The UAE permit that allows labourers into the country for a time. Photo:  Himal Southasian / December 2010
The UAE permit that allows labourers into the country for a time. Photo: Himal Southasian / December 2010

Gulf return

Far from riches and social acclaim, most migrant workers in West Asia eventually find dislocation and lack of gratitude from the host country.

My parents have lived in Abu Dhabi for over 32 years, during which India recognised them as acronyms: NRIs or Non-Resident Indians. Since my father's retirement in August this year, the two of them have been planning to leave the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and return to the country they left in the 1970s – a country that no longer exists in the form they remember it. The myth of the NRI, however, will not be put to rest upon their return. In Kerala, a term exists for people like my parents, bandied by neighbours and relatives – Gulf return. Always used in the singular, it is a term associated with privilege, a term for the once-insider who will die an outsider. It accentuates the success story, pretending to know and define those who, out of desperation, adventure or marriage, left their homes to seek work, and now return to expected social glory and envy.

My father was 23 when he boarded an Air India flight from Bombay to Abu Dhabi, on 23 November 1972. The plane, packed with Indians, landed in the morning, touching down in the capital of an infant country barely eleven months old. My father had never heard of Abu Dhabi when he answered the Times of India advertisement, and the UAE was still the Trucial States, a British protectorate. He recalls the November weather as being nippy – ironic for a place I associate with monstrous heat, the kind that crawls into your veins and boils your blood. 'The winters were difficult, cold, started earlier too, not like today,' my father told me.Yet the term Gulf return is uninformative, barely grazing the psyche of those migrants who know the Persian Gulf, who worked or raised families there. It talks up the possibilities while glossing over the horror stories. It is a term that not only underestimates failure but refuses to accept it, assuming that all those who return do so with sacks of tax-free loot. This myth continues to be ruthlessly exploited by the Southasian recruiters and foreign contractors who bag the gullible and the desperate, packing them off to destinations where construction cranes and labour camps grow like weeds. Gulf return conveniently ignores a significant detail: that Southasian men and women living in the Gulf do not return; rather, they leave because they have to, because those are the rules.

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Himal Southasian