One significant thing I have learnt and fully understood in the past year is the meaning of the idiom, ‘make ends meet.’
The name Dubai conjures up images of plentitude and luxury. It is where money is known to fatten every purse. It is where dream merchants readily feed people’s greed. It is where aspiring souls from our country long to land. It is where desires manifest as make-believe happiness. It is where life sometimes resembles a mirage, and sometimes a shamaal (sandstorm).
This place is believed to administer happiness doses to all. So, no matter what happens in the rest of the world and how tortuous the times have been elsewhere, life here should be plain sailing, right?
Not for all.
Ask someone who has been out of job for a year now. Ask someone whose first thought in the morning is about the last crumbs of savings in the bank. Ask someone who has a home loan to pay in the midst of it all. Ask someone who is skimping every buck and clutching at the tiniest chance to make an extra Dirham for the corners.
Circumstances now are grueling everywhere, but in Dubai, it is more than difficult, because life here comes with a premium price tag. Although not on a par with New York or Hongkong, life here is still a synonym for priceyness, especially for us commoners.
We, as in the husband and I, have always been people with limited means and contained needs. Even when he was employed, we had enough; never excess.
We lived comfortably, not extravagantly.
We neither splurged nor socialized.
Because the truth is, contrary to popular belief, Dubai doesn’t offer affluence of that kind to everybody. To a majority of us, it just offers a lifestyle a few notches above what we might have had back home, allowing us a few add-ons, which is why we stay put here.
Some things we enjoy here are unimaginable elsewhere in the world. By that, I don’t mean the scented weekends at the malls and the smooth SUV rides. I mean the unmatched sense of protection and the ease of living this place provides. It is what made us stick around too, despite the drying up of income.
But has it been easy to drag from one month to the next without the pay slip? Scarcely!
We downsized an already simple living to the point of shrinking our needs to the bare essentials. We hunted for deals and offers and settled for cheaper options to survive. We stopped eating out, which was a relish in other times, but is an indulgence in this time of dearth. There were dozens of other things we stopped doing.
Life became confined to our laptops — he slogging to get his new venture going , and I teaching students back-to-back, often to the point of exhaustion. What I once did for pleasure and passion became obligatory. We had to put food on the table. There was no other thought that drove me.
Never one to hanker after wealth, I now wished I got paid for all my writing. Yes, even for the stories that people lapped up for free. I needed money, damn it! I wished people spent on my book generously. I wished people didn’t take my work for granted anymore. I wished my bones had more power so I could stretch further and keep the meter running. But there was only so much I could realistically do.
Millions were going through worse unmentionable things, so you are better off, a few counselled me. Losing a job wasn’t a disaster; people had lost bigger things, I was told.
Indeed, I am grateful for being better off than them and I deeply feel for those who have lost more. I wish I could help them, but thinking about them will not steer our ship out of the storm, will it?
Of course, people are suffering all over, but empathizing with them won’t satisfy my hunger pangs, will it? If I must be sated, I must eat. And for that, we alone must plod through the crisis. Silently. Smilingly. Without a demur. Without giving the slightest wind of our squeezed-out state to anyone because our condition is just a ‘story’ to other people to comment upon. Cribbing and crying in public don’t help because our life essentially matters only to us.
So, day after day, we had to tell ourselves happy things. We had to pump ourselves up with powerful thoughts. We had to make sure we didn’t disintegrate. With great effort, we pulled ourselves out of the red zone of despondency and slowly learned to be happy in our frugal existence.
The frustrations were many, and we let them be, without fighting. Left to their own devices, they will wither and die, we believed. Yes, belief is a big thing when everything else looks bleak. It isn’t easy, but between crumbling to pieces and holding our ground, what should one choose?
If there is one thing that I am sure of, it is this. To see light at the end of the tunnel, one has to keep walking. Staying stuck will never bring us to light. So we continue to walk, feeling the pinch every minute, but promising ourselves that one day, we will be out of the tunnel.
As we go through this phase, we are also learning new lessons. About people, about ourselves, about life, about God.
We have miles to go, but today we are taking one small step at a time led by the light inside. That we have pulled through this far is victory in its own right. Small things have happened on the way that have kept us afloat. I would call them diamond dusts of miracles. So tiny they were that you would miss them if you didn’t pay attention.
Today, there is only one way to describe our life after a year of redundancy. Like a swan. Gliding gracefully on the top and paddling fiercely beneath.
(Dedicated to all who have been through hard times, to all who made it this far. Remember, we may be in this together, but we can walk out of the tunnel only with our two feet. So keep going.)