Portrait of a Nation: one of UAE’s oldest Indian residents shares memories of change


Maghanmal Pancholia shares memories of a country transformed and lives revolutionised with Ramola Talwar Badam.

[Maghanmal Pancholia, the 94-year-old chairman of Arabian Trading Agency, still goes to work each morning. Reem Mohammed /The National]
Entrepreneur Maghanmal Pancholia, one of the oldest Indian residents of the UAE, keeps a rich treasury of national history in his stories of life, enterprise and the sheer grit of Arabian Gulf people in the years before Union.

For the 94-year-old chairman of Arabian Trading Agency, who still takes his seat in his Bur Dubai office every morning when others of his generation may favour relaxed retirement, his early struggles contrast greatly with modern life.

Mr Pancholia recalls the thriving pearl business of the early and mid-20th century, how the shockwaves of the Great Depression rippled their way across the Atlantic from the US, into Europe and on to the Middle East, and how the trade in Japanese imitation pearls dealt a crippling blow to skilled and brave Emirati fishermen.

Adversity, he says, forced residents to work together and create other opportunities. This was the environment he encountered on arrival in Sharjah in 1942.

That was a time without electricity or roads, when donkeys carried water on dusty paths.

“Pearl trading was hit badly even before I came. Misfortune never comes alone,” he says. “There was the world depression of the 1930s, and Japan produced pearls that were selling at quarter of the price [of Gulf pearls]. It was a setback for everybody.”

Seventy-five years ago he arrived to join a family pearl business that had diversified into grocery stores, gold and money exchange, one which he would expand into textiles, wholesale food, electronics and watches.

Mr Pancholia followed a family tradition of making the UAE home, like his father who reached the Gulf in 1895 as a nine-year-old to join his father, who made that journey in 1860.

This was in keeping with a tradition of entrepreneurship founded by a small Thattai Bhatia community that spread across the Gulf from a village near Karachi.

They traded in pearls in what were then the Trucial States and across Muscat, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Ideas and initiative meant brought success in a time of great upheaval.

With razor-sharp precision, Mr Pancholia recollects setting up a company to supply electricity to Dubai in 1957.

He was later appointed director of Dubai Electricity Company, formed by then Ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, from 1961 until 1980 when the company was nationalised.

“I was one of three to four people who purchased generators to supply electricity. We supplied electricity to the stretch of the Creek, the market, to residences and the souk,” Mr Pancholia says.

Another lasting contribution was the Indian High School he helped establish in 1969 for 300 students in a dozen classrooms on land donated by Sheikh Rashid.

The origins of the school, still a popular story with the Indian community, go back to 1960 when an exasperated comment from a teacher prompted Mr Pancholia to rent a villa for students.

“The lady was from our community and taught six students in her one-bedroom apartment. When I met her on the road, she threw me a challenge I will never forget. She said: ‘Maghan, what are you doing as chairman of the Indian Association for children? I don’t have space; I’m teaching in my house’.”

This makeshift school moved to several villas as the student strength grew before taking up permanent residence on Oud Metha Road.

With energy levels that put younger people in the shade, Mr Pancholia wakes at 5am, prepares tea for his 91-year-old wife, and sets out for a brisk three-kilometres walk that takes him 25 minutes.

“I’m a staunch vegetarian. I take lots of salads, fruits and vegetables. I control my intake of sugar, salt and fried, oily food but don’t completely stop eating it. Too much of anything is bad,” he says.

Lalchand Pancholia, a radiologist, says his father’s serenity is a trait he tries to emulate.

“He is calm and takes decisions slowly, in his own time. Just by looking at how he handles the business, we learn to be patient. Even in a crisis, he had a cool temperament.”

The senior Mr Pancholia’s thoughts often stray to the early years and, glancing out of the windows of his office overlooking the Dubai Museum, he recalls the time before Union when the now much-visited museum building was a prison.

His thoughts also centre on the vision of UAE’s Rulers and their engagement with people.

“Dubai has expanded so fast. Many years ago Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai] had said we had only seen 10 per cent of the growth. We couldn’t believe then that there was room for more, but he meant it,” said Mr Pancholia.

“This country has advanced so rapidly because of the sincerity of the Rulers to create opportunities for a better life, to expand the country not in one direction but in all directions. It’s not just business but infrastructure, airports, airlines, hotels and now they are also flying to space.

“You need ideas and ideals in this world and this country has both.”

Source: The National