This story goes back to my school days in Bombay, now Mumbai, where I grew up. The 4 storeyed building where we stayed had around 72 tenants. Each tenant had a home of 450 square feet that included a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom.The ground floor had an assortment of shops that had 2 laundry shops, 2 clinics, 3 groceries, a tailor, a medical shop, a co-operative bank, classrooms of a school and now to the central character of this story, the civil supplies ration shop.
The locality spread across roughly 30 plus acres was called Abhyudaya Nagar which had around 45 such buildings, and also had the Kalachowky police station quarters opposite our building. The nearest railway station was Cotton green. To serve these tenants, around 3000 and amounting to an average of 15000 people, we had 6 or 7 such ration shops in the locality.
Since this particular ration shop was in our building, in my running around the building during play time and my weekly visits to buy our monthly ration of rice, sugar, kerosene and sometimes wheat, I became friendly with the owner of the shop, who also acted as the cashier. His job was to check the ration card, similar to a bank’s savings pass book and give out necessary receipts after collecting the payment. There was another person to help him dole out the ration to the customers as they came in whenever any or all of the above mentioned commodities was made available.
The wheat, sugar and rice came in jute gunny bags on lorries or trucks. Kerosene used to come to these shops on bullock carts from the nearby Sewri Indian Oil godowns at a distance of 3 kms. A 500 litre tank was drawn by one bullock, and sometimes the 1000 litre tank that made its appearance to these shops were drawn by 2 bullocks. In those days, the rationing for kerosene, priced at 1.20 INR per litre, was anything from 20 litres for a small family for a month or more based on the number of members listed on the ration card.
Since kerosene was a scarce commodity and strictly available only in ration shops during the early late seventies and early eighties, people used to flock to these shops in great numbers whenever such carts made their visits to the shops. At such occasions, during my playtime that would start at 3 pm to 5:30 pm, I sometimes used to volunteer for support to give the grains and sugar to such customers, since the only man was busy managing to give kerosene and grains at the same time. The shopkeeper liked me coming, since as I was known to him, and did not mind me helping him and thereby increasing the throughput and reducing the waiting time of customers in the queue.
I never went every day, as I could now remember but made it a habit of chipping in only when the kerosene carts came and when the queue was more than 15 to 20 people. Some people especially ones from my building was only too glad to see me serving them. There was one occasion when an old woman from the police quarters who blessed me saying, “Son, you will be never be want of food in your life for what ever help you are rendering to us”. It was during those formative years that I learnt my initial customer service and support lessons.
Once, during my 9th standard, these consortium of such 6 or 7 ration shops decided to bring a lottery scheme for all the ration card holders in this area, and the shop owners went to each and every home and sold lottery tickets which had the first prize as black and white television and other prizes which I do not remember. During those times, since color televisions had not appeared, the black and white one costed as much as 5000 INR, a costly luxury item for most of the people. They came to my house and our shop owner asked my mother to buy at least 10 tickets each costing 2 INR to which she obliged, since she did not want to upset either him or me who was present at that time. 2 rupees itself was a big amount in those days, because you could buy a kilogram of sugar or rice or wheat at that time.
The day of the prize came, and I had memorized the lottery series numbers which we had bought. That day however I forgot all about it and after school, I went out to play cricket. The shopkeepers were going to each and every building and announcing the prize winning numbers on a loud speaker and when they came to our building and announced, was I glad to hear that we had won the first prize…
It was towards the late 90’s when I first set my foot on Dubai sands, thanks to my Uncle who invited me to visit the United Arab Emirates and have a look at job opportunities. This was also one of the primary reasons that brought most Asians towards this city right from the 70’s.
A lot of people have come here and prospered thanks to the enterprising nature of the founders of the emirates who never floundered when it came to trade and adventures. The rulers be it the great Shaikh Zayed or Shaikh Maktoum, always had a pulse on the people’s sentiments and the trade.
My arrival was in June, being one of the hottest months in these parts of the world where I was given a weather shock, just as I left the cool precincts of the airport. I had heard and seen the progress of the Dubai airport since childhood days, as the post cards carried a lot of pictures of the new airport that came up in the 80’s.
The network of roads was mind-boggling in the initial days, and I could not make anything out of the places wherever we went. I stayed at Karama at my uncle’s place, and places like Deira and Bur Dubai took a few days to digest. Also, got to see a few places at Sharjah in the first week, before I decided to hunt for a job.
Mornings were reading the newspapers to look for possible appointments that could match my skills, and call up my uncle at work, so that he could send them by fax, or post to such openings. It appeared that he was running such errands for me more than the work at hand at his office. Email was just catching up in 1997, though computers and the internet had made their appearances in offices. I remain indebted to whatever he did to help me etch out a career in the Gulf.
When I landed a job finally in a few weeks time, it was the public transport that amazed me, by their promptness and by their pickup and delivery of commuters at various work places in neat clock work precision. With just a few coins in your pocket, you could literally travel and cover the whole of the city. Wide foot paths made walking easier, and I would always take the option of walking at least a mile to my office from the bus stop. In summer, however this liberty was taken, only when I missed the bus which would drop me closest to my office, as otherwise, I would be drenched in sweat by the time, I reached in time for work.
Summers are very hot in the middle east but it is best experienced by tourists, visitors and natives alike in the months from June to September, where the dates on palms would ripen with the heat. The humidity was its best in the month of October during the switch over from summer to winter. When one used to leave an air-conditioned cab, you could experience the humid air, that would force you to seek the next cool place. In my case with my spectacles, I would have to take my handkerchief and wipe my lenses, before i could see a thing. It was like getting into a sauna bath. With a few years in the city, it was easy to judge the change of seasons. Rains rarely made their appearance sometimes they did in the winter months especially in the month of December or January, and it was so special that you would miss it if you were indoors and not aware of that lonely shower of rain. With an annual rainfall averaging 2 to 3 centimeters, Dubai was a city that got stuck with its name of the being an Oasis City in a desert. Drinking water came from the springs of Masafi in Fujairah made popular by the Masafi brand or from other springs in other places in the Emirates.
Getting a taxi was easy and you could jump into any make or model of your choice. Most of the taxis were Toyota Corollas and Coronas and Mitsubishi’s. In Deira, armed with a 5 dirham currency note, you could travel anywhere in Deira and take the ferry at Deira to cross over to Bur Dubai and get into another cab or a bus that suited you. The ferry trip would cost you just 50 fils ( 1 Dirham equals 100 Fils) at that time.
Most of the taxi drivers were Asians at that time, mostly from India. Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sometimes people would haggle or bargain with them before getting in after telling them the destination. This way, one could avoid the war of words at the end of the trip, the weather not helping much to the heated arguments in the summer months.
Come 2000, the Dubai Transport made its appearance with the Mercedes make cabs, the Sonata’s followed by the Camry and some of the best makes, and one could get into one’s car of choice, if one had the patience to wait for a while. With this, also came the meter, and one had to cough up more money to pay and slowly the waiting time also got factored into the meter calculations. When the cabs waited for more than 5 minutes, the waiting time started, which was a period of mental agony for the middle class.These cabs offered good comfort, the driver came in a uniform and pleasant manners unlike the earlier cabbies who would size you up, as if your stood in a garment store and he was your worst tailor to befriend.
All said and done, the old cabbies in their corollas and coronas were good natured, barring a few and were the transport messengers of Dubai for long years. By mid 2000, most of them had either joined the branded and newly sprouted car companies like Dubai Transport, Cars and Metro Taxi service or had switched to other professions while some had called it a day and left the land of gold to their own sweet native homes. Many a time during long trips to the other Emirates where work would take me, these drivers used to tell their stories about their loved ones back home.
With the advent of Emaar and Nakheel, the construction boom started, and in all roads, you could see cement mixing trucks plying along signifying the ticking progress. Dubai Airport got a ramp up with Terminal 2 coming up, and the metro got off to a construction phase in 2006.
As Dubai prospered, the savers and lenders of money, the Banks made their appearance with almost all the 7 emirates each having a national bank to its name. In addition to the government banks, there also came to the fore, some private banks from enterprising business houses as also foreign banks like Citi, StanChart, HSBC and Lloyds. The bank street at Bur Dubai and the bank street at Sharjah in the late 90’s got their names from the many banks that stood on either part of the street. As time progressed, slowly banks moved to their private properties at well located places in and around the cities in these emirates.
Dubai was to the asian nationalities, a land of great promise, just as the US was at one time to other nationalities all over the world. There were plenty of jobs in the construction, petroleum and trading industry. Moreover, Dubai was setting up a lot of shopping malls to give company to the lonely Al Ghurair Shopping Center. Slowly you could choose from Burjuman at Bur Dubai and Citi Centre at Deira with a host of major ones coming on Shaikh Zayed. Roundabouts gave way to signals, and the famous Fire roundabout and the fish roundabouts were memories. The cinema houses that ranged from Dubai to Deira Cinemas as well as the Strand and Al Nasr Leisureland and the Galleria at Hyatt got more company as multiplexes opened in the major shopping complexes that sprung up giving more choice and comfort. With time, some of the old cinema houses were either pulled down or got converted to business complexes. Hamriya Vegetable and Meat market was well planned, but because of the traffic congestion and difficulty to upscale and being difficult to access, the market got shifted by 2005 to another location near the Al Ain roundabout.
The shopping festival was another attraction for all residents and was a shopping feast that got the approval of all traders who participated in it. With festivals and their raffle draws that evinced a lot of interest at the creek park, people came from far and near to get a glimpse of the various cultural programmes and the fun and fair activities usually associated with exhibition fairs.
GITEX and other exhibitions were well received, and the diary of events started becoming full for a resident to be kept busy after office hours..
By 2005, the new downtown had emerged and the expansion plans filled up both sides of the Shaikh Zayed road with more shopping malls and apartment complexes. Accommodation and business projects expanded up until one could see the gates of Jebel Ali port. Previously a car drive to Abu Dhabi was lonely as one would leave the World Trade Center behind along with a dozen towers on each side.
By becoming a tourist destination on the world map and a trading port, with a couple of free port, internet city and countless hotels, Dubai has finally arrived on the tourist map with a lot of variety for a tourist to choose once he or she lands on the sands of the emirate.
Dubai is vibrant and one can feel the sense of urgency in expansion in the vision of the rulers which is so evident if one just looks at the projects that have come in the period from 2006 to 2013. The trail blazer projects be it the Airport, the Burj Khalifa, the Metro and the umpteen interchanges and construction buzz has made it clear that Dubai is a product of the well laid out planning supported by principles that have a deep-seated foundation and perhaps so because the city and all its inhabitants believe in hard work and progress for all. But for its founders, it is still a work in progress…
I had no dreams to be big, though sometimes I felt, I could at least buy a bicycle when I grew up, to tread on the beaten path by many a person. But today, I have so much with me, I can share some for the needy who is not so bountiful in life as I am.
I worked in a bountiful junk store, that had rusted items for sale and all hard toil and a breaking back could only get me a meager pay and some sidekicks from the grumbling keeper.
One day, a disheveled guy came in, counting his coins, looking for an axe. It was he who introduced me to small time savings. Little did i know that day, when he stepped in as a fatherly figure, he would teach me to save for and sustain in difficult times in his own classic way. He would come now and then to the store, looking for odd things, and sometimes with a bag of rice, hanging on his shoulder, when one day, I thought of trailing him and followed him at a distance by the pine forest, to find that he lived alone in a make to do hut.
With a few books, that I had read from the junk store, he resembled a person like Robinson Crusoe. He would put a pot, scour some rice with his palm, and watch it disappear into a rumbling pot that sounded like a hot spring. He would eat the meager stuff with gusto, stretch himself for a while, and then wander out in the woods for firewood and what things, only time could guess on his return. He resembled a Goliath laden with firewood and fruits when he used to come back from those outings.
He had a strong body, now worn out with age as were his boots. I wondered who he was, living a lonely life and away from society. What could have caused him to be in such a state with a heap of clothes, and hanging wrinkles around his neck. Sometimes, I took him to be a Rip Van Winkle, when he stretched himself near his dwelling. A kerchief wound over his neck, he would look all around, as if someone might follow him. What was that he feared, thieves or ghosts? my little mind would always wonder those days.
Was he a pirate lost and shipwrecked and had come to the coast, and could he have some treasure hidden like the fugitive Joaquin Murrieta of the California gold? Always, he carried a small purse, tied to his worn out belt with wooden twigs. He would count it like a bead string, now and then, and with a smile, and sometimes a sigh he would tie it and look around with fear and sometimes at me, who was lost in gazing at him, whenever he made such visits to the store.
In spite of all this, at the store, he would ask me how much had I saved, for the future was bleak with scavengers and vultures bound to take your treasure and casting you away like rusted junk. He would address me as, “Son, how much have you saved today?”, to which I would reply something like 50 cents. But he had no time to listen to my replies or enquiry, as he got lost as soon as it seemed, he looked sane. For a week, in spite of my busy schedule, I noticed his absence one day, and went searching for him at his house near the woods of pine. He was not to be seen there. Fearing the worst, I searched for him at some distance in the thick woods, but fear got the better of me, and I had to beat a hasty retreat back.
The next day, I happened to take my shop owner to a nearby medical camp to help him tide over his fever that had got aggravated. When we were leaving after getting the medicine, I saw our man, on one of the hospital beds. I rushed in and inquired of him, but as always, he looked lost, and was murmuring something. I could not stay there for long, since my owner was calling me, and had to rush to assist him on the way back home. In the evening, I rushed back to the camp, where i saw the doctor and asked him, what was it, that caused my hero to seek medical attention. The doctor looked grave, and said that it was too late to save him, since he was dying of some condition, that i could not understand at that time. I went up to his bed, where he was lying, with his hand on his shillings bag, which was shaking on his shivering. The doctor came and stood beside him and said. He is truly a remarkable person, never cries in pain, in spite of the pain he feels, and always has a smile before he gets lost in his own world. He even paid me for my services from his meager store of coins in his bag. Somehow, I couldn’t take it and gave it back to him, fearing that he would lose his life, on losing his precious treasure.
Every day for the next few weeks, I used to visit him in the evening, and became good friends with the doctor. Every day, when I was at his bed, he used to ask me with a smile, “Son, how much have you saved today?”. To show him my daily savings, I would take the coins with me and show it to him, thinking that would help him to distract himself from the pain. One day, as per the doctor, my fatherly figure had spent all his savings in his bag to buy sweets to distribute it among the sick in that camp. I was moved as was the doctor, for to us, during this period, his bag had become significant, something larger than life, and this act of his meant, he was giving away his life. Fighting back tears, I left him quite late in the night, and was terrified by the darkness on the way back to my shed next to the store.
That was the last day, I heard him asking me about my savings, for the next day, the doctor gave me the sad news and asked me, if I wanted to see him for a last time. I declined the offer, since I wanted him to be seen asking his usual question , “Son, how much have you saved today?”.
Cotton Green if you are hearing it for the first time is a railway station on the harbour line that plies through Mumbai..Is it green with Cotton? You might ask. It seems that the name was coined because of the Cotton Exchange building in the east that came up in 1924 and the sprawling warehouses that used to store the grains from the goods rail road. That is where we grew up in the 70’s. Most of the buildings in the Abhyudaya nagar comprised of 4 storeyed ones being home to atleast 90 tenants in each. The ground floors of some of them had shops. In the 70’s Cotton Green was a pretty sight. The bullock carts carrying kerosene and ice blocks, the kulfiwalas(ice cream vendors) and the salt vendor all on hand pulled carts. Cars were a rarity so as to say even though you had good roads everywhere, the big sprawling mota (means big in marathi) maidan now renamed to Shahid Bhagat Singh maidan where good cricket tournaments were held. During the summer vacations, you could see atleast 30 active cricket pitches where different groups drawn from the various buildings around used to play. If not attentive you would be fielding for a team other than yours, not to speak of the hits you used to get from the various balls from all quarters. During the rainy season, the ground would be transformed to football playing ground. During a long lasting shower, this could become a mixture of fine clay, that one get the inclination to become a potter.
Where is Cotton Green? It is on the postal radar 400 033 and this article is meant to be a short guide to Cotton Green. The roads in Cotton Green used to get flooded during torrential rains causing us to wade in the waters. The main road parallel to the Cotton Green railway station used to resemble a raging river especially when trucks plied through the water way. Those were pretty and sometimes horrible sights, to memorise, especially when some of us use to fall struck by such generated ‘tidal waves’.
There were a lot of colonies in this area, a great community of people living in M.H.B colony, Bombay dock labour colony (BDLB), Bombay Port Trust quarters, the Police quarters and so on. Since most of the buildings had atleast one of our school mate staying, the whole area of around 6 square kilometers used to be one big playground. There were instances of parents sending out other kids as patrols to locate their wards.
Notable places included the Cotton Exchange buildings standing as ramparts of the olden British era, the popular soothing Ram Temple, The inaccessible Air Force station in Cotton Green east. Towards the back of the cotton exchange was the ship container yard where we used to play and study. In fact the godown or the so called warehouses areas had study groups where some members including me used to be seen perched on trees and studying. Come exam season, you would see atleast 100 plus students studying either sitting, walking or as said earlier, in trees or sitting on the old platforms for goods trains in the ware houses section. We used to walk up to the next station – Reay Road while studying. Every day we used to walk atleast 4 kilometers.
The Abhyudaya Education Society High School, Ahilya Vidya Mandir, The Shivaji Vidyalaya and the Municipal School were the most prominent schools in the Cotton Green area, from where most of us did our education.
The most prominent festivals were Ganesh Utsav, Janmashtami, Diwali and Holi. Abhyudaya Sarvajanik Ganesh Utsav Mandal and the one in the Cotton exchange now referred to as Cotton cha Raja, were the most prominent Ganesh mandals. We were close to Lalbaug where we had Lalbaug cha Raja and Ganesh Galli at a distance of 15 minute walk.
Famous Family Doctor was Dr. S.R. Pandit who used to commute from dadar area and was always present in his clinic at Building 33 at sharp 9:00 AM. He should have treated atleast more than 10000 patients in his time in our area. I recall, he was one of the very few persons of that time who owned a car. A blue Premier Padmini.
Another Doctor was Dr. Hegde at Abhyudaya Nagar at his Dental Clinic. Over the years, the dental specialist has taken good care to root and canal himself among the local community.
The Lalit Kala Bhavan at Cotton Green came in the early eighties thus creating one more avenue for pastime. Another one was the nearby Jijamata gardens at Byculla where we used to go even without slippers even though it was a good 30 minute walk. Sometimes most of us children used to come down to play without footwear and take a decision there and then to visit “Rani baug” as it was called in those days, the moment we had some money with us. The entry fee was only 10 paise at that time.
During our walk in those hot afternoons, we had to run or jog, as the smooth tar resembled burning coals atleast for our tender feet. In the summer we used to trail the bullock carts carrying ice, so that the vendor when he used to remove the saw dust and cut the ice with his knife, we used to collect the pieces and gobble them up.
We were also welcome/unwelcome visitors to wedding parties in and around Abhyudaya Nagar, especially to savour the ice cream and the cool drinks that were served. I rarely remember of having ventured deep inside the reception hall to see the bride or the groom during those parties.
For long term residents and people looking out for traders in Cotton Green this might come handy to relive nostalgic memories..
Ration Shops, especially, the one in Building 33 and 32 on Shrikant Hadkar Marg was always busy with queue of about atleast 50 people especially when the kerosene cart drawn by bullocks from Sewri Oil terminal used to make their port of call. During my school years, i used to chip in helping the dealer dole out grains especially when his only assistant had his hands full.
Dinesh Medical Stores was another big medical shop in those days and looked very neat as all medicines and other items were well arranged, and the assistants at the store looked professional.
2 Irani restaurants dotted the G.D Ambedkar junction to Shrikant Hadkar marg. It was a nice joint with rickety chairs and marble tops and most of us would order bun maska and lemon soda. The lemon soda was a combination of good old days Dukes Lemonade with a soda. This combination was enough for a gang of 3 or 4. Tea, also ordered as cutting chai was popular for a quick meeting between comrades, be it college mates or medical representatives.
Amar Opticians & Watch Co. was always a shop to watch at, especially when things could go wrong with your time pieces or wrist watches or clocks.
Tasgaonkar Egg & Chicken Shop on Shrikant Hadkar Marg(Road) was a favourite place to shop for eggs and chicken.
Metro Stores was a good place to shop for school stationery and books, especially at night, when we discovered to our horror, that one of our notebooks was full, or the ink pot was empty.
Town Stationary another shop close by to Metro that you could depend on, for school stationary items, especially text books.
Pals Hotel on G.D Ambedkar Marg the only hotel at that time and still standing.
Mumbai Photo frames on G.D Ambedkar Marg(Road) was a favorite haunt for religious people to frame their favourite pictures or marvel at the photos of gods and goddesses..
Laxmi Jewellers another favourite place for shoppers of gold and silver jewellery..and
if you had trouble reading this blog, it is time you visited Amar Opticians on Shrikant Hadkar Marg.
Thanks for reading, and let me know your comments 🙂