Freedom: Umair Muhajir
Dubai’s memory is the memory of other places. Hardly anyone is from the city (and those who are hardly meet those of us who aren’t), one simply lives in it, and because of the passports and visas that say who we are and keep us tied to mother countries we only saw during summer vacations growing up, and that ensure Dubai has definite views of who we are, the city enables one to believe one is tied to other places, or at least unmoored from this one. In Dubai, one meets people all the time who say “Bombay” when you ask where they are from. Or “Karachi” or “Lahore” or “Hyderabad” or “Cairo” or “Damascus.” Not just the generality of a country-name, with its vaguely aggressive claims, but the particularity and belonging proper to a city, that one has barely lived in, and often doesn’t even go to. There are many Palestinians too, but in Dubai they don’t seem exceptional: almost everyone here is a transient.
I moved to Dubai in 1987, when I was nine. Abu Dhabi two hours away had been bland, and the thought of moving didn’t discomfit me in the slightest (certainly not like the prospect of changing schools, and I remember feeling sick thinking of the new uniforms, the new classmates, the new teachers who might soon discover that it was all a sham, that I really wasn’t as smart as the St. Joseph’s teachers thought I was – they didn’t believe in saying that at St. Joseph’s, but I knew they thought it, even Mrs. Reema Gonsalves who had stormed into class and hit me with a ruler for turning in appalling homework after I’d missed weeks of school for my uncle’s wedding in Karachi, where the bride seemed impossibly beautiful and where I was almost eight and hopelessly tongue-tied). To be sure, there were similarities: like Abu Dhabi, Dubai was (I knew even then), different from India or Pakistan or Egypt, at once very comfortable, but also a place where nothing could possibly happen — all of that was reserved for elsewhere.
Such as the places I could see in the Hindi films my brother constantly watched at home, chock full of villains, tragedies, atrocities, and events – in a word, danger. No matter how invulnerable the Hindi film hero, no matter how assured the viewer was of a happy ending, he wasn’t long free from danger. Which, from my vantage point in Dubai, meant the freedom to be endangered. It doubtless helped that one of my earliest memories of celluloid danger involved Smita Patil, commuting home from work on a Bombay local train in Shakti, only to be accosted by a group of drunken hooligans. Of course, this was Shakti, so even my five year-old self must have intuited that Amitabh Bachchan’s brooding presence in the same carriage meant it was the goons who were endangered, but no matter. I couldn’t disentangle the various strands of excitement — the whiff of rape, violence, and rescue — I felt on first watching the scene – indeed, I didn’t realize until years later that one of the goons was Satish Shah, later to become famous as a benign, comedic uncle – but there was no mistaking the freedom: Smita Patil was heading home at night on a train, unaccompanied, and the attempted assault didn’t change her outlook over the rest of the film. Later on, when Bachchan walked her home, she invited him upstairs for coffee (bemused as he looked bewildered). With the exception of Amitabh Bachchan and Parveen Babi in Deewar, where else could I have found sex treated so casually? Certainly not in most other films. But also – and I can’t forget that Smita Patil could never have invited Amitabh for coffee had she not been commuting alone, had she not been living alone – not in the Dubai I grew up in. In the Bombay of the movies, everything was, if not possible – one knew how most of the films would turn out – at least attemptable.
As in Abu Dhabi, the mail in Dubai was delivered only to office P.O. Boxes, never to one’s home, which made it unlike the places I had seen in films. There were simply no postmen in the U.A.E., and my father brought the mail back with him from the office, and for years afterwards, the postmen in films and on TV were an especial focus of mine, not only bringing good or bad news (but always news; never a utility bill) to the village mother waiting for word from her son in the city, but also bringing me missives from a world where these things happened. And when I was brought face-to-face with the phenomenon one year when I was five, as the bearded postman brought my grandmother a letter in front of my eyes, I could not contain my wonder. Despite the chickenpox that kept me home so often that summer in Karachi, that postman was the highlight of my holiday. I had been miserable at not being able to accompany Bhaiya and Bhaijan anywhere, but had it not been for the chickenpox, I wouldn’t have been camped near the front door, staring out at the driveway leading to that old black gate, with that odd horizontal pattern cut out of it so that one didn’t need to open the gate to take the mail, and I wouldn’t have seen the postman. It was proof of the connection between the addresses written on the envelope, and actual places. Sometimes the link was tenuous, as when, years later, the arcane numbers, dashes, and words of a Panjagutta address resolved themselves into a mental image of my widowed aunt’s home behind her son’s shuttered leather goods store in Hyderabad. In the U.A.E it was all more ethereal, the addresses were simply numbers, and you couldn’t form any picture of where the letter’s recipient might be. Ours was “P.O. Box645, Sharjah” once we moved to Dubai, even though we didn’t live in Sharjah, or anywhere near it. I could only dream of pungency like Madras’s “Nungambakkam High Road” that I saw my grandfather write on envelopes a few times. I might even have asked Abba several times if he had ever seen the people who actually brought the mail to his office, but I know he never had. As far as anyone knew, the mail simply materialized on the secretary’s desk.
But Dubai was much larger than Abu Dhabi, mysteriously sliced in two by the (what on earth was a) Creek, and even had names for neighborhoods (as the Bombay of my movies did). May be Abu Dhabi had neighborhood names too, but I certainly didn’t know of any (did Electra Roadcount?: Perhaps the Tourist Club area did, although even in retrospect I’d be too ashamed to say so, and in fact I’ve never known where on earth the Tourist Club itself was). Dubai, on the other hand, had Karama, a seemingly endless maze of apartment blocks and shops that my parents hardly ever went to; Jumeira, way out on the edge of the city, all villas and Arabs and British expatriates; Par Dubai (why did the desis all call it that when they could just as easily say Bur Dubai?) with its bustling bazaar that seemed sub-continental to me then; and hard-scrabble Ghusais, where the apartment buildings were very far apart and one could see signs of the desert in between. (A few years ago, many of the Ghusais residents were served notice; their apartment buildings were to give way to yet more mid-priced hotels. One of these, the Princess Hotel, can be seen from the third floor of the Juma Al Naboodah building, where, from the balcony of my friend’s apartment, we saw two women whom we thought were prostitutes get into cars outside the hotel one evening when I was visiting last year.)
Dubai, that is to say, was large enough that my mother didn’t let me go about by myself in taxis until I was eleven or twelve.
But I did go to Dubai Cinema two streets away, typically the 2:45 afternoon show that began an hour-and-a-half after I got back from school. The first time, however, was for the night show: the film was Shahenshah (I had been seeing stills for Amitabh Bachchan’s comeback vehicle for two years in the Al Mansoor or Esquire video prints that Bhaiya rented, first from Lyric Video Library in Abu Dhabi, and then, after we moved to Dubai, from one of the stores in Hor-al-Anz), and not even Ammi tried to dissuade me, Bhaiya or Baji from going (not that my mother ever tried to stop me, but she would never tire of raising her eyebrows and telling anyone who would listen what a waste of time going to the cinema was). That was only the second time I’d ever been to the cinema, and I was feverish at the sight of so many people in the hall, and while the film wasn’t good I told myself I quite liked it, lying that Amitabh didn’t look old, that it was the hairstyle more than anything else. Later on, years later, I realized it wasn’t as bad as I had secretly felt it was back then, but I’ve never watched the film from start to finish again. Lyric doesn’t exist anymore, nor, as far as I can tell, does the building it was in or even the street it was on; Dubai Cinema was demolished a few years ago, replaced by a bank branch. Hor-al-Anz, the somewhat rundown neighborhood stretching out behind Dubai Cinema, still existed last year, almost exactly as I’d left it. No small miracle, and one I partake of every time I go back to Dubai, even if the stores tend to be auto-repair workshops now, and only a few of the barber shops, video stores, and shavarma-sellers remain. On my last visit I tried to take it all in greedily: I had heard the neighborhood was slated for demolition soon.
The first thing I remember is the first time I went to the cinema: I was three and the film was Kranti. I remember only one image, Dilip Kumar, old and bearded with a bonfire somewhere nearby. It must have been towards the end of the film, but then again might well have been at the very beginning: the film unfolds in a flashback tale narrated by grandfather to grandson. The two are seated around a bonfire on a featureless plain which might have been anywhere (except where I was). I remember I was sitting in Ammi’s lap. The cinema wasAbu Dhabi’s Eldorado (there was no trace of it the last time I passed by where I thought it might have once stood). So completely has it vanished that I find myself doubting whether the facade I remember was even of Eldorado cinema, or instead belonged to that open air theater we could see from the master bedroom window of Javed Uncle’s apartment. Not that that apartment building exists anymore; neither does the open-air cinema. And Javed Uncle died years ago.
After Shahenshah, I accompanied Bhaiya to several films, and these were more typical experiences: the films did not star Amitabh, and as a result there was hardly anyone in the Dubai cinema matinee crowd: the odd family, bound to be appalled by something or other in the film, a few Malayalees, Pathans who showed signs of life only upon the hero’s entry, or when a sizzling dance number began, and the Arab teens smoking inside. Many were likely there because the trailers preceding the film would often be of old skin flicks from long ago, clearly dubbed from some other language: I remember the shock when I first saw one of these, for a film called Silk. I must have been ten or eleven, and it was the first time I had seen a naked breast. This one was alarmingly large, and wobbled vigorously as its vigilante owner kicked the man who’d pulled a gun on her. I remember wondering how this had gotten past the censor board in Dubai, but didn’t spend too much time on that question: public breasts were in short supply in the city, and Bhaiya had in any event warned me that if I said anything, Ammi would not let me go to the afternoon show again. “She won’t be able to stop me, but you. . . .” His logic was sound. Some in the audience headed for the exits when the trailers were done. Bhaiya told me that in India, theaters were often crowded, and that it wasn’t normal for all these seats to be empty. This only happens in Dubai, he told me, they think it’s enough to watch videos at home.
I couldn’t stay away from those afternoon shows in Dubai cinema, with their dark halls, ripped Rexene seats and stale smell. The films themselves, even back then, were appalling: Muqaddar ka Badshah, C.I.D., Kroadh, Farishtay, and many others. I always knew cinema wasn’t meant to be this way, that it should be as in the videos Bhaiya had at home, of all those films from the 1970s and (if they starred Amitabh) even the early 1980s. I resented the fact that Bhaiya seemed to have the better of me here: films from my own time featured the incredibly past-it Vinod Khanna and Dharmendra, and younger stars like Anil Kapoor and Sunny Deol, disappointing even at their prime. I felt like a latecomer to the party. But in a sense the bad films were better than the ones like Shahenshah, and, when the love stories started, the ones starring Aamir Khan and Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan, because the cinema was full for those. It was odd not to have empty rows around me, and I felt the loss of a certain intimacy, as if my film had been taken from me and given to the world.
The films didn’t promise escape. On the contrary, they freed me from Dubai by bringing other places in, mostly Bombay from across the Arabian Sea. Thanks to the movies, I was familiar with many of that city’s station names, and years later, when I finally visited, I was thrilled to hear my friend Abzee repeat some of those names over the phone to me in Hyderabad, in real life as it were. Later on, behind Abzee on his bike, I shivered with delight when I saw the signs and heard him point the neighborhoods out: Mahim, Andheri, Jogeshwari, Goregaon, even Santa Cruz and Lokhandwala, and the fabled kingdoms of Juhu and Bandra, the names marking out a sacred geography that was utterly familiar in the way that myths are, and yet shiny new. This is how pilgrims must feel, I remember thinking, and chuckled that a Madh Island could be the focus of so much excitement on my part. Smuggled gold was unloaded countless times on Madh jetty in the movies of the 1970s, and even though it was only spewing ferry passengers when I visited, it looked the part. There was something inhospitable, even disreputable about its muddy banks, yet confident: it was not intimidated by the city across the water. I realized I hadn’t simply imagined that when Abzee told me this was where the weapons from Alibaug were offloaded in 1993; you know, Black Friday, he nodded. I had forgotten about that (great film, though).
Dadar, Abzee had said, all trains stop at Dadar. And so I didn’t go on that first morning, even though the Bollywood fan in me wanted to emerge from VT, an imaginary camera tracking my stride; I got off, past all those half-familiar names, shantytowns, early morning commuters on platforms, at Dadar, nexus of all realities – all trains stop there, even ones from Aurangabad like the one I was on – and stepped out into the city’s dream. I returned to that morning on one of my last nights in the city that first trip, riding behind Abzee on his motorbike, from Café Mondegar all the way, past the Marine Drive, Dadar, Bandra, Juhu, Kandivali, Borivali, up to Mira Road, the Worli seaface somewhere in the middle. Borivali Kandivali Dombivali Chandiwali kaheen bhi jaa, I had mouthed on the first of my many jaunts on Abzee’s bike, and both of us smiled because we knew that the Baaghi song went on: Hamen pehchaane yaaron saara Bombay jaane apna naam pataa. It was a lie — we were utterly anonymous in the big city — but it didn’t matter. The names — and my wonder — didn’t stop at the city limits, as I learned when I was told — while returning to Bombay with Abzee’s family from the pilgrimage to the eight sacred shrines where the Ganesh idols were not manmade — that Lonavla, the land of chikki, lay below the expressway. And then – could it even exist apart from Aamir Khan’s song in Ghulam? – Khandala.
All those years ago, I thought the films freed me: but while they certainly did free me from Dubai, afterwards it felt as if a crowd walked with me, not as characters but as audience, and I would imagine that every conversation, argument, or aimless stroll was watched attentively. It followed that the words running through my daydreams were also suitably filmi, indeed over time the daydreams began to count for more and more, since only they were attuned to what the audience wanted. Real life not so much: every time someone scratched his crotch, or farted, or peered at teeth in the mirror, the reverie was interrupted. No one is watching, my grandmother seemed to be saying as she brandished the half-sucked mango-pit when she got into an argument at the dining table before the plates were cleared. She was wrong, and the films proved it. I didn’t want to go from one class to another, and then (as I grew older) to university and a job, as I was supposed to. I would much rather have played various roles: lover here, failure there, the triumphant hero elsewhere. I even imagined myself in place of some of my adult relatives, not because I wanted to be them but because I thought it would be wonderful to play the part of them for a while. That was the great thing about films, they always ended, and one could move on to another part. One loses that belief as one grows older, but it would remain true – like the sign, unremarked by the characters now but luminous by film’s end, that demonstrates Amar, Akbar, and Anthony are really brothers – if our forgetfulness didn’t ensure the opposite. With time, we stop believing that we can play any part but one, and become the Nirupa Roy of our own lives: she was always condemned to play the long-suffering mother, who wept all the time — for sorrow because she had lost her family, and then, by film’s end, and after being re-united with them decades later, for joy — and we too believe no-one will ever offer us a different role than the one they are used to seeing us enact. Moreover, Nirupa Roy didn’t seem to have any premonition of her future joy either. She didn’t expect to be reunited with her family; it was destiny it had been taken from her, and we the audience knew it was destiny she would get it back. To become her, then, is not only to be stuck in one part, but might also mean to look forever backward, at one’s loss as it were, and with no expectation of any redemption but fate.
Not that fate offers a complete redemption: In Amar Akbar Anthony, Nirupa Roy looked back on her family in all its wholeness, as it was before it was sundered and taken from her. A wholeness that could not be completely redeemed. For even though no-one had died and everyone was re-united by film’s end — a rare thing even in the movies, this absence of irreparable injury; think of Naseeb, Kaala Patthar or Suhaag — and even though Amar, Akbar and Anthony were revealed as brothers, too much had happened. Time had passed, making everything less free.