BENGALI COMMUNITY IN BRITAIN
The British Empire was ending its imperial legacy with the cost of both financial and collateral damages of the mammoth and colossal World War II. The indigenous population especially the male population was depleted due to the war casualty and new threat dictated the need for massive armed forces, due to the emerging superpower in the Russian Communist era. Huge shortage of workers to keep the mills, machines and the industries rolling to regain its economic power; rebuild the country to again reclaim its supremacy as an industrial powerhouse of the world.The cost of repulsing Hitler’s ill motives and keep the head held high the British nation has proven yet again a giant of a nation of ambition, resilience and resolve.
In the midst of it all, at that very crucial juncture of the Empire, the vast ex-colonies came to a great help by providing Britain with the much-needed labour force to save the economy coming to a grinding halt. There came and evolved a nucleus of a community who saw and envisaged a chance to venture out and sail for the unknown, to an unchartered territory to emancipate their personal well being.The harshest of all weathers, the foggy days, the cold nights, the misty snowy mornings, the clouded smog-filled sky where sun cannot penetrate through to throw its ray and shine,the unfriendly living conditions, far away from home, the loneliness , alien culture and practices and the cosmopolitan London and its industrial townships saw a new influx of migrants .
Migrants from the then erstwhile East Pakistan’s northeastern district of Sylhet. An epic journey began in the late forties to early fifties; some seventy years ago.Young school leavers educated, uneducated, peasants and village dwellers of that greater Sylhet region had the foresight to venture out from the comfort of their villages to somewhere that, they only knew due to the 200 years old colonial legacy a mythical place called’’BILATH’’, Bilath is colloquial name for England or the United Kingdom or Foreign - foreign for the vast majority of colonial Bengal was England. The Name BILATH was epitomised by a feature film by Dhinedra Nath Gangooly in 1921 called BILATH FEROT meaning Returned from England. A centuries-old legend, a myth, aspiration and above all the much-hyped glorification of it all.
Before and immediate aftermath of the partition of India & Pakistan, there were a very handful of people from the Sylhet region of erstwhile East Pakistan had the courage & adventurous mental mindset to take up jobs in the steam-operated ocean-going ships and cargo vessels in the boiler room as lascars. Those ships were mainly operating from Kolkata Port to England carrying Jute, Cotton, Indigo, Tea and Passengers. A few of those brave lascars managed to disembark in the various ports of the British Isles; the then capital of world’s black gold – the coal. The stories of those lascars and their letters back home were the only meaningful stories and information, amenities and scopes of opportunity this community came to know about Britain. Opportunities that could be waiting for a man to emancipate themselves economically. The economics took the better of them when the rest of the nation was reeling from the freedom of British colonial rule.
After the end of the war, the British authority needed a new labour force and they immediately thought of bringing in fresh migrants from its commonwealth. The referendum to opt out of India (Assam) to join in Pakistan (East Pakistan) by the people of Sylhet ; the plight of the people, loss of homes, loss of arable lands, loss of livelihood and massive social, religious and cultural disparity that the partition brought upon to the people; made a huge impact which resulted in issuing ‘’voucher’’ to allow new migrants to come and work in the UK and the rest is history, to say the least.
An epic journey that started for them who only migrated to UK for a very short span of time, ideally work as many hours as humanly possible, buy a few acres of arable lands, a nice small little tin roof with half walled bungalow-Locally known as Batton Houses - A signature house building style only found in the Greater Sylhet area ; which was evolved to withstand the future earthquake after the great earthquake of 12 th June of 1897 which in essence flattened the whole city within few minutes. In addition to that, With few lacs (hundred thousand) rupee in their banks will be enough for them to repatriate back home .......With that aspiration at the back of their mind, the journey commenced. Now it ’s the fourth generation after almost 70 years down the line the exodus has not retreated yet.
What a journey it had been indeed, little or no knowledge of the language, hardly could read or write, never saw modern machines, industry, mills and the society, and its intricate dynamics and it's functioning — those vanguards Bengali’s from the remotest part of Sylhet region which was full of natural beauty, picturesque lakes, rivers and pristine blue Khasi hills at the backdrop and the fertile green valley’s, signing the songs of Hason Raja and other folklores settled themselves in the most modern society of United Kingdom.
The Diaspora of those founding fathers of the present day Bangladeshi Bengali community in the United Kingdom never dreamt in their wildest of dreams that, their small footstep will one day turn into a giant leap; today the descendants of those founding fathers are residing as a British citizens in almost all the British villages, towns & cities, That includes England, Wales & Scotland.
Everywhere in Great Britain, a little enclave of Bangladeshi or Bengali is visible from the cities to the towns and small remote villages of the English, Scottish & Wales countryside today. The humble inceptions of new migrants is now sitting in the maternity of the democracy in both houses; the British House of Commons & House of Lords; the world’s famous parliamentary practices of governance. A legacy of democracy, an epitome of peoples’ power and governance. What proud achievement for those who took the initiative to venture out into the unknown. Bengali ladies have ornamented the British House of Commons seating upright as the Member of Parliament in; The maternity of democracy. What an excellent example of Women Empowerment.
Making an independent living and to become an entrepreneur and generate employment; the community has been successful inventors of the staple dish for the British nation – called Curry or Chicken Tikka Masala; No other migrant community could ever reach this pinnacle of achievement to make a cuisine as a lifestyle item of British society.
A small endeavour to make living and rolling out umpteen numbers of Indian restaurants up and down the country where the British passion for an Indian curry is served a day in day out. Today the community own more than 15000 restaurants, 4000 take away food outlets,1000 - 1500 Grocery shops the accumulative yearly turnover of over £ 5 billion (approx.), employing over 120,000 workers and staffs and chefs which also has given rise to other auxiliary suppliers and vendors.
The Bangladeshi community-owned businesses today serves more than 200,000 dishes of chicken Tikka Masala to the British public a year. At least 60%of the British Population eat curry on a regular basis and it is down the novice curry house owners from Sylhet who without any marketing skills or sales techniques made it possible – A huge marketing technique and sales and up-selling quality of the community; by being available in almost all parts of the UK and working hard, maintaining the highest of standard of quality at all times. Making it the most thriving business venture in the country. They have been very successful to reach this achievement par excellence.
The community enjoys a few salient superiorities from many migrants in The UK – one of them is this is perhaps only one community in the UK amongst many who can easily absorb its whole working population in its own businesses; i.e., today’s Bangladeshi community living in the UK need not have to look for any employment elsewhere-the community-owned businesses are sufficed to give them their jobs.
Just the other day; the founding fathers of this humble community were sweating and footslogging in the textile mills of Bradford, Liverpool, & Manchester, at the wet and cold brickfields of Birmingham and Bedford, Kitchens of hotels/restaurants and in the oily pits of car manufacturing plants and today their descendants of those are roaming in the warmth of a pristine panache’ of a Bentley or Rolls Royce. How the tables have turned – only turned not by chance but by the sheer sense of honesty, resilience, frugality, and above all hard work. A lesson many ought to try to emulate.
The phenomenal growth, the magnitude of accumulation of wealth for the Bangladeshi Bengali community has overwhelmingly stunned a host of people who were very mean and sceptical.
Yet the community of that colourful vibrant community is so humble and forgiving and which seems like an inspiration.
Preserving the intricate social cultures and the inherent Bengali customs practised by their ancestors and many of which are slowly and gradually evaporating in their own homeland owing to the influence of foreign and alien cultures. Yet, the UK’s Bengali community did not fall prey to those outside and still hoisting the flag very high in the age-old values and have become the standard bearers of that ethos and cultures.
They did not cave into the impact and have not become susceptible to those. Some very age-old practices which are shelved in the mainland Bengal are generously and seriously practised by the community in the UK. Sending seasonal mango and jackfruits to their sister and her in-laws houses by the brother(s) of the start of the summer fruit season. An age-old classic Bengali culture was often followed back home for centuries. The hamper laden arrangement of pitas, sweets, misty, gilapi, snacks and savouries arrive at the sisters’ matrimonial house which is observed like a clockwork.
What an amazing thing to see in the western world – where 5 out of 10 families are fragmented and disintegrated from each other-an envy for various societies of the world. The unity and the closeness of family ties are one of the most valuable assets of this community and which should be shown to the wider world as a showcase of family values. The fragrance of fellow feelings of this foreign dwelling community can easily make someone jealous, the internal community cohesion & camaraderie is another aspect of the community which is astonishing and above all their relentless, unrequited love for their homeland.
Once upon a time, not a long ago, it was a rare sight to see or find GP (Doctors) from Bangladesh in London apart from a few handfuls of them whereas these days it’s fascinating to find girls and boys from the same community are walking tall in the corridors of Royal London Hospital. One of the oldest, famous and busiest hospitals in the UK and in the world.
It was perceived once a dream too far, seems today it is just a normalcy of day to day life within the Diaspora-yes, I am talking about the participation of Bengali speaking people in the local and national politics in the UK. Up and down the country from London to Land’s End to John O' Groats (the northernmost tip of Scotland) – as the community is visible in the same way the member of the community is seen involved in the local politics. The local government system in the UK is seen as the important landmark of their essence of democracy. Today Bengali speaking inhabitants are ingrained into the system – there are at least 250 (circa) local COUNCILLORS elected by the voters in all parts of the UK making an awful load of work in the community building community cohesion, local services, and social services.
The main area of Bengali concentration in London is currently called ostensibly as BANGLA TOWN is a home from home, a thriving, vibrant, affluent area depicting a quintessential Bengali Bazaar. A feeling felt all the way, shops selling chomchoms, roso golla, hukka, bodna, dining in the auspicious of a Bengali restaurant full of Bengali speaking people with the elish macher jhole, pangasmach Bhuna, ketchki macher chor chori and kitchuri with aloo and begun vorta on a rain-soaked typical London dark dawn and walk home chewing a favourite paan with some misty supary and touch of hakimpuri zorda . What else can one find to wrap up a day out and to make a Bengali happier than this?
[Writer: Imran Chowdhury; a writer, Journalist & a Public Speaker. You can reach him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org]