Nibah Chatterjee
Dubai-based Canadian expat Nibha Chatterjee, fondly referred to as Dida, recently turned 100. She relocated to Dubai from Canada two years ago. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: A Canadian national of Indian origin, who relocated to Dubai against all odds at the age of 98, has just celebrated her 100th birthday.

Hearty centenarian Nibha Chatterjee, fondly referred to as Dida by family and friends, told Gulf News: “Make no mistake. I am 100 years young.”

Currently a Dubai resident with a yearly dependent residence visa, Dida said, “I wish I could get the long-term Golden Visa. You know, I shall soon be the proud recipient of the Queen’s letter. It should be on its way from England.”

As her only grandson, Bobby Rakhit, with whom she lives, explained: “Queen Elizabeth II had accepted Dida’s application for the (customary) congratulatory message for her 100th birthday before she recently passed away.”

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Dida (seated, in white) with close family and friends at her 100th birthday bash in Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

Difficult circumstances

Dida’s excitement notwithstanding, her journey to Dubai two years ago began under the "most difficult" circumstances. But none she couldn’t circumvent.

“A few days before I was to fly down, I had a bad fall and ended up in hospital (with broken cheekbone and wrists). Doctors said I would not last the night and I was literally on my death bed. But here I am, healed and healthy, two years later,” she said.

Rakhit narrated how Dida, who had moved to Montreal with her late husband Dr Santhosh Chatterjee, a well-known doctor from Alabad in India’s Kolkata, over three decades ago.

Dida with her late husband Dr Santosh Chatterjee. The couple, originally from Kolkata in India, moved to Canada over three decades ago. Image Credit: Supplied

He said: “My mother, who was their only daughter, took care of Dida but she died after a massive heart attack on May 25, 2020. It was the craziest time in recent history as the world was in the grip of COVID-19, a new and fatal flu virus that no one knew anything about. The vaccines had not come about and most countries were under lockdown with international travel being ground to a halt. So imagine our family’s plight in the midst of it all?”

A file picture of Dida's only daughter which she treasures. Her daughter, who was her primary care giver in Canada, died on May 25, 2020. Image Credit: Supplied

At the time, Dida had no idea that her daughter was gone. She was alone at home and her only other close relative - her grandson Rakhit - was 15 hours of flying time away in Dubai amid global travel bans.

Rakhit, who was reeling under shock when he got the news of his mother’s death from a part-time help, said, “The state of Dida’s health under the circumstances was a massive concern as she needed help walking, bathing and dressing, as well as scheduled medication. My mother was her primary care giver, and she could not have survived a day on her own. So I knew she had to be taken care of, while I focused on getting to Canada.”

Having made arrangements for her immediate care, with the help of a family contact, Rakhit ran from pillar to post and knocked on several doors trying to find a way to travel. But there were no passenger flights out of Dubai and no international flights into Canada.

‘No hugs for my grandmother’

Then a miracle happened. As Dida’s luck would have it, Emirates announced a repatriation flight on the Dubai-Toronto route. And Rakhit, also a Canadian passport holder, was eligible to travel.

“I cannot explain the emotions rushing through my body as I received the flight itinerary on May 29,” recalled Rakhit, who also scheduled a connecting flight to Montreal from Toronto.

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Dida remembers the emotional moment when her grandson Bobby Rakhit met her after her daughter's death amid COVID-19. But she would rather not talk about it. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

When he eventually got there, there was little time to grieve as he had not only to make arrangements for his mum’s funeral but also make sure Dida, who knew of her daughter’s loss by then, remained stable. All this, while maintaining the mandated 14-day quarantine.

“Before I left the airport, officials phoned the house to make sure it was a valid number and informed me of the two daily calls to let me know that I was being watched until the 14 days were over. No hugs for my grandmother either, I couldn’t even touch her feet. Our eyes did most of the talking as the long silence between us lingered while we communicated our shock, grief and love for a mother and daughter and each other. Tears flowed, symbolically washing away the pain we felt for each other. I will never forget that moment,” said an emotional Rakhit.

Dida, who remembers that moment too, would rather not talk about it.

Life-changing period

The days that followed were life-changing for her, yet she felt reassured with Rakhit’s presence. He said, “My last prayer for my departed mum was to tell her that I would take over where she left off after taking care of Dida for 30 years.”

That meant Dida had to relocate to Dubai along with her grandson after they had wrapped up their estate and disposed of a houseful of contents that had been amassed over the decades. It had to be done at the earliest as Rakhit had to return to his duties in Dubai.

Getting Dida cleared to travel to Dubai also came with its share of challenges given her age and the pandemic. There was a list of actions to be completed for her permits to fly with a record of her medical history and medications in preparation for her care in Dubai. The big question was whether she would be allowed to fly at the peak of COVID-19 on a visitor’s visa?

But Rakhit somehow managed to sort out the formalities and Dida was finally booked to travel to Dubai on July 17, 2020.

She was leaving her home of 30 years for a new life in Dubai, so she had a lot of luggage - “about seven or eight suitcases”.

Her grandson hired a van with passenger doors low enough for her to get in and out and large enough for all the baggage to get them to Toronto to fly home. “The logistics of transporting a very old lady with special needs posed a challenge requiring careful planning. A road trip was the best option to keep her safe.”

Tryst with Canada

But Dida’s tryst with Canada was far from over. Two weeks to departure, on June 26, 2020, a close family friend invited her and Rakhit for a farewell barbeque. Dida was keen to go, and so was Rakhit.

“It was a nice afternoon and it was a good change for us. At one point, I got up, took my walker and went inside the house to look around. That’s when I fell,” said the centenarian.

Unfamiliar with the surroundings, she had fallen down the stairs into a sunken lounge, sprawling helplessly over her walker. She lay face down with blood coming out of her nose, leaving everyone around her in shock. The next thing she knew she was in an ambulance and at the hospital where she was diagnosed with two broken wrist and a fractured cheekbone.

Dida, on being discharged from hospital after recovering from the fractures she suffered following a fall in Canada. She was in hospital for two months before she relocated to Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

Needless to say, she could not take the July 17 flight and the route to recovery – and Dubai now seemed longer than ever.

Dida remained in a public hospital that was treating COVID-19 patients for over two months, a period that saw its own ups and downs. But as the doctors informed Rakhit, she was a very strong woman, who was determined to heal.

“I could not visit her because of the COVID-19 protocols. But they let me in as a translator. Then, on one of my visits to Dida, the doctor told me she could go home. She was doing so well: the bones were knitting and her wounds were healed enough for her to be discharged. I was taken aback at the speed of her recovery,” said Rakhit.

Arrival in Dubai

Finally, after several rounds of running around for fresh permits, the duo flew to Dubai on August 20, 2020 -- and the rest, well, was history in the making.

As Dubai accorded a warm welcome to Dida, she settled down well with her grandson, his wife and their two children.

“It gives me joy to be with my great grandchildren in Dubai,” she said.

Dida, who uses a wlaker to move around, said she has no major medical complaints. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

The centenary bash

Talking about her 100th birthday bash, she said her grandson had arranged a party and she enjoyed herself with close-knit family and friends.

“We had some classical music which she really likes. There were speeches too by me and my kids. She cut a vanilla cake with fruits and sat through the entire evening, cherishing every moment,” said Rakhit.

Ask Dida what the secret of her longevity is and her answer is simple: “Stay active.”

For as long as she can remember, she said she did the cooking and cleaning at home herself. “We had a maid who would come once a week back in Canada, but I still did a lot of the work. I can still cook but I don’t go the kitchen as I cannot see in one eye now,” she said.

Dida, who uses a wlaker to move around,  said she has no major medical complaints. This despite the June 2020 fall and a mild stroke she suffered back in Canada some years ago. 

“I feel healthier in Dubai today than ever before,” she said.

Few would contest that as they wish Dida in Dubai, 100 and counting, many more milestones.