Reflecting on one man’s journey as another one ends

Mr R faced the same fate that befalls all UAE-based expats: even amongst the long-serving, when it is time to go we leave very little trace

A view of Al Markaziyah neighborhood on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Abu Dhabi. The Burj Mohammed Bin Rashid Tower is the tall pointed tower on the right. (Silvia Razgova / The National)

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There is one story that I wanted to write during my time in Abu Dhabi but never managed to start, let alone finish, and will now always represent “the one that got away”.

My failure to write in any detail about the life of Mr R, a successful but disaffected painting, maintenance and relocations specialist, is not for want of material or conversation.

The septuagenarian businessman was always happy to talk to me about his many decades in the capital and the travails of his family and of middle class, non-resident Indian (NRI) life.

But despite visiting him several times in the tidy, filing cabinet-filled office from which he ran his business empire, I never asked Mr R to tell me about his life on the record, with a story in mind.

Looking back, I can offer no reason why as all the elements for a story were there. An aspiring young man from the foothills of the Himalayas, Mr R left India for the UAE in 1970, soon after he met his wife.

A demanding beauty from the Deccan Plateau, she eventually joined him in Abu Dhabi where she bore him three children, a daughter and two sons, all of whom went to university in North America and each of whom, he secretly hoped, would take over the family business.

A specialist in the timely and economical renovation of property, and the relocation of household goods, Mr R’s business thrived so much that he was able to buy land and build a house in Bangalore, but over the years the idea of moving to his palatial villa appealed less and less.

Despite the offer of a handsome dowry, Mr R struggled to marry off his handsome and intelligent daughter, the apple of his eye, because she had grown up outside India as a NRI, one of the people the anthropologist Neha Vora has described as the UAE’s impossible citizens.

Mr R’s daughter may have had an Indian passport, but there was no mistaking that her accent, her cultural references and her outlook on life were different - characteristics that might have been valued anywhere else but in a crowded and highly-competitive wedding market.

Even more to Mr R’s chagrin was the fact that neither of his sons were really interested in taking over the business that, perhaps even more than his family,  represented the greatest achievement in the seventy-something’s life.

Despite the security and the considerable income on offer, the eldest decided to stay in North America while the youngest, who at least gave it a go, refused to relocate to Abu Dhabi from Dubai and eventually gave up, overwhelmed by the daily four-hour commute.

So what became of Mr R? The last time I saw him was fleetingly, three or four years ago, in a local supermarket.

As always he was immaculately turned out in slip-on shoes, cavalry twill slacks and a business shirt - white collar and cuffs - his thinning hair preternaturally glossy and black.

Was it finally time for him to move to the house that had consumed so many years and millions of rupees I asked, facing him over a pyramid of imported vegetables and fruit.

Mr R feared that it was not. He had never lived in Bangalore, he said, and had no desire to feel like a stranger in a place that, after more than 40 years, was his home in name only.

What would he do, he asked, without his business and without at least two of his children nearby?

I thought of him again recently, when it became time for me to make my own move back to the UK. I had long since lost his contact details and Mr R’s firm was not to the sort to have a website, but I wanted to see how he was and whether he had also decided to make the move back home.

Having no other way of reaching him, I decided to visit his office in Al Markaziyah.

Arriving in hope rather than expectation, I held my breath as I turned a corner at the junction of Khalifa and Liwa Streets only to find a scene I had half expected.

Rather than the flaking, three-storey concrete building that housed Mr R’s enterprise, all that remained was an empty patch of sand, sandwiched between two towering construction sites.

I asked local shopkeepers for any clues about his whereabouts, but even amongst those who did remember Mr R nobody knew anything.

Whatever his whereabouts, Mr R faced the same fate that befalls all UAE-based expats: even amongst the long-serving, when it is time to go we leave very little trace.

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