by Claire Chambers
In the 1940s, around the time that the British Raj was disintegrating, Bengalis were coming to Britain in large numbers. (Smaller numbers had travelled to the country from as long ago as the seventeenth century onwards.) Many of them hailed from Sylhet in what is now northeast Bangladesh. Some of these new residents had previously been lascars, working on the crews of ships or as cooks. Settling in areas such as East London's Spitalfields, Sylhetis pioneered Britain's emerging curry restaurant trade, laboured for long hours and with few rights in the garment industry, and worked as mechanics.
Sylhetis have made an inestimable contribution to the fabric of British life over more than three centuries. This is most frequently recognized in their association with Brick Lane, the popular road of curry houses in East London. And too often their contribution to literature is reduced to one novel, Brick Lane, Monica Ali's 2003 debut about the famous street and its denizens. I will explore Ali's text in a future 3QD piece. However, this article seeks to broaden out the debate to English-language literature from authors writing about Britain who come from across the Bengaliyat. This word 'Bengaliyat' denotes national and cultural continuities between East and West, Hindu and Muslim Bengal.
As I mentioned in a previous article, the first book written in English by a South Asian author was Sake Dean Mahomed's The Travels of Dean Mahomet. Although Mahomed grew up in Patna, he claimed to be related to the Nawabs who governed Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa between 1740 and 1854. He is often thus categorized as a Bengali-British writer. The Travels of Dean Mahomet is an epistolary account of his journey through northern India, drawing on conventions of sentimental fiction and Western travel writing. Written to an imaginary English 'Sir', these letters describe 'Mahometan' habits and customs such as circumcision, marriage, and death rites.
Although his book focuses on India, Mahomed's travels took him far from the subcontinent. From 1784 to 1807, he lived in Cork, where he married a Protestant gentlewoman, Jane Daly, converted (on paper at least) to her religion, and fathered the first few of what would turn out to be a family of at least eight children. Here he had a chance meeting with another traveller, Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, who was on a brief Irish visit in 1799 and was also an excellent travel writer. Whereas Mahomed cast his gaze eastwards to India for the benefit of a Western audience, Khan primarily wrote about Europe in Persian for his fellow Indians. Probably because of a withdrawal of his patronage in Ireland which created economic and social pressures, Mahomed and Jane relocated to London in 1808. There they set up the first Indian restaurant in Britain, the Hindostanee Coffee House, in 1810. London's high overheads and Britons' then timid taste buds meant that it went bankrupt in 1812.
Reinventing himself again, Mahomed moved his family to Brighton and began offering Indian massages, eventually being appointed 'Shampooing Surgeon' to George IV and William IV. Mahomed styled for himself a multi-layered identity, in which the Hindi word 'shampoo' (champo, from champi, 'to massage') combines with the European, scientific connotations of 'surgeon'. Indeed, Dean's grandson Frederick Akbar Mahomed (1849–84) was to achieve great renown as a doctor of Western medicine who pioneered 'collective investigation' of diseases through the use of patient questionnaires. He also discovered some reasons why people develop high blood pressure. It was recently reported that the most popular name for a doctor in Britain is now Khan, with Patel in second place, Smith and Jones third and fourth, Ahmed coming in sixth, and Ali ninth. This hints at one of the many ways in which South Asian Muslims like Dean and Akbar Mahomed contributed positively to 'making Britain'. What their lives illustrate is how settled, how integrated in British life Muslims have been for several centuries, and what great contributions they have made to the fabric of this nation.
Two centuries after Mahomed, we are witnessing an efflorescence of Anglophone writing from the two Bengals about Britain. In his 1988 novel The Shadow Lines, Calcutta-origin Amitav Ghosh was an early writer to explore South Asian East London in fiction. Before coming to Britain, the novel's unnamed narrator imagined Brick Lane to be composed of 'small red-brick houses jostling together, cramped, but each with its own little handkerchief-garden and flowers in its window sills'.
When he gets to the street in the 1970s, he finds instead that the urban landscape of the imperial centre is being radically altered by migrants. Few shop signs are in English, the narrator hears 'a dozen dialects of Bengali' as he passes through, and the latest Hindi and Bengali films are advertised. Fly-posters adorning the 'walls of aged London brick' show how this area of London is changing. The narrator sees a palimpsest of posters, where 'stern grey anti-racism' notices − presumably posted there by the predominantly white members of left-wing organizations − are overlaid by a colourful 'riot' of Hindi film posters. The narrator can almost imagine himself in Calcutta. People hurrying down the road cheerfully hiding their fingers in their jacket sleeves to keep warm remind him of 'shoppers at Gariahat on a cold winter's morning'. He is also amazed to see a shop that is almost an exact replica of one in Gole Park, but grafted onto 'a terrace of derelict eighteenth-century London houses'. The intermingling of Bollywood posters with earnest Marxist publicity materials, indicates that this space is socially pliant and moulding to the changing composition of its residents.
The unruly collage of flyers serves as a useful metaphor for the changing face of Spitalfields, the district of London in which Brick Lane is located. Spitalfields has a history of housing immigrants and refugees, from the Huguenots in the eighteenth century and Jewish and Irish settlers in the nineteenth century, to post-war Bengali migrants. Bangladeshis now make up almost 60 per cent of Spitalfields' population. Ghosh alludes to the layers of migrant history when the narrator's love rival, the British character Nick, comments that the local mosque 'used to be a synagogue when this place was a Jewish area'. In a review of Monica Ali's Brick Lane, Sukhdev Sandhu shows that the Jamme Masjid began as a Huguenot church, next became a Methodist chapel, then a synagogue, and finally metamorphosed into the Bangladeshi-majority mosque.
Jane Jacobs's research suggests that immigration to the Spitalfields area this has proved a far from liberatory experience for Bengalis. Overcrowding, home insecurity, and racial harassment have dogged Bangladeshi settlers since the 1970s. Gentrifying schemes to renovate the area's Georgian houses and large-scale development projects forced many Bengalis out of their homes or businesses in the 1990s, even though the same developers claim to speak for their interests. The meteoric rise of nearby hipster area Shoreditch is contributing more to the uprooting of South Asians from the area in the 2010s.
In 1978, the murder of a Bengali clothing worker, Altab Ali, served to politicize the Bengali community. But the British National Party and later the English Defence League and Britain First made Brick Lane a target in their far-right campaigns of racial hatred. The Left has also seen the tensions in Spitalfields as representing an opportunity to consolidate local support, and socialist organizations moved in, claiming to act on behalf of the Bengalis in the face of racism and the incursions of big business. In Bethnal Green and Bow constituency, Respect leader George Galloway was elected after a dirty campaign against New Labour's MP Oona King in 2005. This year, Bengali politics in Tower Hamlets came under the spotlight when the mayor, Bangladesh-born Lutfur Rahman, was ousted from his post. He was found guilty of electoral fraud, a charge he contests. Rahman's Tower Hamlets First party, established in 2014 and popular amongst many Bangladeshi Britons, has also been removed from the register of political parties for alleged financial irregularities.
Ghosh, then, accurately depicts how space is fought over by combatants with different residential ideals and competing visions of Britain. The Shadow Lines may be seen as an early precursor to fellow Calcuttan novelists Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart (2010) and Amit Chaudhuri's Odysseus Abroad (2014). While they don't specifically depict Brick Lane or its environs, these novels of the 2010s also demonstrate a fascination with Sylhetis in London and their material and spatial culture. In the post-9/11 political climate, there has been much interest in the way non-Muslim, white writers like John Updike, Martin Amis, and Ian McEwan have examined Islam and Anglo-American Muslims in their work. With one exception, less attention has been paid to the South Asian writers from other religious backgrounds who have also examined this topic. They have done so with a greater understanding both of Islam and the pernicious effects of deprivation, racism, and Islamophobia on Muslim communities.
Chaudhuri's quiet masterpiece is an often humorous, modernist slant on the everyday events of one London day in July 1985. As fellow novelist Neel Mukherjee observes in his Guardian review of Odysseus Abroad, 'nothing happens … everything happens'. The novel is focalized through the eyes of Ananda, a dilatory student of English literature. Like Chaudhuri, he is preoccupied by twentieth-century writers' focus on 'modern man − strange creature!'.
The latter has a 'retinue of habits, like getting on to buses, secreting the bus ticket in his pocket, or going to the dentist'. Ananda and his uncle Rangamama similarly contemplate getting a bus through London because they like the view of London it avails from its upper deck. For convenience, they settle on taking a tube to King's Cross. If readers don't quite witness the minutiae of characters' dental check-ups, they do learn of Ananda's frustration with European literary heroes who 'had no bodily functions'. Each morning, both Hercules and James Bond 'didn't bother to brush their teeth; they jumped out of bed in pursuit' of villains. Nor did these giants ever have to break off their derring-do to go to the lavatory. By contrast, we learn much about the physical woes of Odysseus Abroad's heroes. Rangamama once lost a tooth in a reckless altercation with some skinheads in Chalk Farm. He is putting up with the gap in his smile in anticipation of a health tourism trip to India to avoid Britain's high dentistry costs. Even the quotidian domain of the toilet isn't off limits for this unobtrusively experimental fiction. When Ananda goes to answer nature's call, Rangamama expresses an interest in whether his nephew is going 'for big job or small'. With wicked humour, Chaudhuri proceeds to depict Ananda's 'small job', as he aims his urine stream at a cigarette butt left behind in the bowl by his chain-smoking uncle.
Ananda, who, like Ghosh's narrator is from a Hindu background, nonetheless has 'covert Sylheti ancestry'. His parents and uncle came from Sylhet but moved to Shillong in India after Partition in 1947. They later shift to East Bengal's capital, Kolkata, where they 'gentrify' their Sylheti accents into 'standard Calcutta Bangla'. His parents never take Ananda to visit his ancestral district, a decision about which he has no regrets. Yet in London he feels some sense of kinship with the waiters in establishments like the Gurkha Tandoori on the edge of Bloomsbury. This is despite the fact that, as he ruefully admits to himself, there was a chasm between the two communities:
in prelapsarian undivided Bengal, … the Bengali Hindus were called 'Bengalis', the Bengal Muslims just 'Muslims'.
His uncle is charmed by the fact that the inaptly-named Gurkha Tandoori's waiter is called Iqbal, like the famous Pakistani poet. And Ananda is struck by Iqbal's accent, with its rural Sylheti inflections and newer overlay of flat cockney vowels.
In Banglaphone Fiction II, I will continue this discussion of the writing of Bengalis in Britain with analysis of Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart. From Bangladesh and its diaspora, Manzu Islam's The Mapmakers of Spitalfields (1998) and Burrow (2004) and Zia Haider Rehman's novel In the Light of What We Know (2013) also come under the spotlight. What I am calling 'Banglaphone fiction' is currently experiencing a boom, and portrayals of Sylhetis in London, their cuisine, and other aspects of popular culture form an enduring fascination among the male writers of this fiction, at least. Something rather different comes out of the women writers' fiction, so the final part, Banglaphone Fiction III will start with Brick Lane, moving on to talk about Sunetra Gupta's Memories of Rain and Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age and The Good Muslim. I will look forward to continuing this analysis in the coming few months.