of spare time now. “I try and do something in the yard. Try to do a bit of farming, just to keep me busy and keep boredom away,” Mamu said.
Dubai was never far away from his thoughts. “I think of it every day. It was a big part of my life. And the office was everything for me. Most of my friends were my colleagues. So I was happy to be in the office and helping them,” Mamu said, recollecting the days at Gulf News.
The Dubai days appear in his dreams as well. “I can still hear the editor in chief calling me. I can feel the tension rising when the pdf files (to BBC) haven’t gone through. I worry if I had done everything alright. In my dreams, I’m still working. I’m still in Dubai,” Mamu said of his dreams.
Office and colleagues were his support system. Retirement life has robbed him of that anchor. And he misses it every day. Every conversation with friends would be peppered with incidents at the office and in Dubai. Mamu clearly hasn’t gotten over it.
His heart is still in Dubai.