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Multicultural Dubai has more to offer than tall buildings and luxury shopping. Photo: AFP
Multicultural Dubai has more to offer than tall buildings and luxury shopping. Photo: AFP

Unsolicited letter from...Dubai

Beyond the city's glass and glitter reside faint glimpses of an unPartitioned Subcontinent

Packing for a two-day trip is a bit nomadic. There is no sense in taking more than a toothbrush and a few clothes. Maybe a Khushwant Singh novel. These I put together a few minutes before leaving and did the requisite zipping.

Having almost finished Train to Pakistan, I wondered if I’d need something else to read, even if it was a short three-hour flight to Dubai. I spotted The Hanging of Afzal Guru and put in it. An unreasonable political wind took flight in my head, and I threw in a copy of The Upanishads as well.

A rush through Mahipalpur, a lot of rolling luggage around, repeated pulling out and putting back of documents, some unruly Indians and a visit to the most ethnically diverse smoking room in my life later, I was sweating in a Dubai cab, zooming towards a hotel.

The purpose—to get my grandmother back to Delhi (a Shravan Kumar-esque activity, best done with a teeka in place)—was half-achieved. All there was to do was to see as much of the city as possible in just under three days.

The sightseeing began that very day. It was early enough. You see, when you fly to the Gulf, you “gain time"; an impressive term which the speaker also feels impressive saying.

So began a trip where I got to see some of Dubai and a lot of, what seemed to me, an undivided Subcontinent.

First off, Dubai is basically a giant air conditioner. It is a city to be indoors in. (Is that what happens when you pour money into the desert?) I, a confident veteran of the Delhi heat, arrogantly brushed aside warnings that Dubai melts acche-acchon ko. The humbling was only a few moments in the sun away, and I was already entering air-conditioned bus stops for shelter, too nuked to register fully that they were a total novelty.

Bus stops, the metro, general stores, cabs—the exercise is to move from one AC-equipped space to another, wiping the sweat from the interim blind spots.

In such a city, the mall thrives. Dubai Mall, roughly the size of Dubai, is a perfumed, bustling beast. It champions two of the city’s facets—diversity and consumerism. Arabs, Filipinos, Europeans, South Asians, hijabs, miniskirts—and crocodiles—one may find here.

One thing is clear: Dubai, a tourism hub, wants to impress you. It will attempt to dizzy you with acrobatic fountain shows, giant installations, glittering shops and even a dinosaur skeleton—flown in from Wyoming and brazenly labelled the “Dubai Dino".

While malls provide a lot of insight for visitors to the city, they are insufficient for the subcontinental tourist and so, streets and bazaars.

Meena Bazaar is a loud affair where clothes, accessories and gadgets are sold cheap. Eateries and jewellery stores line the extremities. It is a South Asia concentrate. It looks like a battalion of soap-wielding warriors cleaned Nehru Place for a year.

Walking through the bazaar, I was accosted by a group of Malayali men who insisted that I needed an Apple watch; another man came out of nowhere, handed me a small card that had an image of a woman who would have fit right in on a Tamil pulp fiction book’s cover, with a phone number and “MASSAGE" written in big flaming letters; and a boisterous Pakistani badly pretended, on realizing I was Indian, that he was from Jalandhar.

This last one wanted to arrest my male pattern... problems. With “Persian powder".

Everybody was trying to scam me. Had I even left home?

Evidently, as I was being taken from one place to another by either Pakistani or Bangladeshi cabbies. I didn’t pass on the opportunity to pester them. It was a radically different version of playing info-gatherer with your auto driver in Delhi.

Every Pakistani driver I encountered was from the Frontier Province, with an accent that first made me think “Kabuliwala", and then whether it was all right to think that. They were, from my limited experience, warm and engaging. The taxi rides were short, and so I would without fail get straight to the point.

“Do you work with Indians as well," was what I led with, inevitably expanding on that to bring it around to bilateral ties, geopolitics, hatred and whatever else.

The responses, each of them, were good. “We eat with Indians", “We work with Indians", “Our boss is Indian" and “We share personal problems with Indians" were some of them. As far as the larger intangibles are concerned, their mature responses, condensed, can be summed up in a word: “politics".

Want to gain perspective and establish friendly ties? Easy, just move and meet at a neutral venue. It’s the social version of a Sharjah match.

This multi-regional, subcontinental experience—multinational today—inspired images of bygone, imagined times—South Indians, North Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis having adjacent businesses and lives, in cities travelled to for work and opportunity. On pavements, in transit, in shops, on the metro... with intertwined personal narratives. This seemed thoroughly unPartitioned. It rang a bell I never knew existed.

But before more nuanced ruminations could kick in, I was packing toothbrushes again. Dubai had more attractions than I had days off from work. And so, the glittering glass buildings became incoherent dots as the plane rose, and in no time I was basking in the reassured feeling of watching the grandmother walk out of Indira Gandhi Airport.

Some paan-stain graffiti, friendly parking lot stray dogs, an attempt at being overcharged, a cab ride and unruly Indians later, I was back home. The air was damp with the rain which had fallen in my national absence.

All was still and mellow. I unpacked immediately, pampering some OCD. Clothes, trinkets and miniature chocolates were pulled out. A finished Train to Pakistan was as well. The Upanishads was put back on the shelf, unused—as I’d known, but also hoped, that it would.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. On exceptions like this week, we will have another contributor.

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