John Fernandes, an 81-year-old Dubai-based resident came to the UAE on the steamship, that set sail from Bombay Dockyard to Port Rashid in 1973.
The arduous journey lasted four days and four nights. Full of memories of Ajmer, carrying a bag and around 200 rupees in his pocket, the then 38-year-old Fernandes greeted a Dubai that looked quite different from the one he lives in today. The travel cost him approximately 350 rupees, a hefty sum back then.
Fernandes remembers, “The Shindagha tunnel was still under construction. There were no taxis available; we used private cars. The Sharjah airport was the main one. The Dubai airport, in comparison, was relatively smaller.” A moment later, he mentions a plane ( meaning mutton in Urdu), “this was the cargo flight that brought in mutton from Bombay to Dubai”.
It was on his first return trip that he found love with a Bombay girl from Kalina. The couple exchanged their vows on December 3, 1974. After a few job stints in the UAE, he joined the tailoring department of the Dubai Police Academy on January 14, 1986. Here he worked as a master cutter and tailor master and committed his time to creating bespoke UAE flags and uniforms for members of the police force and constables. “When I started my job at the first Academy near Safa Park on Sheikh Zayed Road, the tailoring workshop had about seven to eight staff working there,” he says. To begin with, the tailoring department had barely three sewing machines. The shift from sewing by hand to machine work was something he witnessed first-hand.
Fernandes says in those days there were hardly any tailors in the academy because the Dubai Police force comprised a staff strength of approximately 150 to 200 constables and officers.
Regarding the peak season for production, he says: “The busiest work days were in the run-up to Eid and National Day. Every constable and chief wanted a new uniform set in order to look their best on the celebratory occasions. I had to take all the officers’ measurements and make the final cut to the fabric. We also stitched UAE flags, especially for the police headquarters, on important occasions.”
Over time, he became a senior specialist. He was called ‘Master John’ by his peers and several of the youngsters who apprenticed under him. He fondly recalls a colleague, “Mohammed Ashraf was an excellent craftsman and a cutter from Pakistan. I really appreciated him and the value of his work. He was wonderful. Together we kind of ran the whole show.”
The art of tailoring and Fernandes share a long history. To begin with, he grew up watching his father spend hours in his tailoring shop in Ajmer during pre-independence India. A few years later, he pursued a diploma at the English Tailoring College, in Bombay. As fate would have it, the young apprentice took forward the family business. Due to his skilled precision and technical know-how, he was fondly referred to as ‘true fit’ by colleagues and customers.
A conversation with Fernandes is a lesson in humility – he sits calmly on a rocking chair, as his young grandsons run about the hall with Nerf toy guns suspended in the air. While he narrates his life’s story and talks of milestones, an occasional smile will dawn, devoid of any self-pride. The real sign of his craftsmanship, though, is his calloused fingers. He remembers meeting the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, former Dubai Ruler, at the Dubai Police Academy. Sheikh Rashid made several rounds and stopped by to greet the tailors occasionally. “He was amiable, humble and a very nice man,” says Fernandes.
With the office relocation to the Dubai Police Headquarters, Fernandes continued to work there until 2016. He received a certificate of appreciation for his outstanding commitment and for 30 years of service, from the Dubai Police. He finally retired at the age of 80, after several job extensions.
With hard work and determination, Fernandes has successfully built a legacy that others can only aspire to have. For the veteran, the UAE is home. This country led him to his destiny for which he is eternally grateful. As the union turns 46, Fernandes will look forward to his 82nd birthday, two weeks later.