x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Sounds of home

A little song and a little food from around the subcontinent and it doesn't require much imagination to feel back home.

Last weekend, I found myself in a rare moment of exhaustion brought on by sheer joy. For the past three years, the money transfer company Western Union has organised a series of singing competitions in workers' camps in Dubai. My friend and I arrived at the Khansaheb camp in Jebel Ali after a series of misadventures, including getting lost in the maze of workers' camps. After many helpful and courteous directions by bhaiyas, or brothers, who I rolled down my windows and shouted to, we found ourselves parked beside an unused building.

From there, two workers emerged dressed in their best: bright red shirts, slicked-back hair, jeans and polished shoes, which were promptly made dusty thanks to the sandstorm we created while trying to park the car. They told us we were in the wrong location and offered to take us to where the auditions were being held for camp ka champ (the camp's champion). We moved our gear from the back to the boot, and the workers took the back seats. Off we went, except the people in every vehicle approaching us kept honking and gesturing wildly. Before we hit the paved roads, and after almost 150 metres of driving on a dusty road, we realised that the boot had been flapping the entire time. Both workers promptly jumped out of the car to help find anything that may have fallen out. Nothing had, so we all climbed back in. They brought us to the door of the auditions and melted into the crowd.

We were in for a massive treat. It turns out Khansaheb camp is the defending champion, so the workers were serious about putting their best foot forward. Auditions take place in seven camps, and about 16 people are shortlisted. Quarter-finals in each camp narrow the list down to the best two people, who then take part in semifinals. In the final, the best three camp teams have a musical showdown on stage.

So here we were, listening to complete duds and absolute stars. They sang mostly Bollywood songs, and ballads about leaving loved ones behind or returning home triumphantly after a battle were obvious camp favourites. At the urging of the three judges, some of the workers sang "fast numbers" or perky songs that got more than 100 workers on their feet dancing, whistling and applauding in the canteen.

The grand prize is of course a grand sum of money (last year it was 10,000 rupees), but participants were further motivated to win for the sake of surprising their families: whichever team came out on top would, courtesy of the remittance company, have the winning sum sent to their families at home. As the evening set in, the camp was filled with the most delicious smells. It was like visiting 10 different regions of India. One man put it simply: "We keep the memories alive in two ways. Singing and cooking."