Meet Dubai millionaire Narain Sawlani who came on a steam boat to work in Dubai
Sawlani sets up his company to turn into a successful businessman
An avid photographer and collector, Sawlani is a walking encycloepedia with a treasure full of tales of old Dubai
Dubai: It was a time when electricity was scarce, the UAE dirham was yet to exist and highways were nowhere to be found - and everyone knew each other in Dubai.
Narain Sawlani, 81, is a sort of walking encyclopaedia of Dubai's old tales. His is also a story of grit and growth as a trader in this port city in the Gulf.
He is a living repository of a fascinating time — when it took five days on board a steam boat to reach Dubai from Bombay (now Mumbai).
He possesses a treasure trove of photos that he personally clicked showing a bygone era, having assiduously documented the past six decades that he has made Dubai his home.
As chairman of Radiant Traders and Royal Gardens Centre, Sawlani is a successful entrepreneur.
Radiant, a Dubai group of companies engaged in trading, retail and services, has been in existence for over 50 years. He built this multi-million-dirham business with sheer grit and hard work.
We meet the veteran businessman at his posh villa in Al Barsha. Then he mesmerises us with his delightful tales of life experiences.
As a businessman, his story pretty much mirrors that of Dubai's.
Take this: Sawlani came to Dubai in 1958 after completing his graduation and his father eight years earlier.
1958The year Indian businessman Narain Sawlani came to Dubai
“My father came in 1950 to help finance a trading company operating in Dubai. After completing my graduation, I came to Dubai in 1958. The steamers were cargo-cum-passenger ships. From Mumbai, it took two days to reach Karachi, one day to Gwadar, one day to Muscat. On the fifth day, we reached Dubai.”
He paid Rs50 for the entire journey.
The ships stopped mid-stream and passengers were transferred to several other smaller boats that took them ashore. There was no proper port, only a Customs house, he recalls.
From Customs, everyone walked to their respective accommodation and office.
Life then was much simpler.
'Everybody knew each other'
“When I arrived in Dubai, the city's population was about 50,000 people, of which 20,000 were Indians. Everybody knew each other.”
Dubai's trading tradition has a long, colourful history. For traders, there were no restrictions on imports and exports in the 60s, said Sawlani.
“Most things (we imported then) came from Japan – be it electronics or textiles. It was the biggest supplier to us. In the 50s and 60s, it was impossible for a saloon car to survive as there were no roads or infrastructure. In the 70s and 80s, Japanese cars started making their way [here].”
Most things then came from Japan – be it electronics or textiles. It was the biggest supplier to us. In the 50s and 60s, it was impossible for a saloon car to survive as there were no roads or infrastructure. In the 70s and 80s, Japanese cars started making their way [here].
The more sturdy Land Rover 4x4s were said to be in vogue as they performed well on uneven terrains and the massive dunes. “We even had Land Rover taxis to take us between emirates.”
The British Political Agency was responsible for the affairs of the expatriates and they handled visa matters. “The visas were renewed every year."
Those coming to the Dubai or any one of the Trucial States for the first time had to get a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the agency, he recalls.
"On our part, once we received the NOC, we took this along with our original passport to the British High Commission in Mumbai for stamping the visa."
"If someone was going on vacation, the British Political Agency would stamp a return visa on our passport which would enable our re-entry to Dubai and the Trucial States."
“We had a small store which stocked many things. The profit was not high but money had value. I remember the profits we made hovered around Rs5,000 to Rs6,000 annually.”
Sawlani said as a 20-year-old in Dubai, he would be left awestruck when the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum would come to greet him.
“I had a room above his garage. We would sometimes bump into each other and he would ask me how I am doing. It was such a kind and great gesture. On auspicious occasions like Diwali and Holi, he would come and mingle with the community. Even the political agents would be part of our festivities.”
“Telephones were very rare. It was only two to three years after my marriage in 1961 when our neighbour got a telephone and we used to make trunk calls to our family back home. We lived in rooms with no toilets attached. Everyone used the common toilets, which was really old-fashioned.”
An avid photographer, Sawlani has captured the sights and sounds of Dubai through his lens.
He lets us into his massive photo collection which he captured in various cameras including a Yashica-D camera, and we are quite impressed with his razor-sharp memory and storytelling ability.
One such story he tells us about is of Motor Vessel (MV) Dara which sank 58 years ago today (April 8) off Dubai–Sharjah waters.
Tucked away in a corner of his photo collection is a stack of colour prints of a 1961 print edition of Indian daily ‘Times of India’.
The date is April 9, 1961, and the day Sunday. The lead news on the front page reads ‘A ship ablaze in Persian Gulf’.
It is the news of Motor Vessel (MV) Dara sinking in Dubai-Sharjah waters. The ship carried several thousands of people from India to Sharjah and vice-versa.
For the uninitiated, the MV Dara initially set off from Bombay (now Mumbai) on March 23, 1961, and made her way on a three-week circular route around the Gulf ports of Muscat, Dubai, Bahrain, Abadan and Basra.
It arrived in Dubai on April 7, and as it was unloading cargo and disembarking passengers, a storm broke out and it was then decided by the captain to take the ship out of harbour and travel into the storm. The next morning, a large explosion occurred onboard, which started a series of fires. As a result of the explosion, the vessel sunk.
On April 8, 1961, the world woke up to the shocking news of this vessel sinking in Dubai–Sharjah waters that claimed 238 lives. It was the largest significant event of a ship sinking after the Titanic.
The vessel now lies at a depth of 20 metres and has become home to marine life and a dive site for clubs across the UAE. The British-India Steam Navigation Company's vessel, which weighed 5,030 tonnes, has broken up because of the waves and the MV Dara is now slowly rusting into the seabed.
But for 81-year-old Sawlani, the tragic incident touched his life in more ways than one. As someone who has travelled several times to and from Dubai on this ship, there were several memories and sentiments attached with the vessel.
“Those who came on a ship to Dubai from India used one of the five steamers Dara, Damra, Dwaraka, Daresa and SS Sirdhana.”
“We would sit five long days in the deck which was not an easy task. But we all left our homeland with a purpose. Dubai was the promised land and we came here to avail a better life. Back in the days, there was hardship, but we were ready to bear it all,” said Sawlani.
MV Dara’s voyage was from Basra to Karachi via Mumbai, Kuwait, Bahrain, Doha, Dubai, Muscat and Gwadar. Like me, hundreds and thousands of people made several trips on MV Dara and when the ship sank it came as a cruel blow to all of us.
As a witness to the aftermath of the explosion and the ship sinking subsequently, the Indian businessman recounted how the community came forward to help survivors and help them back to slowly leading a normal life. Sawlani lived in Dubai at the time of the incident. “On April 7 1961 evening there was a typhoon. Next day morning, I saw smoke coming from a ship. When we arrived on the scene, there was mayhem. People were jumping out of the ship and into the water to escape the fire and explosion.”
“There was a person on board who knew swimming and he was a hero that day. His name was Ajit Singh and I have a photo of him. He lived in Dubai and worked in the city. People called him a Haji as he was continuously pulling people out of the water and taking them ashore. People from the ship saw this and were pleading him to rescue them. They said ‘Haji take save us’. He was a hero. Unfortunately I do not know where he is now, but I hope he is happy wherever he is. This man was a life saver,” he said.
Sawlani said those in need of medical treatment were taken to the nearby Al Maktoum Hospital. “People who had lost all their belongings on the ship were taken to a nearby hotel. This hotel in Deira, was owned by two locals and it was newly constructed. The survivors were all put up in the hotel for free. That is Dubai for you that is UAE for you. It is a place where the community comes together in times of distress and it happens ever so often.”
He recalled how it took several days before loved ones back in India became aware of the safety of their family members on-board MV Dara. “Remember there were no telephones, mobiles. The only communication was through telegram. Telegram would take two days to reach Dubai from India.”
As we skim through the pages of the old edition of the Times of India newspaper, which Sawlani bought rights to, we cannot help appreciating the passion of this man. “Collecting old records is my hobby. I paid several thousands of rupees to buy these 1961 editions of Times of India carrying the MV Dara news. It is my hobby and passion. I did not mind at all. The incident touched my heart in more ways than one and this was something I had to do. I spent time digging through the archives section of Times of India to source these papers. And I am happy I was successful,” he said.
The successful businessman of Dubai who has lived in the city for 61 years has many such tales to tell. As Dubai grew, so did his life and this gave him plenty opportunities to capture the sights and sounds of the city whether through the lens of his camera, or his observation of events which he replayed on digital photos and paintings.
“Every photograph I have captured tells a story,” said Sawlani.
“A common phenomenon back in the days were people on boats crossing Bur Dubai to Deira. Along the way, an island would appear. The man steering the boat would get down and push the boat into water again. It was a common sight here and I decided to record this memory in a painting. I got a painter to paint this for me and I have kept it in my collections.”
“Many times the passengers on the boat would also get down and help the boat into the water. We would also help him park the boat on shore. In the night it was a different sight altogether and a spectacular phenomenon would take place. During the night, on the boat, a person would hold a Petromax lantern. It was a spirit lamp. Remember there was no electricity back then and these lamps were used to give light. The lantern was fueled by paraffin and the fish underwater would be attracted to the light.”
“Dubai is home to me. It is a city dear to my heart. I have a history here and cannot imagine living anywhere else. My children have grown up here and established their lives here. From a desert village to an urban city, this place has grown massively and it was the hard-work of its expats and rulers.”
Sawlani has four children and a dozen grandchildren. "My son Sunil is the oldest. He has two children. My daughter-in-law is an all-rounder and more like my daughter. I feel blessed and cannot thank the land of UAE enough for all the support I have received.