It was May 2009 when the Burj Khalifa was getting its finishing touches and skyrocketing cranes could be seen everywhere you looked. There was no Dubai Mall and the Sheikh Zayed Road did not shine as bright as it does today but there was an underlying sense of new beginnings in the dry, sandy air.
I had just got my first ever passport stamp and I was in Dubai - jaw open and wide eyed, marvelling at the architecture, the speed at which we drove and the posh cars that overtook us. I remember the song Empire State of Mind playing on the radio and thinking to myself, if I can make it here, maybe, I can earn enough to buy a ticket to New York City one day. The universe was listening.
Eleven months later, on the 7thof April 2010, with ten thousand Dirhams in my pocket, butterflies in my tummy and a big red American Tourister stuffed with shirts, pants and jackets from Marks and Spencer, I arrived in Dubai.
I had a job, but I didn’t have an apartment, household necessities or even the knowledge that to get off the bus, I needed to press the stop button. In India, you just had to shout as loudly as you could for your voice to travel through a wave of bodies and across the bus for the driver to know that he needed to press the brakes for a passenger to deboard but in Dubai everything was so high-tech.
The thing about being young and optimistic is that your faith is strong in the illusion that somehow things will work out by themselves. It took me a week to move to a studio apartment that had the biggest French windows, a whole wall as a wardrobe and was just a fifteen minutes’ walk to the Mall of Emirates Metro station.
Every day at 8.30am I set out in the piercing April heat to the metro, walking as fast as I could so the air conditioning at the station would soothe my parched skin. And every day, I learnt something new. I would get over one fear to discover that I had developed a new one. Those daily walks to the metro station made me question my decision to move to Dubai. Even though I had been living alone for the past twelve years but this was a new experience. I was in a foreign land with little or no clue about what the next day would bring.
I was alone, I didn’t have a long term plan, I knew I was being paid peanuts at the job that I was doing and to add to my miseries my Marks and Spencer pant suits didn’t match up to the impeccably stitched couture I saw around me. Walking in the heat made me sweat and my cotton shirts wrinkle and just that was enough to bring down my confidence levels several notches.
Over the years I have become very particular about my space and comfort but that June these were the last things on my mind as I prepared my small home for the impending visit of my parents and Grandma (Dadda). The heat was at its peak and it was just the wrong time for anyone to visit Dubai, but I was excited as I furnished my home with a sofa bed and a mattress. As we all huddled together in that small studio with the minimal facilities the square footage didn’t matter. For our hearts were full. For them - overflowing with pride to see me making it on my own and for me just having them around – a sense of home that comes from the same stories being told over and over again, mom’s cooking and the uncountable hugs. I had missed it all so much.
Dadda would observe me get dressed every day in my professional pant suit with great pride. For a woman who had defeated the odds that society and life threw at her, bought up three children on her own, found a job when it was unimaginable for women to work and demonstrated to us what commitment and hard work meant each and every day, the sheer joy of seeing her grandchild make a professional career in a foreign land was an out of world experience.
She didn’t say much to me but I have always wondered about what must have gone through her mind then – did she think of me as the little girl who always wanted to share her food and wait for cuddles or did she marvel at the way in which that little girl was now all grown up, talking of topics she didn’t really understand. She failed in words, but I could see her eyes sparkle with pride every time she looked at me. Every day that she was in Dubai with me, she would watch me walk out in the sun and patiently listen to me complain in the evening about how hot it was, how I unsure I was about what I was doing and how much I would miss them once they went back.
The day before they were to leave for India, Dadda got me a gift that she had picked up from Lulu supermarket. She gave me an umbrella because she didn’t like me walking in the scorching sun. I remember her telling me how proud she was of me and that I shouldn’t worry at all about what life would throw at me. All I needed to do was to believe in myself, be happy, be true to who I was, and the path would always uncover itself.
What was more important to her was that I protect myself from the sun.
When my studio apartment lease expired in April 2010, I moved to a one-bedroom apartment. I also found another job that paid me much more and helped me revamp my closet with clothes from Zara and stiletto heeled shoes. The Marks and Spencer pant suits were folded and kept on the top shelf and never really worn again. I realized that a fitted jacket with skinny jeans and pointed heels made me fit in and feel better. I got more stamps on my passport, even making it to NYC. I made new friends, learnt to drive, bought a car and slowly, along with the red American tourister everything from that first year in Dubai faded or was given to charity.
But the one thing that remained with me was the umbrella that Dadda gifted me – my constant all weather companion. The brand name HAPPY always brought a smile to my face and it travelled with me to Europe, South America and Asia. It was thrown at the backseat of my car, shoved inside my work drawer and finally seven years later when it was time to leave Dubai, it accompanied me to Singapore.
Back to square one in a foreign land and all alone once again, I explored rain-soaked Singapore with my Happy umbrella. I was anxious once again to prove myself. The umbrella was a constant reminder of Dadda and I felt comforted in the knowledge that there were people in the world who loved me unconditionally and even though Singapore felt like an endless work meeting, I would eventually crack the code to build a life here.
And just when Singapore was finally feeling less like a fast-paced meeting, COVID-19 hit us, and the world went on lockdown.
In the early months of the lockdown, my walks to the supermarket were the only things I looked forward to. Like everyone else around me, adjusting to working from home, dealing with the sense of uncertainty and loss of control was extremely hard. I stayed up many nights wondering if/when I could see my family – my constant cheerleaders, my backbone. I survived by telling myself that everyone, all over the world was going through similar anxieties but it was tough. My anxiousness impacted my work, my health and everything else around me.
Yesterday, as I got dressed to leave for an appointment, I couldn’t find my Happy umbrella. I searched every corner of my home, the closets and other storage areas. I mentally kicked myself for not remembering what I had done with it and worse – where had I lost it. It is moments like this that make you realize that the smallest things can bring you comfort. Especially ones that connect you to unconditional love.
My Happy umbrella – a companion that had been with me through scorching sun and thunderstorms, my connection to how far I had come, a memory of those who had stood by me and a constant reminder to always believe in myself had simply vanished. All of a sudden, the last six months came crashing down all around me.
I called Dadda to tell her about the loss of the umbrella, but she didn’t remember anything about gifting it to me. She, however, said the same thing to me that she always does – be happy, be yourself – everything will work itself out.
After a frantic, despondent, and somewhat tragic morning, I eventually found the umbrella in my handbag. Strange, how I never bothered to look for it in the one thing that was right in front of me.
And that is how life is sometimes. We are so unnerved about not having control, not knowing what tomorrow will bring or if we will even survive the change that we forget to see the joys that are right there in front of us. As the rain poured down and I walked into the thunderstorm, I felt a sense of relief, realizing that one must be in the here and now and not look too far into the future. Just like the Happy Umbrella that wasn’t really lost, life too reveals its magic when we are least expecting it.
If I can walk today in the rain and sun with my happy umbrella, and unapologetically be myself just like Dadda taught me, I think I will be alright and this too, shall pass.