Different Dialogues : Mr. Narain R. Sawlani

Professional Background: Chairman of Radiant Traders and Royal Gardens Centre, Dubai-UAE. Educational Background: Jr. B.A. from Jai Hind College, Mumbai-India.
Social Background: Trustee at The Indian High School-Dubai. Trustee at India Club-Dubai. Member-Managing Committee of Hindu Cremation Ground-Dubai. Avid Photographer. Author of the book: DUBAI CREEK.

The seed of this captivating interview was planted not by accident.

In a conversation with H. E Mirza Al Sayegh in the year 2013, he had mentioned in strength, about Narain R. Sawlani. In our discussion, then, H. E. Mirza Al Sayegh fondly recalled, ‘To help in the cause of our charity work, when we started sending sewing machines to Tanzania and other places, someone said it was better still if we send textiles along with the sewing machines. Narain Sawlani’s name came up and when he was approached, Narain Sawlani was willing to give the textile material. There are good, helpful Indian people. Hemchand Bhatia is another name.’

H.E. Mirza Al Sayegh, who first served as deputy ambassador in New Delhi in 1973, and later as head of the UAE Consular Mission at Mumbai from 1974 to 1976, never forgets to praise the Indian Community of Dubai. In fact, he has mentioned that there are among various factors to the (UAE’s) success, the Indian Community is one of them.

I met Narian Sawlani at public gatherings, and during our brief meetings, we both agreed that his stockpiled memories of coming to Dubai from India should be revived through the conduit of my Blog www.geetachhabra.com.

In conclusion, only in recent months, we got down to achieve our mutual goal, when, one very late afternoon, I began a racy conversation with 81 year old Narian Sawlani at his villa in Al Barsha, Dubai. From start to finish, he talked with immense affection of Dubai and also mentioned his oldest ties with India where he and his family have homes. He explained, ‘My mother Bhojibai came and went between Dubai and Mumbai – our home was in Dadar, then in Matunga, and now in Bandra. My first trip to Dubai was a sojourn, in my second trip, I decided to leave Mumbai and make Dubai my main home.’

When Narain Sawlani touched the shores of Dubai in 1958, the famed Arabist John Lorimer’s (1870-1914) recorded statistics held no more because by now, Dubai had evolved sufficiently, promising a bloom for the future. Lorimer’s Deira consisted of only 1600 houses and 350 shops. In the Creek, his estimation showed a measly number of 20 small boats – water-taxis to carry passengers between the two banks of the Creek. In Dubai there were basically 200 houses and around 50 shops. Now the base numbers showed a huge spurt as times had changed to a very vast extent.

By the year of 1958, large segments of Indians had found lucrative economic incentives for themselves to create roots in the UAE. Laws were liberal, not pushing demands on the Indian merchants who dealt in textiles and general merchandise.

From 1958 onwards, Dubai was going through an amazing change, which meant that in the developing economy, Government programmes under the leadership of the father of modern Dubai – H.H. Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum (1912-1990), were gaining momentum. He and H.H. Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, (founding father of the present UAE) were the two prominent leaders who for the good of the region and the people of the Trucial States were working hard to unify the political, economic and the social environment.

Upon his arrival in 1958-1959, Narain Sawlani was to witness a predictable progress in the developing economy of schools, homes, roads. Dubai electricity and water projects were in government programmes, amid other productive changes.

There was no doubt that it was an excitingly demanding time of transformation.

In an amused jollity, Narain Sawlani shared a couple of his earliest recollections with me. ‘You know, I came by a ship – in those times, the steamers were cargo cum passenger ships. It was a five day trip for me, from Mumbai to Gwadar to Dubai, and the fare was Rupees Fifty. In those days, Gwadar had no jetty, so ships used to halt mid-sea 4 to 5 kilometers from the shore. A launch or a big boat with oars used to come from the shores to fetch the passengers from the ship. Again, there was a halt to get into a smaller boat. Last and final way to destination was to do a piggy-back-ride on a bearer’s back holding his head. They were Balochis who ferried us on their shoulders to leave us ashore.’

We both laughed together.

Gwadar is a port city on the south western coast of Balochistan, Pakistan. For most of its past, Gwadar remained a small place whose economy was dependent mostly on fishing. For 200 years Omani Rule prevailed here, but after four years of negotiations, Pakistan purchased Gwadar from Oman for US$ 3 million in September 1958.

‘What was your reason to go to Gwadar and how long did you stay there?’ I asked.

‘Enroute to Dubai, I was in Gwadar for about a fortnight. My father with the help of my maternal uncle began business in Gwadar, in the year 1946. Their shop had textiles and sundry items from Japan, mainly.’

Narain Sawlani’s father, Ramchand T. Sawlani migrated from Sindh to Gwadar at the age of twelve. He was orphaned when he was a toddler, and now he was here to earn Rs. 8/- per month so that he could see his sisters married. People from Sindh were going to Gwadar and other ports of Balochistan and Iran. This is how Ramchand T. created a vital chapter of history for the Sawlani family in the year of 1923 from Gwadar.

‘My father spoke the Balochi language very well,’ Narain Sawlani said with a smile.

‘Do you have any relatives in Gawder?’

Narain Sawlani replied. ‘No. Not anymore, and when my father and maternal uncle closed their business in Gwadar in the 1950s, they decided to come to Dubai to settle. Trading was good because there were no restriction on imports and exports.’

Narain Sawlani reminded me, ‘But don’t forget, it was a time when electricity was scarce. Toilets were shared and were old-fashioned. There was no infrastructure of roads or highways. When our ship reached Dubai, there was only a Custom House where you showed your papers, and then you headed on to your accommodation.’

He paused at length, and then, narrated the tragedy of M.V. Dara off Dubai in 1961 – he remembered the details of the 5000 ton cargo-cum-passenger ship which sank with the loss of 238 lives.

‘There were passengers and crew who died. I heard the sound of the explosion, I saw the smoke, I saw a huge tragedy,’ Narain Sawlani recounts with grief.

He changed the topic and said, ‘One thing was there, the Indian community here was close-knit, and people knew each other. There were about 20 or 25 Bhatia families, then. In my Sindhi circle, I remember most men came without their families.’

For a fact, there is no doubt that the Sindhi community proved itself as a strong enterprising community in the UAE. They were sharp and swift to react to the new vistas of opportunities opening up in the Trucial States. It was obvious, men folk came here without their spouses and families because the day to day living was tough – water and fresh vegetables were sparse and expensive; telegrams were slow in functioning, telephones were not a common facility, and education for children must have been another challenge.

I was reflecting… the desert city had not been tamed, yet!

Narain Sawlani cuts through my silence and said, ‘Roads were not fit to have the saloon cars, but there were some Land Rover taxis plying to take passengers. It was only in the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese cars started coming when roads were getting developed.’

Enhancing my eyes was the floating sun-tanned image of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum maneuvering his sturdy Range Rover, through the wide sand spaces embracing his beloved Dubai.

Did Narain Sawlani ever get to meet Sheikh Rashid bin Maktoum? Yes he did.

In his own words, he described to me, ‘It so happened that above Sheikh Rashid’s garage were our rooms of accommodation. Sheikh Rashid often came to see his cars in the garage. Because of the close proximity of his activity, I was not only to see the Dubai Ruler, but was fortunate to experience the kindness of the great man who would shake my hand and ask me how I was doing.’

‘I’ll tell you another instance,’ Narain Sawlani calls from his mind. ‘The Indian business community along with the local people of importance was invited to Zabeel Palace. I got down from my car to go inside and saw Sheikh Rashid standing. As I greeted him, he personally escorted me all the way, right inside Zabeel Palace.’

‘So great was their humility!’ Narain Sawlani and I chorused together, praising the Royals.

Of course, with the phenomenal development of Dubai, Narain Sawlani’s family fortune grew rapidly by the years. In spite of the challenges he had faced, his business has thrived; he seems a content man viewing life as a gift of God – there is gratitude in his voice for the Almighty. As chairman of Radiant Traders and Royal Gardens Centre, Sawlani is a successful entrepreneur. Radiant, a Dubai group of companies engaged in trading, retail and services, has been in existence for over 50 years. He has built this multi-million-dirham business with grit and hard work. His involvement with social service in the community is noticeable.

Last but not the least, this would be an incomplete dialogue without sharing the fact that Narain Sawlani is an avid photographer. Photography is more than a passion for him. Currently, he is spending some sparing time, putting together the photographic work of his lifetime. As we sipped hot tea and enjoyed snacks, he excitedly talked about cameras and films, and how he was the first to import photographic equipments.

He told me with enthusiasm, ‘When I was ten years old, I asked my father for a camera which was Kodak’s Brownie Reflect. Photography was a very expensive hobby, but I was lucky as Dubai was a free port with no duties. So, I imported Yasicha Still Cameras, 8 mm Movie Cameras, and Movie Projectors of 8 mm films. At one time, I was a collector of stamps.’

For the most part, the interview left two points of impact on my mind. One, persons of Narain Sawlani’s stature are filling fascinating gaps between accounts, from settlers and rulers. Two, there is more than ample evidence of humility and wisdom among the energetic leaders of the UAE – and I toast one more time to the great Arab cultures.

Q 1. What has been the turning point of your life?
A. The turning point in my life was my decision to migrate to Dubai from India, leaving Jai Hind College in Mumbai and joining business in UAE in 1958 with my father and maternal uncle. It was always my ambition to become a successful businessman, so Dubai provided the opportunity to reach my goal. It was the perfect time to be in Dubai, as it was expanding the economy through progress and development with trade requirements that I could fulfill by exploring and importing. So besides textiles, we did business of watches and clocks, cameras and photographic papers, cosmetics and perfumes, jewelry and fancy items etc. etc.

It was the right decision of my life, to come and settle in Dubai for business, which was started by my father and my maternal uncle. I left behind my studies of Jai Hind College in Bombay where I was going to prepare for the final year of doing BA. The settlement in Dubai, not only gave boost to business in Dubai, but also, boosted my childhood aim to be a good, successful businessman. Dubai game me this chance.

Q 2. If you could go back in time, what would you want to do?
A. If I could go back in time, I would have paid more attention to my hobby of photography, and by capturing the photos in a more systematic way, with detail on important persons and events. The movie films I took also could have been more organized, by giving titles and keeping them, chronologically. Basically, I should have focused more on adding value to the photos and the movies I was taking.

Q 3. What are your future dreams?
A. My future dreams are to see my children and grandchildren succeed and accomplish their goals. So far, I have lived a happy and healthy life, and may God always give me strength and nature of being peaceful and happy in all the conditions that may come. I wish to leave behind a legacy of my life's valuable memories through my photos and writing.

Geeta Chhabra

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