Quarantine diaries | Dubai: What diversity means in the shadow of a global virus
In cosmopolitan Dubai, the varied mix of cultures in the region is a source of pride—but with the threat of Covid-19, also of anxiety
Of all the cities I have lived in, Dubai is by far the most cosmopolitan. Never before has my daily life included brushes with so many other cultures. My fitness instructor is Filipino; our household help is Kenyan. From the former, I learnt that King Choc Nut, a beloved Filipino brand of chocolate, tastes a lot like besan laddoo. From the latter, I discovered that chai, sambusa and chapati are as Kenyan as they are Indian, knitted into the cultural tapestry of the country by generations of Indians living in East Africa.
Over the last six months, much to my polyglot husband’s delight, we have heard snatches of several languages in the elevator of our high-rise building. From Farsi to French, the native tongues from the far corners of the world intersect in this city. Even though we don’t know too many of our neighbours, I have always found joy in these brief interactions.
Unfortunately, life in the time of Covid-19 means that this diversity is also a source of anxiety. It means you have no real way of knowing the antecedents of your anonymous neighbours. Ordinarily, this is not something one would be fussed about. But now, personal markers such as the passport one holds—or the places one recently visited—have become dangerously relevant.
So, it came as no surprise that a couple of weeks ago, the common recreational facilities of the building became off bounds. A few days later, hand sanitizers were installed near the elevators, along with large signs dissuading handshakes. It immediately made clear that things had become serious.
The city that seemed like such an immense web of possibilities just a few weeks ago contracted into the four walls of our apartment overnight. After we have attended to the mundane chores that now lend some semblance of structure to our fluid days, the worries we have held off clamour to be addressed.
Our circles of worry intersect—for our health, our jobs, our futures, for the dreams we have dreamt and those we haven’t dared to—but out of this Venn diagram that none of us willingly chose emerge pockets of hope and humanity.
Mercy, our Kenyan helper, bolsters our shaky faith with her steadfast belief. “We will overcome this. There will be better days, you will see," she says. What she doesn’t tell me—but I know—is that when she listens to voice notes from her children at night, away at boarding school in a small town near Nairobi, she worries for their safety. I become even more deeply grateful for her.
Raghu, a perennially upbeat Punjabi who is employed as a driver with my husband’s company, lets his guard slip from time to time. In one of those rare moments when his smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes, he tells me: “Madamji, this corona is making September seem so far away." He hasn’t yet met his six-month-old daughter, who lives with his wife and parents in a small town in Punjab. He has been counting the months and days to September, when he will finally visit home after nearly two years. We both feel the drag of the pause button on our lives—and the distance yawning between us and our loved ones.
From Chennai, my mother sends me photographs of her spring garden full of roses and hibiscus. She tells me the yellow blossoms are very special because she picked up the sapling from the garden of the hospital she recently visited, after a shoulder injury. My mother is forged of steel, and of late I have been feeling more and more of her mettle in my bones. But I worry for her and she worries for me, our anxieties pinging and ricocheting off one another, as if we were locked in an amiable tennis match.
For the first time since we both started our careers, my husband and I are working from home. Oddly enough, for someone used to the routine of an office job, Vishnu is relaxed about his new working arrangement. As someone working in the airline industry, he feels the pressure of current circumstances acutely, yet wears it lightly. Sometimes though, we sit together on the couch, with an ambiguous uneasiness lodged between us, like an unwelcome guest who didn’t get the memo about social distancing.
Over the last five-and-a-half years, we have embraced the joys and challenges of roving careers that have allowed us to live in two countries. But once in a while, a sense of foreboding creeps up. What if we are really like helium balloons, and the universe suddenly cuts us loose? Where will the wind take us? Will this drifting be our downfall?
For now, though, when so much is unclear and there is nowhere else to put our faith, we have to place it in ourselves. Since there is no magic bullet to turn back time—or indeed, to speed it up—we gaze at the high-rises that surround us in every direction and take heart from the fact that this moment, this day, is still ours. And hopefully, tomorrow will be too.
Vidya Balachander is a freelance food and travel journalist.