Maniyan was a smuggler in Mumbai & Daman & Diu until he became the first south Keralite to migrate to Dubai on a dhow illegally in 1963
“My dream was to earn Rs 50,000. I had promised my single mother that I will turn our gutted house into a bungalow. I was just 17 then. But was not afraid of being a boy. I had the courage to take up any kind of risks. So climbing up a Persian Uru (wooden dhow) returning to Iran via Dubai by holding a knotted rope thrown from the board at around 8 pm in Daman & Diu waters was not frightening to me at all.
Every time, while placing my feet on the wooden dhow to get some push to climb up, I was failing. But I was not ready to give in. In a few minutes, I boarded the Uru.
I was gasping but I could see the stars in the sky. They were glittering like they were congratulating me. The successful climb and the feeling of getting near to my dream fulfilment of reaching Dubai made me happy.”
These are the words of Kunjan Maniyan, a 73-year-old Keralite, who dared to migrate to Dubai in 1963 when he was a teenager to make a living and support his family.
While meeting Maniyan at his home in Panente Mukku, a backwater village near Vakkom in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, the first thing he claimed was that he was the first person from that area who had migrated to Dubai on a boat.
Maniyan’s claim was confirmed by his friend Amanulla, a neighbour, who had also spent 40 years in UAE from 1972. However when Amanulla migrated to UAE, there were flights from Mumbai to the then Arab Gulf cities.
“Vakkam, Kadaykkavoor, Aattingal and Varkkala are known for people who had migrated to south east Asia in the beginning of the 20th century itself. Many had made money and a better living in Singapore, Brunei, Java and Malaysia. But the Arab Gulf was not on their minds. We can’t blame them either.
As oil was not found then in the Arab Gulf and they were just traders of pearls and dates, what was the benefit of migrating there? But the time when Maniyan had decided to migrate to Arab Gulf, oil was found and those countries were just starting to develop,” Amanulla said.
In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, the export of oil started in and around the 1960s. In Oman, it was in the late 1960s. However Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait had started exporting oil in the 1940s because they had found oil in the first decade of the 21st century itself.
But for the majority of the Keralites, Arab Gulf meant Dubai, their dreamland where they could earn Arab Gold (Arabi Ponnu).
And interestingly at that time when Maniyan went to Dubai in the end of 1963, there was neither UAE nor what we know as the Arab Gulf countries now.
They were called Trucial States, a name given by the British government to a group of tribal confederations in south east Arabia. They were called as Trucial Coast, Trucial Oman, the Trucial States of the Coast of Oman and Trucial Sheikhdoms.
The name was derived from the territories whose sheikhs had signed truces with the British government from 1820 until 1892 and they remained an informal British protectorate until the treaties were revoked on 1 December 1971.
The following day, six of the sheikhdoms (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain and Fujairah) formed the United Arab Emirates. The seventh Emirate – Ras Al Khaimah – joined the Federation later in 1972.
Since UAE was not a country when Maniyan entered there, he had a benefit.
“My first attempt to reach Dubai as said earlier was a failure. In fact I was fooled. After two days being on board the boat along with 40 other Dubai dream chasers from North Kerala, we were told to jump into the water as we have reached Dubai shore. We jumped and swam. But when we reached the shore, we all realised that it was not Dubai but Rann of Kutch in Gujarat,” Maniyan said.
“All those stars congratulating me and my happiness all vanished. We all were hungry. And there were only two of us from south Kerala. All others were from the North. They speak different Malayalam.
We couldn’t understand and that barrier was an issue too. We found that they just wanted to leave us back and travel to Mumbai. But my friend from south Kerala was a sort of gangster. He told the others that we should not be left behind.
They agreed and we all walked for hours to reach a railway station. We somehow reached Mumbai by train, again to be left in the lurch, struggling even for a tea, and looked for an agent who can smuggle me to Dubai,” Maniyan added.
Maniyan had paid Rs 250 then to an agent who arranged the trip.
When Maniyan reached Mumbai from Kerala, he had to work as an assistant to carriers who were smuggling liquor and other goods from Daman & Diu to Mumbai for his survival.
“A Keralite person was controlling the smuggling there. He employed me as an assistant to accompany women who were smuggling liquor and other items from Daman Diu. I was happy to do that and earn some money for tea and food. Those days, I used to sleep anywhere.
Nothing was a problem. So going by going to Daman & Diu frequently gave me an idea of how to migrate to Dubai on a boat. That’s how I found an agent, paid him and tried my luck. But it failed,” Maniyan added.
Following that failed attempt, Maniyan didn’t have that kind of money to pay an agent. However he was not disappointed.
“I was always looking for a chance,” Maniyan said. And the day came soon enough.
“I was in Daman & Diu. Somebody told me that there is a new Persian Dhow taking people to Dubai. I didn’t even wait for a moment. I ran to the shore. I didn’t have a single penny in my trouser pocket,” Maniyan said adding that he was confident of finding a berth.
To reach the dhow, the dream chasers must board a small boat and travel for around 10 minutes.
Maniyan also did the same. Maniyan jumped on to a boat and begged the sailor to just put him near the big dhow. And they agreed.
“When I reached the dhow, I just jumped into the water and caught hold of the rope, used my entire energy to climb up. This time I was a bit faster. I reached the board. In fact, I just fell on to the board. There were a few North Keralites. And the boat sailors were Iranians.
They asked for the slip, which we get from the agent once we pay him. I had not paid any agent, from where do I get the slip. So I lied that I lost it. They were not ready to believe me. But in a few minutes, when the rest said - let the boy continue the journey with us, they agreed,” Maniyan added.
According to Maniyan, they were served one roti, one glass of tea and a tumbler of water per day.
“That’s it. They woouldn’t give anything more. In fact, they didn’t have much quantity of food and water. It would take around seven to 10 days to reach Gulf shore. And a few more days extra if, the sea is rough. They must survive those hurdles. So they wouldn’t be able to provide more food than that,” Maniyan said.
Maniyan adds that those seven days were like hell.
“We would lie on the board. Most of the time we would be tired. Even though we, the dream chasers, wanted to get to know each other, we were all physically tired due to limited food and none of us bothered to know each other,” Maniyan said.
On the afternoon of the seventh day, the dhow reached the shores of Oman. The sailors told us that we should get down and then find our way to Dubai.
“I could see my dreamland. The land where I would work and earn Arab Gold (Arabi Ponnu). As the dhow neared the shore, those who knew swimming would jump into water first and swim towards the shore. I was among the first lot. Those who didn’t know to swim would wait,” Maniyan said.
When those who know swimming, jumped first and swam towards the shore, the dhow could get closer to the shore, allowing those who couldn’t swim to reach land from shallower waters.
When Maniyan and others reached the shores of Oman, the police were ‘waiting’ for them. They were arrested and taken to jail.
“We were given a roti, a glass of water and a mat to sleep on. The policemen were nice to us. But we were anxious because they were not talking about our release. None of us knew the language either but we were lucky. The next day itself, we were told to board a jeep which was heading to the then Oman-UAE border. At the border, they told us to get down and find our way,” Maniyan said.
Maniyan found a jeep loaded with dates. When he asked for help, the Arab driver was generous enough to take him across the border. Without a second thought, Maniyan boarded the jeep.
“I was feeling hungry. So I stole a few dates from the jeep. I ate some and saved some in my pocket for later,” Maniyan said.
According to Maniyan, the Arab driver knew very well where to drop Indians, especially Malabaris, in Dubai.
“In hardly an hour, we reached our dream city in our dreamland - Dubai,” Maniyan said.
Maniyan was dropped in front of a hotel named Deluxe run by a Muslim from North Kerala.
The hotel was a haven for those who made it to Dubai. The owner would provide food and shelter which could be paid for later when the men got a job and started earning.
“He was kind enough to give us food and shelter without money,” Maniyan said adding that unfortunately, he had forgotten that good man’s name.
The next day itself Maniyan started to look for a job. He was told that there was some construction work going on in Bur Dubai, which was some 20 km from the Deluxe Hotel. To reach there, he had to pay 0.5 Dirhams. He didn’t have that money either.
However there was a Keralite from North Kerala heading to Bur Dubai. And he had 1 Dirham. So he shared his money with Maniyan for the travel.
“Those days, everyone used to share money, food, shelter, whatever was in need. People were not greedy like today,” Maniyan added.
After reaching Bur Dubai, Maniyan found a white man sitting in a jeep and talking to Asian workers.
“There was a long queue. I didn’t wait for my turn. I just ran to the front of the queue and asked for a job. He asked my name, I said Maniyan. And he called me Tony. He said his name was Elden Chris and then asked whether I know carpentry. I said yes. He told me that I would get 15 AED per month as salary and that I could join work immediately. I didn’t know any carpentry work. But I decided to work,” Maniyan said.
Maniyan worked as a carpenter for 15 days. He realised that he would not be able to perform. So he approached Chris again and asked for a different job.
“Chris was a bit angry. But heard my request and gave me a job as his assistant. From the next day, I joined him on his jeep carrying the survey equipment,” Maniyan said adding that his salary was cut to AED 8. However he used to get AED 12, including overtime.
Maniyan was involved in the work of Dubai port, tunnel and dry dock construction. Maniyan learnt driving in between, became assistant foreman, foreman and retired as officer in charge with a salary of AED 3500 in 1988.
As Maniyan was called Tony by his boss Elden, he gave his children English names - Don, Dolly and Daisy.
When asked why he did so, Maniyan said Elden was the person who played a vital role in his life. This was his way of expressing his gratitude.
Maniyan came home in 1966 for the first time in a ship from Dubai. In between he successfully got a passport and his company provided him with a visa as well. He returned after his first holidays in a plane.
When asked whether he wants to revisit Dubai again, he says, no.
“I won’t be able recognise anything there now. And I am not interested in watching Dubai on TV either. People like me built Dubai. That’s enough. Nobody can change that fact,” Maniyan said.