If you are an early riser, you can see him on the roads of Jumeirah. A 77-year-old, tall, willowy man, surprisingly alert and agile for his age, he hits the road at 5 am sharp for a two- to three-hour walk.
Along the way, he stops to pluck a few flowers which grow by the wayside to make a spiritual offering. That's the way Maghanmal Pancholia, one of Dubai's oldest expatriates and a distinguished businessman, likes to prepare for a busy day.
Once he returns from his walk, it's time to head for office - a routine he has unfailingly followed for most of his life here.
Quite like the precious heritage site of the Souk Banian in Bur Dubai, where he has spent most of his working life, Maghanmal, endearingly called Maghaba, is a respected old-timer of an industrious past that laid the foundations of modern Dubai.
Sixty years ago, when he arrived as a young man of 17 to join his father's business in Dubai, he had no clue that this was his destiny. From helping build a modest joint family business in gold, currency exchange and textiles, he turned into a spokesperson for his community, was responsible for bringing electricity to Dubai, laid the foundation for the Indian High School and threw down roots that now run deep and firm in the country.
Going back seven decades of a life full of action, commitment and involvement is not an easy task. Some memories make Maghaba misty-eyed and wistful...
Maghanmal with former indian PM late Rajiv Gandhi.
We belong to the Thattai Bhatia community from India, which is the oldest expatriate community to have moved to the then Trucial States. It is a close-knit and closed community with about 10,000 members worldwide.
Our ancestors were pearl traders. In the early days, traders from the Gulf would come to Thatta, a small hamlet near Karachi, to barter pearls and dates for spices and clothes. Along the way, they invited our community elders to set up business in Dubai to facilitate better trading. Our forefathers who came here for pearl trading, gradually diversified into other commodities after the pearl market was badly hit owing to the recession of 1930s. In effect, our family had been here for a good 200 years when I arrived on the scene.
Those days, Dubai was like a small hamlet. There was no electricity, no tap water, no roads, and none of the modern means of transport. Hurricane lamps were in vogue, people travelled on donkeys and drinking water was sold on donkeys - four cans, for one Indian rupee. Many of us who couldn't trust the hygiene of those rusted old cans, preferred to draw water from the small wells that were dug about a furlong away from the souk near Bank Street. These wells were normally seven feet deep and would have sweet water for about eight days, after which the water would turn sour. Then another would be dug...we kept digging one well after another. One could pay a labourer Rs3 to dig a well. Despite filtering the water with white muslin cloth, we could still find a small residue of sand at the bottom of the pot.
But all these things did not matter much. Despite the lack of basic comforts, life was very simple and there was so much love and affection in our interpersonal relationships as well as in our ties with the local people. We were all like a big family. The Bedus are very gentle people and our relationship was based largely on trust. Major cash and jewellery transactions were made without the exchange of a single receipt. Trust was the very foundation of our bonds for so many years. We had and still continue to maintain very strong ties with the leading local business families.
All Indians, basically traders, resided in Souk Baniyan (bania, in Hindi, means traders) close to the Creek in Bur Dubai. The shops were on the ground floor and residential premises, mostly bachelor's quarters, on the first floor. By the time I was 18, I married the woman I was betrothed to, but she had to reside in Thatta with other women and children. None of us had our families here as we lacked some basic comforts. Also, there were no schools. I lived in one of these houses, first as a bachelor and then with my family, for nearly 20 years.
Maghanmal laying the foundation for the Indian High School in 1968
Our routine was fairly simple. Everyone would get up in the morning and do their daily ablution with a little water. Very few eatables were available in the market. It was basically the local seemuch (fish), dates, rice, wheat, sugar and spices from India. There were a few locally-grown vegetables, such as gourds and brinjals, but they were available only during the cooler months. Breakfast was nourishing but frugal milk (all of us had at least one cow) and hurriedly-rolled out wheat chapattis. This was a staple meal for all traders in the morning.
Nobody really missed any comforts. Those were times of optimism and change, and our family business too changed from pearl, to textile to foodstuff trading, until my elder brother who was my idol, had the idea of starting a currency exchange business. In those days, besides the Rupee, the other currency in vogue was the Iranian riyals and tumans. Dubai trade was largely dependent on Iran and directly affected by changes taking place there. One tuman was roughly one Indian rupee and I remember it falling until Rs60 would fetch us 100 tumans.
People might like to think of us as enterprising individuals, but very often, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. We were staying away from our families and life was tough. We had to make ends meet. The rent for our homes was Rs50 per annum while that of our shops was around Rs100. If we paid Rs8, we could get a proper Indian lunch and dinner for a month. With so many expenses, it was difficult to save and send some mo