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.