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Bangladeshi Community Centre. - Image :www.bbc.co.uk

A Glimpse of the UK Bangladeshi community

Saturday September 09 2006 13:46:07 PM BDT

Md. Anwarul Kabir, UK

In 1925, an early settler had been hungry, thirsty, cold and lost in London. He was desperately looking for his own people. He asked a policeman for help. The policeman replied: ‘I don’t know. You better go on until you smell curry.’”

This quotation is from Adams Caroline’s book, titled: “Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers,” on the sub-continental settlers in the UK. I am not quite sure how long the gentleman had to walk before meeting his own people as at that time there were not many sub-continental restaurants around.

But in time, especially after the Second World War, the scenario has changed dramatically. Nowadays, if you pass through almost any city or town in the UK—whether on foot or by car—and if your sense of smell is moderately sharp then the exotic scent of sub-continental food is almost certain to tickle your nostrils.

In fact, during the last three decades, the food habits of the British people have changed too. Some years ago, a survey carried out by the Daily Mirror found that chicken tikka had driven out fish and chips, replacing what was for a long time the most popular dish in the UK. This popular food in Britain, chicken tikka, is of course cooked in so-called “Indian” restaurants.

Chicken tikka, chicken korma, vindaloo, madras, and so on, are by now so popular that even the most prestigious dictionaries include these names as English words in their latest edition. Day by day the number of curry-hackers is increasing. To go out at weekends is in most cases synonymous with going for ‘an Indian’ at some point in the evening.

The UK without curry houses? Many people would rather die than face that horrible reality. One industry survey shows that each week three million people eat at Indian restaurants, spending around GBP 5 billion a year. The earnings from this industry are around GBP 3.5 billion annually.

The question is what, or who, lies behind the chicken tikka? What is the reality behind the facade of the chintzy Indian restaurants? Where have they come from? Amazingly, most native British people do not know the answers. A survey, conducted by the author of this article on the customers of the “Indian” restaurants in Swansea, UK, suggests that even now more than 60% people eating curries and chicken tikkas have no real idea.

Among the interviewees of this survey, 27% believed that Swansea’s curry houses are run by Indians, 10% thought Pakistanis, and17% admitted they were confused. Less than half, 46%, gave the right answer. Out of the estimated 8,500 so-called Indian restaurants in the UK about 90% are owned and run by Bangladeshis. Most of the workers, even those in restaurants run and owned by Indians or Pakistanis, are Bangladeshis.

Why is it that so many people are still not aware of the massive involvement of Bangladeshis in the UK curry business? Part of the reason is historical. Pioneer Bangladeshi restauranteurs first opened their restaurants when Bangladesh was still a part of British India and, therefore, called them “Indian.” The end of British rule in the Indian sub-continent in 1947 saw the emergence and formation of two independent states, India and Pakistan. Pakistan was divided into East and West wings. For obvious reasons, at that time, the people of this region (i.e. East Pakistan) were known as Pakistanis. Perhaps, the identity transformation of Bangladeshi community (from Indians to Pakistanis and then to Bangladeshis) has made the common British people confused.

Bangladeshi chefs in the UK continue to show their inventiveness as before by creating new dishes. Most of the new recipes are adopted from different parts of the Indian sub-continent and altered to suit the taste of native British people. The use of sub-continental menus, and the naming of the restaurants after historical Indian celebrities and famous Indian places (e.g. Lal Qila, Shahjahan), sometime mislead customers.

But it is high time that Bangladeshi restaurants in the UK are identified as Bangladeshi restaurants. Bangladesh is no longer a part of India or Pakistan. In fact, these restaurants should be treated as unofficial embassies of Bangladesh as they can play a vital role in representing Bangladesh to Western Europe.

In the UK, among the ethnic minorities, the Bengali-speaking people are the fourth largest group, and among the immigrant South Asian groups, the Bangladeshi community is ranked third (after the Indian and Pakistani communities). According to the 2001 census, the number of UK Bangladeshis is about 300,000. However, based on this census and the influx of new immigrants, the number of Bangladeshis at present in the UK can be estimated to be 400,000.

UK Bangladeshis are a relatively homogeneous ethnic group and the vast majority of these settlers (probably about 90%) came from one particular region of Bangladesh. Most of them are Muslims of the Sunni persuasion. Coming mainly from Sylhet division, these Bangladeshis are also known as Sylheti.

Like the Mirpuri settlers from Pakistan, the kinship among the Sylheti people is very strong, and even in the UK they have preserved their own Sylheti dialect. About the Sylheti dialect, ethnic minority researcher R. Chalmers has pointed out: “The Sylheti dialect is very rich and distinctive and reflects various influences, such as Assamese, Arabic, Turkish, Nagri, Parsi etc. This exclusiveness of their (i.e. Sylheti people’s) dialect has given them a regional identity which continues in their efforts to keep marital relationships within the same cultural background.”

Understanding the importance of the Sylheti language among the UK Bangladeshi community, the various organisations translate their official documents into both standard Bangla and Sylheti languages.

The Sylheti people also have a significantly different culture from the other parts of Bangladeshis for historical reasons. In the past, they had more affinity with the Assamese than the Bengalis, as Sylhet had a long history as part of Assam (a province of India).

Before the 14th century, Sylhet was a Hindu dominated area and most of the people followed the Hindu religion and were influenced by the Assamese, Bengali, and Hindu culture. But in the second half of the 14th century, when the Arabian Muslim saint Hazrat Shah Jalal and his 360 companions (known as Awolias) migrated to Sylhet through Delhi with a view to promoting Islam and protecting the local Muslim minority from the oppression of the Hindu King Gour Govinda, the cultural practice of the Sylheti people started to change.

Because of the influence of these saints, most of the people started converting to Islam. Eventually this shaped a hybrid Sylheti culture (a mixture of Islamic, Arabic, Assamese, and indigenous Hindu culture.) In fact, the fellow feeling due to Sylheti culture and dialect among the Sylheti people prompted the chain migration process of Bangladeshis to the UK and this is why the majority of the Bangladeshis there are from Sylhet.

Pioneer Bangladeshis started to cross “kalapani” (black water or sea) and entered the UK as seamen (known as Jahazi or Lascar) at the end of the 18th century. Most of the Indian seamen (about 70-75%) at that time were from Sylhet. However, these pioneers did not settle in the UK and their main objective was to accumulate enough money to lead better lives in their home villages. Some of these pioneers, in later phases, though unintentionally, were bound to settle in the UK for various reasons. However, these settlers were not significant in number.

Research conducted by Gwynor Hughes has revealed that throughout and after the First World War some Sylheti seamen settled in Britain— approximately 200 in major port cities such as London, Cardiff, and Liverpool. During the Second World War, as Hughes has reported, thousands of Sylheti seamen died at sea, fighting for the British and allied forces. After the war, hundreds of injured Sylheti seamen settled in the UK (mainly in Brick Lane, London). Eventually, they sponsored their relatives to join them as the UK, at that time, required more workers to rebuild its war-torn economy.

A large number of Bangladeshis, along with other South Asians, started to immigrate to the UK to fill the labour shortage which opened up during the post-war industrial boom of the UK economy. Most of them worked in different industries, mainly in garment factories in the big cities like London, Birmingham, and Manchester.

Yousuf Chowdhury, historian of the Bangladeshi community in the UK in his book: ‘The Roots and Tales of the Bangladeshi Settlers,” has pointed out that though Bangladeshis started to enter into the catering business as early as 1938, the large scale involvement of Bangladeshis in catering only began in the early 1970s and gained momentum during the economic recession and de-industrialisation of the UK that started from 1980 and onwards. Now, the majority of Bangladeshis in the UK are either directly or indirectly dependent on the catering business.

Slowly and steadily, the Bangladeshi community in the UK as a whole is progressing towards a promising future. The second generation of this community are the children of British soil and are coming forward to lead the society. However, many members of the second generation are not taking interest in the catering business as they are joining the mainstream job market in various capacities. But some of them will still carry the flag, and with their enthusiasm and innovation, will add a new dimension to the Bangladeshi restaurants.

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The author is an Assistant Professor of AIUB and Guest Member, Ethnic Minority Council, UK.
E Mail : kabir@aiub.edu
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