Connections: Thinking about Home
The people we interviewed for this project had migrated from India into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) making new homes in an unfamiliar place. Most did not intend to return to India. Some kept ties with people 'back home' in India; others, especially the Urdu-speakers, had strong ties with those who had left for the 'new home' of Orangi in Pakistan. These ties may have been financial links, weddings, family visits, using new forms of communication, burial practices, or simply strong emotional connections.
Ahmed Ilias is around 75 years old. He is a writer, a poet and the proud father of eight children and three grandchildren.
When my sister's husband lost his job as a seaman and then died she followed me to Bangladesh. But this was in 1970 and she soon left for Pakistan where she lived with her son. On one of my visits to Karachi I tried to find my nephew but have never been successful in doing that. I am in touch with my elder brother's children in India. They all live in Ghatshila in relative poverty working as drivers or tailors; some are even unemployed.
My brother was fluent in English because he used to work in a British military canteen and used to talk with Brits all the time. Then he worked at the Metro Golden Mayor (MGM) cinema, popularly known as the Metro. He was treasurer of the MGM. As treasurer, he had a private secretary and started eating with a knife and fork even at home. My father got scared and decided to marry him off quick so that he would keep his cultural values. They found a girl in Ghatshila who was both very beautiful and from the same family. When their first child was born, a daughter, they called her 'Roshni' but after she was born my brother's behaviour changed again. When I went to Ghatshila to visit them in 1956 I noticed he had become very traditional. He had gone to perform the hajj, had lost his job, was an adherent of Sufism and had become a recluse.
Sufia Begum is a 50-year-old teacher who lives with her husband Jinnah bhai and their two children. They live in Dinajpur's New Town, next to Satellite Town. Sufia's parents had come to East Pakistan in 1956.
I was born in Borobondor, just on this side of the border. My parents came in 1956, our house was in western Dinajpur, but we used to come and shop in the town of Dinajpur here…
Our family used to look after the lands of the Dinajpur rajas – we used to be invited to attend the rajas' ceremonies and feasts. I remember going there for Durga Puja when I was very small – I remember the raja's son being very fat. The last descendants left for Calcutta; the palace became 'enemy property' and now it is nearly in ruins.
Later, they left for India. My mother used to go regularly to visit them but the last time I went there was 1979. They can't come here because it is very difficult for government officers in India to get passports and visas to visit Bangladesh. The officials create a lot of hassle and our relatives and friends tell us it's too much trouble to travel to Bangladesh. Now things between the two countries aren't really smooth. Dinajpur is surrounded by India on three sides and yet when our cows run into India and when our people go to collect them they get shot at. We write letters, we talk on the phone and soon we'll be emailing, but we can't visit.
About 57 years old, this landowner refused to give his name out of fear that his relatives in India might be harassed. He lives near Dinajpur in the north of Bangladesh. He has three sons and three daughters.
I have a passport and returned [to India] with a visa via Hili. I last went there three years ago. Previously I used to go regularly via 'black' [illegally] for 100 or 200 takas, now the Indian dalals [middlemen] accept nothing less than 1000 rupees. I used to go there to see my parents and relatives, the BDR [Bangladeshi border guards] and the BSF [Indian border guards] have contacts with the middlemen and we used to be able to cross over easily.
After the division of our country you have Hindus on one side and Muslims on the other. Why otherwise would I leave my parents, my entire family to come here? Just because I thought I'd have a safer life here. Both sides cry at Eid.
Tell me, why have you refused to give me your name? If it's fine by you, I'd like to include your reasons in this interview.
OK, please write down my reasons black on white. I'm alone here and I'm not scared. They live in a group there and they live in fear. I'm worried there will be reprisals on my brothers in India which is why I didn't want to talk on tape, to give you my name or have my photograph taken. I hope you understand.
Md Mobarak Ali
Md Mobarak Ali is in his mid 60s and works as a cultivator. He lives in a camp for Bengali refugees from Assam so it is called 'Assampara', it is in a place called Noabad in Dinajpur's Birganj.
We still have relatives in Assam. They stayed on because they had land... My nephew lives in Murazad – they have an Agar tree business. It's the tree from which attar is made, its dust is used to make incense sticks. We visited them 15 years ago but now the border guards make it very difficult for us to visit.
…Now we're all over the world, two of us left Bangladesh – one to Malaysia and the other to Saudi Arabia. The guy who went to Malaysia borrowed around three lakhs but returned six months later empty-handed, he can't repay the loan. My uncle here Shamsul Haq is originally from Noakhali but was born in Khidirpur in Calcutta and was a lascar on an English ship and has been all around the world. We are travellers.
The people we interviewed for the project had migrated across national borders during their lifetime and made new homes in unfamiliar places. Most did not intend to return permanently. However, most kept strong ties with 'back home'. These may have been financial links, return visits, new forms of communication, burial practices, or simply strong emotional ties. Here we explore some of these continuing connections. Also see 'Home and Away' for more information.
Jakia Chowdhury (Tower Hamlets): many connections with 'home'
Jakia Chowdhury came to London in 1987 and has been very active in local community, political and cultural organisations. She now works for Tower Hamlets council. She spoke of the many connections she retains with Bangladesh. First, she talked about the importance of media and the Internet:
We get news of Bangladesh before those living in Bangladesh because of the time difference. When they upload newspapers to the Internet, it is very early in the morning in Bangladesh. So by the time people in Bangladesh get the news, we have already read it. The world is getting smaller, distance is not a problem.
Jakia also spoke of the importance of easy and cheap communication with her family through the telephone and how this had changed in recent years:
I am very good at keeping the relationship alive. When I first came here it was very difficult to communicate by phone. It was very expensive. I used to write letters to my brothers. A telephone call would cost £1.60 a minute. Communication has become very cheap since the introduction of phone cards. Now it's very cheap to call Bangladesh.
Like many first generation migrants, Jakia sends money to support her family in Bangladesh:
When necessary, I send money to my brothers or sister. I try to send money when someone is in need. I send money when someone gets ill. I send money to my brothers to help their kids get an education or to share the travel costs for someone who is going abroad. I send money every two or three months.
Jakia still has a strong emotional connection to Bangladesh, and sees her future divided between her siblings in Bangladesh and America, where her children live:
I feel for Bangladesh, although I left the country 20 years ago. When I think of Bangladesh I think I will have comfort, relaxation, a good rest there. I don't have to do anything by myself… I think I will probably live in Bangladesh and America with my son and daughter. I will not be able to live in London when I get older. It will be difficult to live alone here at that age.
Shorifuddin, Fazilatunnessa and Shanu Miah (Tower Hamlets): Bangladesh calling
Shorifuddin is only 19, the youngest person we interviewed in Britain. He came to London in 2003 and works as a waiter. He told us of his strong emotional connection to Bangladesh:
I was born on the ground of my country. That soil calls me… Bad or good, it is my country.
Fazilatunnessa, who is in her late 60s, but also came to London in 2003 to join her husband, also spoke of the strength of her feelings for Bangladesh:
I live here now, but the soil of my country calls me. I miss my family … I cry for them sometimes.
Shanu Miah has lived in Britain since 1967 and is married with five children. Although he has lived most of his life in London, he spoke of his strong ties to both Bangladesh and Britain:
I love my countrymen. There is a feeling for my fellow countrymen. That is my country, I love it. I can never forget my country. Britain is also my country. I have everything here.
Ishtiaq Ahmed (Newham): still Bangladeshi
Ishtiaq Ahmed, now in his 60s, came to Britain first in 1965 and then settled permanently in London in 1978. He is married with four children. He told us that despite this long connection with Britain, he still feels Bangladeshi:
I was born in Bangladesh, brought up in Bangladesh. I've got blood relatives in Bangladesh, I've studied in Bangladesh. I am grateful to the land and people of Bangladesh. Although I have been living in Britain for more than 40 years, holding a British passport, I consider myself simply a Bangladeshi.
Mehjabin Islam (Newham): divided loyalties
Mehjabin Islam has lived in Britain since 1989. She spoke of her attachment to Bangladesh and its culture but also felt that her time in Britain meant she would never be able to return home permanently:
Although I have been living here for around 20 years, I am still attached to back home. But I know that I won't be able to go back home to settle down. After living here, we have a different mentality. I have heard of many people who went back home but came back again after about a year. So I know I won't be able to settle down there, even though I have feelings for the soil of my home.
Momin Ahmed (Tower Hamlets): the love of home
Momin Ahmed came to Britain as a teenager to join his father in Luton. His parents later returned to Bangladesh and Momin went back regularly to see them until his mother's death. He still has a strong emotional and cultural tie to the land of his birth but thinks about the ways this had changed since he has grown and had children of his own:
If it were possible, I would go regularly. Really, I would go every year. I used to think: I am a patriot, I love my country very much and want to live in my country. When I came here, I missed many things from home. So when I go back home, I recharge myself. I missed the songs, movies, magazines from home. Now these are available in this country. I used to go there because my parents were there. We have the house in which we all grew up. I have a fond memory of home. But when my mother died, I lost all interest. Since my mother is gone, why would I go? Then I realised it was not my patriotism, it was love for my mother. Maybe it was a combination of mother, relatives, friends - all of these are mixed up. Nowadays, my father is at home, so I go to see my father. I also have a dream that my daughter will learn Bangla. So if I take her to Bangladesh, she will be able to know Bangladesh, understand Bangladesh. These are the reasons why I go home.
Nazrul Islam (Tower Hamlets): Bangladesh in Britain
Nazrul Islam came to London in 1990 as a student and later married and settled permanently in East London. He now owns a shop and has two sons. He spoke of the excitement that Sylheti young men feel when they think of London:
It is a hobby for a Sylheti to go to London… We do not think of what it has and what it doesn't have and what we'll do over there. It's just all thrilling. When we come here, we understand the reality, but then we cannot go back… It's like a dream but once we come, the dream goes.
Although he rarely returns to Bangladesh, he also spoke of the close connections that he keeps alive through family and through the television:
My contact now is only when I watch Bangladesh news, programmes, events on TV… I don't need to think about Bangladesh. We do not miss anything. We do not feel any nostalgia. Whoever we want to remember, he or she is available here.
Shaila Sharif Mou (Tower Hamlets): regular connections
Shaila Sharif Mou migrated with her computer engineer husband in 1999. She spoke of her regular contact with family in Bangladesh:
I try to contact them regularly. It doesn't matter what we talk about, just gossiping or finding out the price of essential things like rice, pulses etc. It's just to pass the time when you have no important work.
She also spoke of sending money to her family to help to support them:
From my childhood, my parents would say I am their son [because of the support she gives them]… When I started work I began to regularly give money to my parents. I give them their rent and I even pay for my younger brother's education… Every month I send money to my father and father-in-law. I support three families back home.
Shahela Begum (Newham): the problem with remittances and property 'back home'
Shahela Begum has lived in Britain since 1981 and has three children. She told us that she and her husband had worked hard to send money (remittances) to his family in Bangladesh in order to buy land and property:
My husband and I struggled to live in this country; we earned money through hard work but the money was not spent to make our children's lives comfortable, the money was diverted to Bangladesh to develop our assets and property over there. We intended go back to Bangladesh – we have no relatives in this country, our roots are not strong here, we wanted to settle in Bangladesh.
However, since her husband's death, her brother-in-law had taken control of these assets, not letting her get hold of them:
Now they are trying to take our property... The two brothers were close. My husband sent money to him. The house, car, everything was under the two brothers' names. Now he is saying that we did not send money. This is a problem.
Amjad Ali (Tower Hamlets): keeping connections
Amjad Ali first came to Britain in 1973 and has been a successful businessman in London and an active member of the British Bengali community and a Labour councillor. In recent years, he has divided his time between Britain and Bangladesh, where he owns a fast-food business and works as a human rights consultant (see also 'Work'). He spoke of the importance of keeping himself open to both old and new connections:
I've learned one thing: I keep my networks alive. There are some people who shut off their contacts when they are in different places. But I never close contacts – I keep contacts with people in different places… I keep my networks open.
Mostaq Ahmed (Tower Hamlets): developing 'home'
Mostaq Ahmed has lived in Britain since 1982 with his wife and two children, and has been a successful businessman and community leader in Tower Hamlets. From the mid 1990s, he returned to Bangladesh to start a packaging business (see also 'Work'), but he and some friends have also been keen to contribute towards the development of their country of birth. He, as with many British Bengalis, has bought land in his village and is also trying to build a school:
Recently some of my friends are trying to establish a school. There will be two branches – one branch will be in Dhaka and one branch will be in Sylhet… We have already bought some land… We are eight to ten friends, we are all professionals… We developed the idea that we will establish the school, we will fund it ourselves. This will be our contribution to our country.
Abul Khaer (Burnley): family ties and family change
Abul Khaer, now in his early 70s, came to Britain in 1957 and has raised three children here. He spoke of the ties that meant he had to return home:
I have a younger brother and other relatives in Bangladesh. The main reason for going to Bangladesh was and is always to pray for the souls of our elders at the graveyard. This is my first task. The second duty is to visit my relatives, village people, to see their overall condition. I think of my village as part of my family. I find satisfaction if I can do something for my village people or relatives. I always want to help them; it may be little things – sympathetic words, touching a hand, or financial help, but I want to do something for them.
He noted, though, that these ties were weakening across the generations:
I came here to earn money and send money to Bangladesh. Now the world has changed. There are only a few people who keep in touch with Bangladesh. The new generation doesn't want to maintain the relationship.
Tonima (Newham): the duty to return home
Tonima has lived in Britain since 1998 and is married with one son. She told us that she felt a strong connection to her home country and believed it was her duty to return there to help build its future:
Our country has a very strong history. We fought for our language. From the Language Movement on, everything has been done with a feeling of patriotism… I can't do anything alone, I won't be able to bring about any change but, if everyone works properly from their position, then something could be done. I can't build the country in a different way, but I will have satisfaction of knowing that I have tried… I expect everyone to do well wherever they are, but they should go back in the end. Otherwise, the excellent job they have done will not bring anything to our country.
Monsur Hossain (Oldham): changing attitudes towards 'home'
Monsur Hossain has lived in Oldham since he migrated in 1986. He told us of the changing attitudes towards Bangladesh within the community:
I always feel for my country. We have no other choice. But we came here and we have to stay here. Generation after generation will be here. Now we are permanent. Before, people would earn money and think of investing in Bangladesh. They wanted to buy property, land and businesses over there. This thinking has disappeared now.
Boshir Ahmed (Tower Hamlets): breaking the link
Boshir Ahmed, now in his 60s, has been in Britain since 1963. He is married with six children. He told us that he saw his home now as being Britain, because this is where his family is. For him, unlike with earlier migrants, Britain will be his final resting place:
I have no desire to return to Bangladesh. I am nearing the end of my life. I am settled in London. I am settled here with my children and grandchildren… I have told my son not to send my dead body home when I die.