‘Bengal in London’s East End’ by Sanjukta Ghosh
The celebration of Bengali history in East End conjures up a picture different to how we imagine the community gleaned from the pages of a widely read fiction Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, where the nostalgic memory of Bangladesh’s paddy fields fuses with life’s chores in the East End. Amidst the iconic curry houses marking out the generation of food entrepreneurship and labour of Britain’s Bangladeshi community, the streets near the Whitechapel underground have seen a recent surge in cultural venues. A newly decked hub of community culture stands atop adorning the street life of the general Bangladeshi community that carries the tag of several million pounds investment in library and learning services in Tower Hamlets at a time of nation-wide cuts. The iconic building of the Idea Bookstore on Whitechapel-road (2005) is the new site of secular literature and a meeting point for the curious literary minds. A few steps down the historic Whitechapel-road, one finds another cultural venue the Brady Arts and Community Centre where the week-long celebration of Bengal history was inaugurated, while other events took place in Whitechapel’s Idea.
Brick Lane Circle organised the Sixth Annual Bengal History Week 17-26 October 2015 to generate greater levels of interest in the learning of the history of Bengal. The forum introduces historians and scholars to new audiences in non-academic settings, to stimulate debates from popular perceptions of history. The conference is in line with Brick Lane Circle’s wider aim to reach out to the young learners, encouraging them to comprehend shared histories, exchange knowledge and experiences with each other and spread this learning ethos among the East London community in particular. The forum also invites speakers from wide-ranging backgrounds such as distinguished and future scholars, fiction writers, entrepreneurs and students. They talk about their research, share experiences of reading historical texts, their understanding of historic landmark events and most importantly to discuss in an informal setting, the changing contours of Bangladeshi identity in Britain in the light of historical circumstances. Many SOAS students and lecturers attended the discussions and presented their papers.
While recounting her experiences to write plays in Bengali in the diaspora, the writer Ketaki Kushari Dyson mentioned the importance of such a forum for a community that strives hard to make its cultural presence felt in multi-cultural Britain. A few years ago, she talked about the difficulty to establish the vernacular market for plays emerging from ethnic minority authors, even though the cause is just and worthwhile. Today such opportunities are fully explored in annual week-long community literary and musical events. The Brick Lane study group starting from 2010, gather to relive the implications of historical events such as the Battle of Plassey in 1757 when one of the world’s largest and first global multi-national corporate giant the East India Company established its political roots in undivided Bengal. The hidden stories of the Company remain intimately woven with some of the current entrepreneurial ventures of the Bengali community living in Britain. The thriving curry houses shadow the spirits of a successful historic spice trade; the fancy lace dresses adorning the royal costumes of the Victoria and Albert Museum reminds one of the traditional textile labours of Bengal. Similarly, the legacy of maritime history in Greenwich is remarkably close to shipbuilding technology transferred from Britain to the Bay of Bengal – feeding into some of the latest business ventures in Bangladesh’s shipbuilding industry. The histories of shared ventures and values are remembered during question and answer sessions, book readings, book launches, workshops, visuals, an exhibition of artefacts, music and other forms of cultural expressions in an informal ambience representing the quintessential Bengali ‘adda’ or ‘charcha’ that is intensely aesthetic and self-introspective.
The study circle attracts populism and critical inquiry into the political past, without closing the door to apparently biased public opinion. One of the organisers claimed that they will not stop one from expressing opinion irrespective of all political and religious shades. Brick Lane Circle endorses freedom of expression in a way quite different to how one would articulate sitting at Dacca University. Prof Mushtaq Khan from SOAS made this precise point with an evocative and passionate plea to understand the legitimacy of borders based on the logic of electoral politics between India and Bangladesh. Such a political reality is best acknowledged without subjective emotions and religious fervour that is perhaps possible in one corner of London than it would be in Bangladesh. The informality of space and freedom of dialogue attracts graduate students from the universities of East London. Shamea Y. Mia had written to me about her first experiences of the Brick Lane Circle as a speaker.
I had attended one or two events as a spectator, which ranged from discussions of historical Nawabs to contemporary understandings of borders and an eclectic mix of cross-border Bengali stories. During the week- long dialogue, the rapt audience paid close attention to documented histories of Bengal’s shaping of contemporary geography and politics (implying the distinction here from fabrications and ideologically driven propaganda). They consisted of interested listeners, the academic and we were even graced by curious children – turning the atmosphere to one of creativity…
It is important for older children to witness these moments of debate with their families. I asked a mother as to why she felt the need to bring her young boy to these meetings. She replied: ‘It was to open his mind to where he belongs and why he is here in the UK’. Often they do not understand this corner of British Bangla town brimming with both the old and the younger generation that remains demarcated as a replica of Bangladesh’s neighbourhood. It is important to break the image of isolation and dwell on the historical memory of Britain and Bengal as connected entities. To this end, Brick Lane meetings serve to reconnect the existing ambivalence in Muslim identity with the past and raises compelling questions as to what the Bengalis achieved as the immigrant minority through the decades. These issues will form the core of its upcoming conference that will ‘explore the challenges experienced, strategies adopted and successes achieved by British Bangladeshis towards entering the mainstream sectors of British life’. The 6th Annual Conference by Brick Lane Circle on the “Story of Bangladesh and Bangladeshi People, at Home and in the Diaspora” will be held on Saturday 30 April 2016 to mark 45 years of the birth of the country. The conference aims to develop a better understanding of the development and progress made by the people of the new country, who have settled in Britain, since its birth in 1971. The conference is scheduled at a time when the existing barriers of cultural integration among the British Muslims are inflated to serve the political goal of combating radicalisation.
Sanjukta Ghosh is a Research Associate at the SOAS South Asia Institute. Her research focuses on Modern South Asia from the nineteenth century to the present day, with a particular interest in the Bengal Presidency, modern West Bengal, and Bangladesh.