Abu Dhabi's Mangaloreans make a day of it. Last Friday, Wilfred D'Souza stood with a group of friends sipping drinks in the second-floor lobby of Abu Dhabi's Indian Social and Cultural Centre. Hundreds of local Mangaloreans - or Mangees, as natives of the south-western Indian port city sometimes call each other - were gathered around him to celebrate Mangalorean Day, perhaps one of the oldest unofficial holidays in the country. Every passer-by seemed to know D'Souza, whom they all called "Wolf". Speaking through a grey, bushy handlebar moustache, the avuncular 62-year-old explained the name's origins. "I left Mangalore and arrived in Abu Dhabi on May 22, 1970 to work for the Abu Dhabi Telephone and Telegraph Company [now known as Etisalat]. There were three Wilfreds there, so the English manager started calling me Wolf."
When D'Souza first landed in Abu Dhabi, it was still a Trucial state under British sovereignty, and was home to only a handful of families from Mangalore. D'Souza remembers those formative years - of the country and his community - fondly. At the time, Abu Dhabi only had two multi-story buildings; the rest were squat concrete structures with roofs of thatched palm fronds. "Dh600 was the salary, but life was good. It was simple life, a hard life, but we enjoyed it. Now it's better, but the tension is more," he says.
During his first year in Abu Dhabi, D'Souza met three other Mangees while playing cricket on a sandy pitch on a military base, during matches organised by an Indian army captain. Soon afterwards, they began organising get-togethers at St Joseph's church, which was near the Corniche and has since been demolished. Mangalore, like nearby Goa, was colonised by Portugal in the 16th century, and most Mangaloreans are Catholic.
These laid-back events ended after a year, for reasons D'Souza won't specify. But in 1972, he decided to start something a bit more organised, and had more to do with Mangalorean culture, specifically the celebration of Konkani, the language most Mangaloreans speak. "Since 1964 in Mangalore I was a stage actor and I also used to organise shows with Konkani singing groups and dramatics, and I wanted to do something like this in Abu Dhabi." Thus, the Konkani Cultural Organisation (KCO) was founded, and began organised annual Mangalorean Day celebrations, charging Dh15 per person and donating the profits to St Aloysius College in Mangalore.
Reena Pinto, another one of Abu Dhabi's Mangalorean pioneers, starred alongside D'Souza in many of the Konkani stage productions he organised, and which continued even after he was made redundant and returned to Mangalore in 1988 (he returned in 1996 to work as the head of HR for Al Bader International in Abu Dhabi). "I was always his wife in the dramas," she recalled on Friday. "So much so that I was crying at the airport when Wolf and his family left. His daughter asked: 'Daddy, is that your wife?' I always remembered that."
Around 1,000 people attended Mangalorean Day 2009. As Wolf held court with the community's elder statesmen in the lobby, unsupervised children scuttled beneath the tables and through legs, tripping over each other and causing an ignored commotion; people elbowed their way through crowds at buffets of chicken sukka and fish curry; "uncles" clustered at the back of the room, drinks in hand; teenagers who have lived here for years sought to distinguish themselves from their fresh-off-the-boat cousins by pretending to look bored - while checking out suddenly cute boys and girls they may not have seen since Sunday school five years ago.
On stage, popular Konkani musicians from Mangalore and around the Gulf performed pop hits and ballads; the men sported flamboyant 70s style suits with contrasting colours and oversized lapels; the women wore pastel saris or shalvar kamiz. The backing band played a shifting alloy of Portguese, Indian and even African traditions that could have passed for a spare version of Mexican Norteno. A Spanish-style guitarist strummed quickly while a keyboardist belted out a synthesised trumpet line. Only the singers were unmistakably Indian.
Rachana Borges, a 25-year-old who moved to Abu Dhabi from Mangalore with her family when she was six, grew up attending KCO events. "Everything was typed, done on paper, and was word of mouth. Now, it's changed a lot, but it feels the same." Borges attended university in Minnesota: "I didn't know any Mangaloreans - coming back, and this, is nice. But my Konkani's still not great. What are they saying in those songs?"
Ajay Fernandes grew up in India, but started attending Mangalorean Day in 1995, during summer trips to visit his parents, who worked in Dubai. The tattooed 29-year-old, who now works for an insurance company in Dubai, thinks the event should be mandatory for culturally adrift Mangalorean youth in the UAE. "They should have Mangalorean day every day. The children should come to know the proper culture, they don't know what it is." But as the Indo-Latin sounds of the Konkani star Wilson Oliveira blasted through the speakers, and couples slow-danced in front of the stage, Fernandes made an admission: "I don't like Konkani music. I prefer hip-hop."
* Taimur Khan