Dubai: Noorankulangara Revi decided to head to the UAE over 55 years ago in search of opportunities. His first attempt in 1965 went bust when the 17-year old from Thrissur was arrested and jailed in Gujarat, and later sent back to Kerala. However, Revi did not give up and he tried again in 1967 and landed on the coast of Dibba Khor Fakkan, six days after he left Mumbai. 53 years later, his family identify UAE as home more than any other place, including their native state in India.
“When he first came here, the [Gulf] rupee system was still being used,” Revi’s eldest daughter Ragi (43) said in a Zoom call with Gulf News. Revi’s daughters were born in the UAE and grew up here, and two of them continue to live in the UAE along with their children, who make up the third-generation of this Malayali family.
“He would tell us about this leather pouch that he carried everywhere and how he put his documents in a plastic bag to keep them from getting wet… he [Revi] even lost a friend towards the end of the journey because he [the friend] didn’t know how to swim,” Ragi said, adding that he loved recounting stories of his journey to the UAE.
Starting a family in UAE
Revi’s life in the UAE started with a year’s stint in the Sharjah Royal Air Force (RAF), followed by informal jobs in the private sector. In 1969, he started working in the Dubai Defence Force. Soon, Revi decided to start a family and brought his wife to the UAE.
“On his first or second trip back home he got married and later brought my mother over in 1975 or 1976… I was born in 1977 in Rashid Hospital,” Ragi added.
“He brought a lot of his family members [to the UAE]…he brought his own brother who also worked in the Dubai Defence Force. That kind of saved his entire family from debt and all of that… he played a big role in making the entire family financially independent.”
Reminiscing about their childhood, the sisters talked about how economical and sustainable their life had been. Ragi, who currently lives in Abu Hail, said, “It was not as easy as it is now. Only my dad was working, and [I think about] how my mom helped in keeping [life] very sustainable, and raising us and putting all of us through school and college on one person’s salary.”
Life in Jumeirah
The family lived in Jumeirah for over 30 years, which was in the 70s a prime residential area for Western expatriates. “That is one way we saved money, as we paid no rent,” Ragi said. Revi and his family lived in a guest house on a property with renowned British civil engineer Nevil Grant Allen.
Allen was reportedly a resident consultant to His Highness Sheikh Rashid Al Maktoum for major Dubai constructions and in the planning and construction of Jebel Ali Port in particular. The Allens lived in the main house, allowing Revi to live in, and later expand the guesthouse as the family grew.
Ragi added, “That was kind of our first interaction with a different culture than ours. Mrs. Allen would invite us over to bake cookies and I still make cakes using her recipes. We would cook idly and sambhar and take it over to their place. Their grandkids would always be at our place.”
“In the villa we lived, you name it we had it,” Ragi said talking about the self-sustainable lifestyle that Revi liked to follow. “I think we had the first banana tree in that area, my mom’s dad packed it up and my parents brought it from Kerala.”
Along with many trees and plants, the household had a wide variety of pets including cats, ducks, rabbits, dogs and lovebirds. Ragi added, “The water from the air conditioner would be collected in a drum which was then used to water the plants or for the animals because it was clean water.”
The youngest sister of the three, Bhindu (35) said, “It was a mini-zoo, it was crazy. Our friends would make fun of us saying here comes the zoo family. We all loved animals.” The family also harvested duck eggs, tomatoes, peas and distributed it among neighbours.
Smitha (38) said, “We would use the water from two wells for bathroom and kitchen purposes, since it was salty water and we couldn’t drink it. Daddy made us use that so we wouldn’t just be using DEWA [Dubai Electricity and Water] water.”
Ragi said, “My dad built everything by himself, like if we needed a cage, he would get everything needed and build it. He would make nests for birds using coconut shells.”
“In fact, we had a small house. When I was born and as a kid we had just one room, kitchen and toilet. By the time Smitha was born, my dad extended the house. He built that house himself. I think it was extended three times and by the time Smitha, Bhindu and I grew up and I got married, we had another two rooms. All this was solely done by my dad, like from the foundation to the roof to everything…”
While the Revis would have continued living in the home, the main house reportedly burned down in 2007 in a fire from a short circuit, after which Revi and his wife moved to Sharjah.
Revi, who will turn 73 in a week, worked in the Dubai Defence Force until 1999, for almost 30 years (the Dubai and Abu Dhabi defence forces were unified to become the UAE Armed Forces). He left the UAE in 2013, after 46 years in the UAE, and is currently living with his wife Girija (65) in their hometown of Thrissur.
Studies and being independent
Ragi works in the banking sector and felt that her dad’s methods and the family’s lifestyle helped the three of them become independent in many ways. She said, “We were three girls and my dad made sure we were independent in every way… He taught us how to drive; again to save money, he took a teacher’s licence and taught two of us driving.” Bhindu, however, didn’t get driving lessons from her dad as the rules changed by the time she grew up.
“He pushed us to read books, save up money and then use that for picnics or for buying things we liked,” Ragi said. Bhindu added, “How much you could do with one dirham then cannot be compared to now… I still remember saving up one dirham and all the things you could get for that. Saving up one or two dirhams was a big deal for us kids back then.”
“I think a large part of him pushing us to read and study well was because he never got to complete his education. He loved studying, reading. He was a good student but his situation didn’t let him finish his schooling. He reiterated how important education was and I think that is why we kind of all become so independent because of his push.”
“Even when I had to go for my Master’s [degree] abroad, everyone was against it and even my mom was against it. But my dad made sure I was able to go. It was a lot of money again, I mean he was not a businessman, and it was all from his small savings,” she added. Bhindu is a research scientist in oncology and is settled in Cambridge, United Kingdom with her husband and two children.
Smitha, who works in HR in the insurance sector and currently lives in Ras Al Khor with her daughter, fondly remembered the family picnics. “They would take us for picnics, like to Abu Dhabi, it was a big deal for us going there. We used to make big pots of food and for us, the bus travel was very exciting with a lot of family friends. Each of the families would bring food and it is one of the best memories we have of our childhood,” she said.
The family, despite being in Dubai for so long, grew up following the cultural aspects of being Malayali. Smitha said, “We were brought up in a typical Malayali culture. My parents were quite focused on that.” Ragi laughed and interjected, “To the point that we were not allowed to cut our hair. Until all of us got married and left home, the only person who cut our hair was daddy. We never went to a salon.” During this time, Bhindu and Smitha were also trained in classical dance at a studio in Satwa.
Adjusting in Kerala
Ragi said that Revi still maintains his sustainable lifestyle in their hometown, not for saving money anymore but because he likes it that way. While there was an initial adjustment period that was difficult, the couple has settled in, she said.
“My mom was just around 20 when she came here with my dad, and we celebrated her 60th birthday just before they left for Kerala, so she spent two-thirds of her life here,” Ragi added.
Bhindu said, “After they left the first two years they came to the UK for periods of six months to help me as I was doing my PhD. And now after the initial adjustment period, they are better now. They are no longer the ’Dubai’ couple who returned.”
“We try to bring them things from the UAE like olive oil, my mom loves to make her own hummus with good quality oil. And milk powder… My parents also liked to have kebabs or grilled chicken occasionally when they were here, so I order it for them in Kerala,” Ragi said.
The next generation and cultural identity
Akhil Jinesh (22) is Ragi’s eldest son and he told Gulf News he had always felt that his cultural identity was more Emirati than anything else. The law student credited his grandfather’s life in UAE to a large extent for feeling connected to the country's culture in this way. Akhil’s tangible connection to his grandfather’s stories is an inherited stamp collection that Revi had kept updated since his arrival in UAE in 1967.
“It is this inherited stamp collection that continues to act as a reference point to the stories of everyone and everything that preceded me,” Akhil said. He also got an opportunity to share the story of his family and the stamp collection with UAE’s Minister of Culture and Youth, Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi.
Ragi said, “Having to move to India is something the children can never grasp. At least my parents lived a small part of their life in India before coming here. My children and I know no other place as home and I can’t imagine leaving.”