The Times sat down with ABK’s oldest married (ex) employee-couple,
As they prepare to bid adieu to Kuwait
At 21.6 percent of total population, the Indian expatriates’ community in Kuwait — or NRI’s as we are fashionably called back home — is the largest. Most of those, who came to the lucrative Gulf in hope of better work options, have had a five-year plan, which extends into several decades. Children born and brought up abroad, struggle with lifestyle difference back home; while it is open knowledge that many Indians procrastinate with the decision to return to their homeland, and often do so reluctantly.
Yet, for John K. George, and his lovely wife, Maria, the decision to return back to their native village not only came willingly, but also as something they eagerly look forward to.
Born in a village in Kerala, John followed his parents to Kuwait as a young boy of 12 in 1971, and has since, called it home. But in spite of spending four decades in Kuwait, both John and Maria, have a fierce affection and loyalty to their native homeland – India. “I never lost touch of home,” John said, who travelled as frequently as every three months to his hometown.
Traditionally, most offspring are known after their father’s/grandfather’s name, but John has established his own identity in his hometown, while living abroad. He gives credit of this to his frequent visitations that made him as well known in his native village, as amongst the Indian expatriate community in Kuwait. “When I go back home, I won’t be lost there,” he says, referring to the predicament of most NRI’s, who experience a tangible sense of displacement when they return home after having lived aboard most of their life.
An ex-student of Indian Community School of Kuwait (formerly, Indian School of Kuwait), John has been actively involved with Kuwait’s Indian populace and philanthropic work. He joined Al Ahli Bank of Kuwait in 1979, starting out at the accounts department, and later moving on to Operations, where he headed the payments section up until his recent resignation. “It was my first and last job,” reminisces John, who never once thought about leaving ABK in preference to another bank or company. “When I joined (ABK), everyone was my age-group, we were so comfortable, and it became an integral part of my life here. When I tendered my resignation, my boss kept it on his table for 40-days before taking me seriously,” laughs, John. Both he and his wife were offered a raise in their respective salaries, in an attempt to dissuade them from leaving, but money was not the criteria.
The Georges maintain that the only reason behind their mutual and voluntary retirement was their desire to spend time with John’s parents in their old age, especially his ailing father. “Basically, our priorities have changed,” says John. “I resigned, because my father asked me to come home while he was still alive, and that’s what I am doing. Is there a better reason than wanting to be with your parents?” he asked. That, and John’s belief that ‘one should quit while still in good health’, finally convinced the couple that it was time to bid farewell to Kuwait. In John’s opinion, “People should decide for themselves when they need to retire. It should be more of a choice that an inevitable conclusion.”
A former member of ICSK’s board of trustees, John is also one of the founding members and president of the Association of Indian School Ex-students (AISES) — the largest non-profit association in Kuwait that quietly, but keenly supports educational institutes in India, and provides funds for the education of underprivileged students, over the last 15 years. The AISES started off with 30-odd members and today, has over 1000 members. In talking about AISES work, John commented in his usual modest manner, “We are not about publicity, but pool our efforts and resources for causes. And we have some amazing sponsors, whose unwavering belief in us has been invaluable.”
Remembering Life in Kuwait
John and Maria have only the fondest memories of their time in Kuwait. They even worked for the same bank nearly 35 years. In fact, Maria mentioned they were the oldest married couple in the bank. When the couple met, John used to be avid car racer, “back when it used to be all about fun,” he says. He got into car rallying because of his penchant for fasts cars and Kuwaiti friends. In early 1980s, John participated in several local car rallies, and was part of the service crew for Himalayan Rally, but he quit the circuit a day before his eldest daughter was born simply because, he did not want to be cripple father to his children. However, his love for cars remains unchanged (he is a proud owner of a vintage 1960 Mercedes), “And that’s one thing I’m going to miss dearly,” he said, ruefully.
Like most long-time residents, the Georges’ Kuwait-life is significantly categorized in two eras: Pre and Post 1990 Gulf Invasion. “We came to know the news sometime in the morning,” John recalls of the fateful morning in August, 23 years ago. “We went to the bank for a week or so, but then grew uncomfortable with the situation.”
In early September, the young couple decided to leave with their two little daughters and some friends, first driving to Baghdad, then tenting up with other Indian-refugees in ‘no man’s land’, and finally, reaching Amman, from where they boarded a plane to India. “It was a harrowing period,” John exclaimed. At the time, like most expatriates, the Georges had not thought about saving up for a raining day. “The concept of saving back home was a directly result of the Gulf Invasion.” Eight months later, they were back in Kuwait, resuming their work and rebuilding their life.
According to John, Kuwait is the best place to live, in terms of security, amenities, subsidies and an easy-going lifestyle. “I have nothing to crib about Kuwait,” claims John. The Georges enjoyed an active social life, and company of good friends and when asked what they’d miss the most, they replied unanimously, “Everything! We will miss Kuwait, as a country.”
I couldn’t help asking John, why he hadn’t opted to emigrate to another country, as many others have? To which he replied, in an adamant tone, “My country is my country. My passport is mine.” Although at some point the idea did appeal to his wife, she assured that John was steadfast in his decision to return to India, when they finally packed up from Kuwait.
To the Future
The Georges say they have no definite plans hereon, but rather take it as it comes. Their priority will be spending some quality time as family, travel a little, but generally, take it easy hereon. “We want to spend time with our parents and daughters, and make up for some of the lost time,” the couple agrees together. But, there will be that settling-in phase first, which will take couple of months and some adjustments, and John is confident they will make the transition with ease.
John did reveal, though, that he was toying with an idea or two (perhaps, his own rally car?), but all of it will happen in good time.
As I was preparing to leave, John remarked that this interview for The Times was his first, and probably, the only one he’d ever give! He claims he isn’t the kind of person to talk about his life, which only reinstates his unpretentious nature.
The couple will be leaving Kuwait for good this weekend to be home in time for the X’mas festivities. “For the last 20 years, we have been going home for Christmas and New Years. This year, it will be for good,” they concluded.
By Shabana H. Shaikh