Friday January 28, 2022

The price of Gulf dreams

November 02, 2018

It recently dawned on me that it has been nearly nine long years since my wife and children moved back to India. Living on my own hasn’t been easy. While mundane, everyday issues like food had understandably been the first and foremost concern, there are a myriad of things that you miss when you find yourself suddenly divested of the emotional support system that loved ones offer, especially in times of distress.

I nearly went crazy in the beginning. Waking up on my own and getting ready for work in the deafening silence of an empty house and being greeted by a deserted, lifeless home on return had been incredibly depressing.

I would stay up late at night as I found it impossible to sleep. My old problem of insomnia got progressively worse. If I somehow managed to doze off, I found it hard to wake up in the morning for work.

Over time, I somehow managed to come to terms with my splendid isolation, repeatedly telling myself to pull myself together. However, without my realising it, the new ‘bachelor’ lifestyle had begun to take its emotional and physical toll on my health. I really piled on the pounds as I sought to find comfort and solace in food and ate junk that Indian and Pakistani hotels usually serve.

Perhaps you never recover from the emotional shock and sense of loss – although in my case it was supposed to have been a temporary separation. My children needed to move to attend college. They were supposed to come back soon.

However, I realised shortly as well as they did that it was not going to happen anytime soon. They had not left the nest to return. Initially apprehensive and nervous, my children have come to love and enjoy the freedom, and the hustle and bustle of life back home. Now whenever they come to visit me in Dubai, they appear bored and cannot wait to go back.

The same goes for their mother. She is seemingly at peace with herself and enjoys the chaotic certainty of life in India, with its myriad challenges as well as small pleasures. Meanwhile, I have found myself feeling increasingly lonely and depressed, and like a stranger at home whenever I visit India.

I have never been very social by nature. Far from it. I love my “me time”, as they say in the West, and like spending time with myself. I hate the company of the endlessly blabbering kind. However, even solitary, shy animals like me do miss and pine for the warmth of human company and kindred spirits. There’s a void and emptiness in and around me that nothing seems to fill.

I have tried keeping myself busy. I watch TV – indeed too much of it, I must admit. Having been a voracious, compulsive reader all my life, I know there is nothing like a good book to beat ennui and loneliness. Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience, said Mark Twain, are key to an ideal life.

However, diversions like reading, TV and music may temporarily help the lonely, but they can never truly be a substitute for that priceless gift called human company, especially of those who you love. Besides, you know what Albert Einstein thought of reading after a certain age? Reading diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking, said the genius.

There can never be “too much” reading. But, yes, it is not possible to argue with Einstein’s point about being too dependent on the “received wisdom” of giants like him and not thinking for ourselves. This is perhaps why the Quran repeatedly implores us to think and contemplate on the world around us, where we came from, and where we are headed.

Returning to the issue at hand, hopelessly missing my family and wallowing in self-pity, I often wonder how my son must be dealing with his own share of blues and homesickness. He moved to the US a couple of years ago to pursue his dream of a foreign university degree.

Living all by himself on the other side of the world– he needs to change at least three flights from Hyderabad in India to get to his destination in the American South – the experience couldn’t have been easy for him. Especially for someone as painfully shy and introverted as him.

Growing up, he was so emotionally attached to me that he would stand right next to me, shoulder to shoulder, even in his teens whenever we prayed together in the mosque. Now, he is all grown up to face the world on his own.

I guess these are the rites of passage that we all must negotiate on our own. Each one of us must carry his own cross. In the words of the Quran, “No bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another”. Being the protective parents that we are, we worry ourselves sick about our children, without realising that they are perhaps emotionally stronger and better equipped to deal with the world.

Come to think of it, it is not just me who has to battle these “existential dilemmas”. There are millions and millions like me in this part of the world living thousands of kilometres from home, toiling daily so their families and loved ones back home have the shot at a better life than they had.

I know of people who have spent more than 30 to 40 years in the Gulf – more than two-thirds of their lives – and yet remain strangers in their adopted countries. Some of them arrived by ships and even by traditional dhows when the Gulf El Dorado was still in its infancy.

Many of them spend all their lives diligently saving their dirhams and dinars, often at a great cost to themselves. They live in shared apartments, sometimes six to eight in a room, dreaming of going home “soon”. Many of them have missed seeing their children grow up in their crucial formative years, sharing small, everyday pleasures of life with their families. All this to ensure that their families back home live in comfort.

In many cases though, their hard-earned money is squandered without a thought to the sweat and blood spent in earning it. Many of these valiant soldiers die far from their loved ones and without their dreams ever being realised.

It is their sweat and blood that have literally built the rich petrodollar economies of the Gulf, not to mention the colossal and seldom-acknowledged contribution their remittances have made to the economies back home in South Asia and elsewhere.

The heaven-kissing towers and high-rises of Dubai, Doha and Jeddah wouldn’t have been possible without the sheer hard work and dedication of multitudes of humble men, the overwhelming majority of them from the Subcontinent.

This is why I have always believed that the extraordinary lives and struggles of my fellow travellers are nothing short of a noble jihad. If jihad means striving for a noble cause and putting your life on the line for a higher purpose, then these men and women have been doing just that.

Who says I am alone? I am surrounded by noble and selfless men and women. I am in the presence of greatness.

The writer is an award-winning journalist and editor.


Twitter: @AijazZaka