April, 17, 2019
April 8, 1961 is clearly embedded in the mind of now 81-year old Dubai based businessman of Indian origin Narain Sawlani who was only 23 years old then. On this day, 58 years ago the ill-fated passenger ship M V Dara which took off from Mumbai on a three week odyssey from Basra to Karachi en route the gulf ports sank off the coast of Dubai following an on board explosion and fire. The incident had claimed the lives of 238 people mainly Indians, Arabs and a few British Officers. There were 819 crew members and passengers on board of the ill-fated ship and some of the passengers were rescued. Those days this incident was considered as one of the worst peacetime disasters involving a ship at the sea and second only to that of the Titanic.
No, Narain Sawlani is not one of the survivors of the M V Dara ship tragedy. But he was an eye witness to the events of the aftermath of the explosion of the ship that burnt for two days before it sank. He saw the utter chaos that followed the ship tragedy and the loss of precious lives when people jumped into the sea to escape the flames when the ship was ablaze and it had impacted his young mind. Several passengers had lost their lives in the tragedy and many others were injured and had lost multiple members of their family. Having travelled in the ship many times from Mumbai to Dubai, the incident rendered a cruel bow to Sawlani as he had several fond memories and feelings associated with the vessel. Even if memories fade due to the passage of time and his advancing age the photographs he had captured of the tragic incident through his lens keep flooding his mind.
Home in the Promised Land
An avid photographer that he is Sawlani is in the possession of a rich legacy in the form of pictures and documents that give a peep into the bygone era. He made Dubai his home after he arrived here in 1958 when he was just 20. In an interview to the “Gulf News” recently Narain was quoted saying “Those who came on a ship to Dubai from India used one of the five steam ships Daram Damra Dwaraka, Daresa and S S Sridhana. We would sit five long days in the deck which was not an easy task. But we all left our homeland with a purpose. Dubai was the Promised Land and we came here to avail a better life. Back in the days, there was hardship, but we were ready to bear it all”. He also recounted the eye witness account of the events that unfolded after the ship tragedy and the help rendered by the Indian community in Dubai to the survivors of the tragedy.
The steam passenger ship M V Dara had arrived in Dubai on April 7 and was uploading cargo and embarking and disembarking passengers when a storm broke out. In the storm Dara collided with Zeus, another vessel and sustained minor damage. The captain took the vessel out of the harbor to escape from the storm. However, while returning the next morning the vessel was ripped off due to a massive explosion and ship caught fire. Several passengers flung themselves into the sea to escape the blaze and some of them were rescued by other vessels. According to investigations the explosion was caused by a deliberately placed explosive, a handiwork of Omani rebels whom the British troops had driven out in 1959.
Narain Sawlani who has spent nearly 6 decades of his adult life in Dubai recounts his tryst with Dubai. He came to Dubai in 1958 after completing his graduation and joined his father who had arrived in Dubai 8 years earlier. He recalls that he paid just Rs. 50 for his first ship journey from Mumbai and had arrived in Dubai after five days of sea journey. He worked hard and by the sheer dint of his fortitude and painstaking efforts became a successful entrepreneur. Radiant group of companies, of which he is the Chairman, is involved in trading, retail and services in Dubai.
A close knit community
Reminiscing his early days in Dubai Sawlani recalls Dubai had a population of about 50,000 people out of which about 2000 were Indians. It was a close knit community where everyone knew one another. He has a sharp memory and he vividly recalls the golden era of the mid 50’s and early 60’s in Dubai where there was restriction on imports and exports in the 60’s. Sawlani made use of the opportunities and worked tirelessly to build his multi-million-dirham business empire in Dubai.
“Those days, the largest contingent of overseas traders was the Indian textile market traders were the Indian textile market traders who had their shops as Souq Baniyas near Meena Bazar. So Diwali was a bank holiday and an occasion to visit one another”, recalled during his interview to the Gulf News. He also pointed out that as most Indians had their families back in India Diwali provided an occasion for the Indian community in Dubai to gel and share their joy and exchange pleasantries and gifts.
Narain was instrumental in organizing Diwali Mela in Dubai at the Indian Merchants Association that gave the Indian community an opportunity to celebrate the festival in its usual pomp and grandeur. It was attended by all including the British Political Agent, bankers, Dubai Municipality head and residents. As a result Indian community there did not feel the pangs of being away from their homeland and their loved ones during the important festival. Despite the passage of time and Dubai’s makeover as a financial hub of the Gulf, Sawlani has endeavored to espouse the purity and essence of Diwali celebrations. He prefers to spend Diwali with his family and also invites his staff for the celebrations.
For Sawlani Dubai is his real home and he grew along with the city and he minces no words when he says “the city is close my heart. I have a history here and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. My children have grown up here and established here. From a desert village to an urban city this place has grown massively and credit goes to the hard work of its expats and rulers”.
Narain Sawlani came to Dubai with an open mind and without many expectations. He worked hard and succeeded in building a business empire in Dubai even as he nurtured his photography hobby. No wonder these photographs come in handy to give us a vivid account of the city he has made his home.
I too have a memory from the early 1960s also concerning a far from comfortable deck class passenger journey as a student traveller in the heat and humidity of late July aboard one of the British India line ships mentioned in your article - the SS Sirdhana (not Sridhana), about which I posted the following as an online comment on a flickr page relating to that ship (https://www.flickr.com/photos/59985648@N07/5600714667, and which post refers too to that ill-fated sister ship -
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" arielofoxford 4y: When I had just turned 20 years old I traveled down the Persian Gulf on this ship in late July 1963 as a deck class passenger paying £15, embarking at Basrah and bound for Bombay, but disembarked prematurely at Karachi, stopping enroute at Khorramshah, Kuwait, Dubai, Oman, Muscat & Sharjah, but was not permitted to disembark at those intermediate ports, that privilege being only allowed to cabin class passengers."
"Throughout the voyage the ship traveled with its lifeboats swung out over the sides, and a 3rd officer explained that this was in case of terrorist bombing, as a sister ship had earlier sunk with great loss of life except for the officers! I have photos and audio recordings of that voyage."
"Ariel (Lionel) Moss, Oxford, 2016."
Do please bring the above comment to Narain's attention, as I have more memories etc of that voyage which I'd be happy to share with him should he so wish.