I was a child when I first heard the stories from my grandmother, daring tales of adventures and swashbuckling pirates on the high seas, embarking to a foreign land full of wonders. It would be years before the reality would dawn that my grandma’s tales were in fact real-life accounts of the family’s perilous journey to the Gulf more than 100 years ago.
To put things into perspective, I am a fourth-generation expat brat who grew up on the shores of Dubai Creek at a time when neighbourhood malls were all but a twinkle in the eyes of the construction juggernauts. Our weekend entertainment consisted of Thursday night abra rides with the family, while making haste to return home to watch the Bollywood potboiler of the week that would screen on the now defunct Channel 33.
Those of you who grew up in the UAE in the 80s and 90s would easily recall the Golden Falcon that perched proudly at the mouth of Al Shindagha Tunnel. It was a time when the Flame Roundabout actually burned bright into the night, when nothing existed beyond an afternoon snack of Chips Oman and Laban Up, and Dadabhai satisfied us aplenty before the razzle dazzle of Toys R Us and Hamleys caught the eyes of generation next.
Yet, this trip down memory lane pales in comparison to the tales narrated to me as a child, stories of real hardship that involved surviving soaring desert temperatures without basic electricity, hauling fresh water from the neighbourhood well that was ferried on the backs of donkeys, all while eagerly awaiting a bounty from the next pearl diving haul.
Tale as old as time
My great grandfather, Vissumal Narsinghdas Thawardas, first set foot on the shores of Dubai in 1891, with an endless, barren wasteland welcoming many adventurous spirits like him who recognised the potential of sparking a lucrative trade route between the Gulf and India.
The India-Pakistan partition, which split the two Asian powerhouses into two nations, was still 56 years away, while the dust had long erased the footsteps of Jaisalmer’s Bhatti clan that had abandoned their homes after being driven out of Rajasthan by the Mughals in the 1800s.
The clans settled far and wide, in the provinces of Punjab, Kutch and Sindh, losing ties with each other over the passage of time. My ancestors chose to journey to Sindh, finding solace and a new home in the village of Thattha. The Rajput warrior clans soon exiled their weapons and took to trading, with the following generations eagerly working to expand the merchant business in far-flung lands.
According to historical record, the Bhattis, who were now called Bhatias, heard of the lucrative pearl trade in the Gulf and chose to establish a trade route between the regions. Bahrain, Oman and the Trucial States of Sharjah and Dubai were singled out by the Gujarati, the Sindhi and the Bhatia communities who set sail for these foreign lands in 1880s.
My great-grandfather was one such enterprising mind who signed on during the Pearl Rush, embarking on a liner at Karachi port according to his grandson, Kishore Jamnadas, while travelling for days through stormy climes and questionable navigational charts to reach the port of Bandar Abbas in Iran, before journeying on through that final stretch that would bring him to a land called Sharjah.
“Food was scarce and resources further limited during those early days, so anyone who travelled would pack perishables that would ride them out through the cruel summer months,” recalled Jamnadas.
Liners would come to port sporadically at first, according to community members, with a haul of groceries and vegetables often not surviving the journey.
“They made ends meet somehow,” said Jamnadas. “Everyone mastered basic skills of cooking before venturing here. My own father would tell us stories of a community cook who was also stationed here to ensure no one slept hungry.”
Building a community
The UAE pearl trade, according to insiders, was a seasonal affair, with most members of the Indian community setting forth for the Gulf in April and conducting their business affairs until August.
“The local divers would auction sealed oysters to Indian traders and much of it was a game of chance. My grandfather lost Rs35,000 (which would command a purchasing power of Rs1 million today) this one time when a year’s haul resulted in empty shells,” stated Jamnadas.
As business grew, the community also established its roots here with the first Hindu temple reportedly being built on the banks of Sharjah in the late 1800s. Bharat Chachara, head of the India Club Dubai and a historian who has actively been archiving the stories of the Bhatia community, spoke of the temple’s eventual move to Dubai shortly after.
“The late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum gifted the land to the community which stands in Al Bastakiya neighbourhood where the Krishna temple was established — the oldest in the UAE,” recalled Chachara. “While stories date the establishment to 1903, official records place the construction in mid-1930s.”
With the collapse of the pearl industry in the 1920s, followed by the Great Depression and the Second World War, trade in Dubai was affected, prompting many Indian traders to journey back home and ride out the economic storm. The corresponding few decades would see a lull before the oil boom of the 60s and the establishment of electricity and the state’s first paved road.
The British would remain steady with their influence on Dubai until 1971, but the Al Maktoum family’s open-door policy invited many Indian community members, including my ancestors, to return and expand their business enterprise in the emirate with the passing of the baton to the next generation of traders. My grandfather happened to be one of them and he undertook his own journey to the Gulf in 1943, or 77 years ago.
While Oman was his first port of call for a few years, the budding opportunities in Dubai soon led him to also follow in his father’s footsteps and make his way to the Trucial coast in 1950, with my grandmother soon following him with children in tow.
“I followed my father 13 years after he followed in his father’s legacy,” recalled Jamnadas. “It was the year 1956, the struggles of the partition were still vivid in the minds of our parents and the UAE provided that safe haven for many, away from the politics and the destruction that we left behind.”
Chachara also weighed in, saying: “There was almost a mass exodus towards the Gulf post the India-Pakistan partition. Perhaps a lot of it had to do with people being forced to abandon their homes, with many in search of a new home, security and steady income.”
My grandmother, Nenibai Jamnadas, was one of a handful of female community members who decided to journey to the UAE with her children in the hope of making some extra income and keeping the family together. While she has long passed, her stories remain entrenched in my memory — tales of her harrowing journey across the seas with meagre belongings, fears of cholera rife and battling motion sickness along the route.
While piecing together memories of their lives in the late 50s on the banks of Dubai, stories unravelled through their neighbour in Thattha who would take tuitions from my late aunt before her journey as well to Oman, which became her permanent home for 60 plus years before her demise.
“I was stationed in Bahrain with Gulf Air in those initial years, but because my father had been in Dubai I became a frequent visitor since 1957, before eventually moving here,” recalled longtime UAE resident Muljimal Lalchand Chachara and Bharat Chahchara’s father. “What sticks with me even today is the taste of the water.
“We were in a desert, with no real avenue of getting fresh drinking water. So neighbourhood wells would be dug up and water stored in bags made of camel hide that would be ferried on the backs of donkeys. We had one such well in the old Bastakiya area, which is pretty much very everyone lived in little shanties, waiting for the liners to dock every Thursday that would bring in the post, stories of loved ones and, more importantly, fresh vegetables. We would eat once a day, with the evening meal limited to a piece of fruit sometimes. But on Fridays we feasted.”
Jamnadas affirms the same, saying his mother was one of the first women from the community to move here and she would partake in the Friday community cookout that invited neighbours and friends to dine together.
“Those were simpler times. We had not much going for us in terms of resources, but we had a sense of belonging. People like my mother would cook for the community, while my father had become the resident healer, walking through the neighbourhood every night with his cane in one hand and a lantern in the other, asking around if anyone needed his help,” recalled Jamnadas.
Electricity was still years away, but senior Chachara says each home was given a bulb, with generators allowing everyone meagre lighting in the late hours for a limited time. “The summer heat would be stifling, so every night, we would take our bedding and sleep in the outdoors. Not that that was any better, but we made it work, somehow.”
After finishing his higher studies in India, my father, Suresh Jamnadas, also permanently moved back to Dubai in the 60s to work his way up the relatively new banking sector that had found a foothold here under the British.
The oil boom was upon the UAE, as were opportunities, but the Trucial states had yet to form a union.
“We had to pay 25 fils for a visa if we wanted to visit Abu Dhabi even when I arrived,” recalls Kanta Suresh, a resident of Dubai since 1968 and my mother. “By the time I moved, there was running water and electricity but the city was still limited to the outer stretches of Jumeirah and Karama. Life revolved around the old Chapra Bazaar (or Souk Al Kabeer as we know it) where traders like my cousin provided us all that we needed in basic food supplies.”
The business in question is that of Tulsidas Lalchand General Trading that has been standing in Souk Al Kabeer for more than 100 years, with four generations of his family playing a part in the city’s growth. Lalchand moved to the UAE in 1870, with the business now being run by his grandson.
“Our four generations, including my grandchildren, have become a fabric of Dubai’s growth,” he states.
Stories like that of my family are aplenty when you look at the original settlers in the Gulf. Bharat Chachcara agrees, saying: “We are pioneers in this part of the world, but as a community, we have maintained low profile, but it satisfies me to say that our place in history is recorded. It is visible in the books, the literature and the stories that will be passed down generations.
“Credit goes to the early settlers, who chose to come to a desert land with no facilities, resources or money but harboured a simple dream. They chose to live here and in turn, help build the foundation of a country. And irrespective of the highs and lows life throws at us, we have left our mark — in the temple that stands tall even after 100 years, through the spices that are blended in daily Arabic cuisine today and in the trade and business that we brought to this land. This is and shall remain our legacy, even as the UAE stands at the cusp of turning 50.”