Migratory Burdens

Maverick: Migratory Burdens
by Farzana Versey
The Asian Age, Op-ed, Feb 12, 2008

At passport control, he looked up from the document and asked in Marathi, “Mumbai kasa aahe? (How is Mumbai?)”. He was a Maharashtrian working in a sensitive job in an Arab country. He wore the loose flowing white robe with a chequered head-dress because it was the uniform. Did he feel ridiculous? “No,” he laughed. “It looks funny to you because I spoke in Marathi, but when I speak in Arabic no one bothers.”

The past few days Mumbai has seen the goonda raj manifest itself against the ‘outside’ North Indians, the gall of addressing the country’s citizens as immigrants. Yet, India has been demanding with some justification and a great deal of audacity that our unskilled labour in Bahrain be paid a minimum wage of Rs. 10,000 per month.

Most of us who visit the United Arab Emirates do not peek beyond the malls, the sand dunes, the hotels with helipads and the islands shaped like palm fronds. We are beguiled by the Las Vegas-like caricature of a caricature.

It was a Friday evening in Deira, Dubai. There was some fair. The lights were bright. Loud music from blaring tape-decks made scraping sounds that were drowned in the voices haggling for good bargains. Hands plundered through the cheap stacked stuff.

As the sky turned dark, people rushed towards white buses, jostling for a foothold. I could see their faces pressed against the window grilles, making them look like prisoners behind bars.

Shishir used to arrive at 9 am at my door and ask if I’d like the room cleaned. He was from Ghatkopar in Mumbai. He said, “I paid an agent Rs. 75,000, my brother and I had got some family land which we sold off.”

He works for 12 hours and gets a holiday once a fortnight. That evening he had big plans for his break. It was heartbreaking when he said, “I am going out of station, to Sharjah.” Sharjah, one of the seven emirates, is a 40-minute drive by bus. He could not contain his excitement when I asked him what he would do there. “I will go to my brother’s house and we will have fun.”

His brother shares his living quarters with six other men. Fun would be opening a bottle of alcohol and remembering a home they had left. His reason was a “better life”. It wasn’t the suffocation of a village that lured him; he would qualify as a son-of-the-soil in Mumbai. “But madam, I cannot do this kind of work there. What will people say?”

Sadly, the better life they sought was often far worse than the cities they had come from. A sweeper at the Sharjah University earns just 350 dirhams a month. One of the teachers told me, “Some of us ask him to do odd jobs. In this way he can supplement his income.”

We drove along a busy route and spotted squat sand-coloured structures behind some buildings. They are homes for these workers. Eight to ten people live in a single room. There is no hygiene and it can get dangerous when they cook in those cramped environs.

The UAE boasts of an 80 per cent expatriate population, the majority from South Asia. If you tip a waiter or a porter, it is quite likely that this is all he has earned in the past few months. Not being given salaries has become fairly common. Many of them do not even have money to return home.

Of course, these are the truly deprived. But behind the knotted ties of the tourist guide there are equally sad tales. Omar learned on the job and knew little. Thankfully, history is not big here. You can dwell at length on the newness of everything and the visitor will look impressed. That many of the construction workers at the fancy new villas and apartments that look like grand pianos have no medical, social or financial security does not bother him.

He has none of this himself. Everyday, as he drives in an air-conditioned coach and puts on a fake Arabic accent, he transforms into Alibaba with treasures. He forgets his own cave he will return to at night where he will put the small change he has earned into a wooden box, mockingly ornate with engravings.

Besides such physical isolation, there is the emotional one. Asian maids avert their eyes if they hear familiar voices or see faces they recognise as those from their country. Many come from respectable lower-middle class families and have lied about their jobs at home.

Raisa works at a small travel agency. She shares her living quarters with three girls. It was safe because if she complained about any misbehaviour on the part of men, they would be punished. “But I won’t say girls are not exploited. Silence can be bought. From a simple girl from a conservative family I have become self-sufficient and aggressive. I don’t know if there are any savings, but at least my family can eat and my brothers can go to school.”

My most poignant memory is of Wilson, a Keralite, cleaning the table near the fridge “Madam, this?” he queried about the chunk of cheese that had gone mouldy.

“Throw it away,” I said.

“I take?” he asked hesitantly. I told him it had gone bad.

“No problem. I will cut out top part.” Holding the rancid piece of cheddar in its frayed golden wrapper like a precious trophy, he bid me goodbye.

As I saw his retreating back, I bit my lip. The gloss on it cost as much as ten days of his toil would earn him.


  1. Yaar....a tiny lil flat crammed with trinkets from Lahore, people I'd have looked up to back home
    doing some silly two pence job, so many long distance calling cards all over the place..16 at the time, and I've never forgotten it...it's not only the unskilled..

  2. FV:

    Well said! par jinko samajhna chahiye woh toh nasamajh hain... kya karein bhai

  3. Hmm.

    And relatives here say things like, "Arey Dubai mein kaam karta hai, abhi to tu seth ho gaya hai.." And the guy smiles back, not knowing what to reply. knickknacks from those 1dh-2dh 'novelty' shops are treated as lottery. It's a world of make belief and bliss in ignorance.

    The hope for a better life becomes a curse incurred.

  4. Mask:

    True, it isn't only the unskilled...there is always the dilemma about what one has, what one wants, what one gets and what one does with it.
    - -


    Sab cheezon ka batwaara ho raha hai...
    - -


    This is the facade, and it makes it all the more pitiable...


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