Bangla Stories: Telling Tales

Map showing DinajpurWhen we met him in 2008, Mohammed Shamsul Huq told us he believed he was 108 years old. He lives in a refugee camp next to a temple in Dinajpur in North-West Bangladesh, but he was born in Calcutta in the time of the British Raj. His father, like many Bengalis, worked for the British on the railways, but Shamsul told us that he 'used to dream of the sea and of travelling'. As a young man he worked as an oilman on a British merchant steamer called the Arenda and travelled to Colombo, Rangoon, Singapore, Jeddah and Africa, and to London, where he admired the beautifully designed houses, wide roads and big warehouses. The Arenda was sunk by the Japanese in World War II, and Shamsul was adrift for eight days on the sea before being rescued. He returned to Calcutta and opened a tea stall, but moved Sinking of the Arendato East Pakistan in the aftermath of Partition. Unable to find work and made homeless by floods, he moved again to Assam but was expelled by the Indian army in the 1960s and came as a refugee to Dinajpur, where he still lives, recounting stories to his great-grandchildren. He says that he lost contact with his extended family over the years: 'We lost addresses and contact details three times – the first time in a fire in Calcutta, the second time in Noakhali in the floods and the third time when we were chased away by the Indian army from Assam. They must be dead now, but I remember them fondly in my heart.'

Mohammed Shamuz MiahOr take a story from closer to home. Shamuz Miah is now in his 70s and lives in Burnley. He arrived in the UK from the Sylhet province of Bangladesh in 1964 on a 'voucher visa'. He arrived at Heathrow and travelled by taxi to Burnley, where he worked in the cotton mills for 25 years. He arrived in January and told us that there were no street lights and because of the winter nights and the smog he 'thought there was no day here. We would only see day for 3, 4 hours and then it was dark'. He recalled that the local English people and the police were 'very kind' to the new arrivals. He shared a house with 10 other Bengali men and sent most of his money back to support his family in Bangladesh. He brought his wife and children to Britain in 1971 to escape the turmoil following the Liberation War in Bangladesh. Shamuz has nine children – his oldest son owns a local restaurant, three of his daughters are teachers, one is a secretary and one a social worker. His youngest children are students. He is happy living in Burnley because, he told us, unlike nearby Oldham, 'in Burnley there are no racists'.

Satellite image of BengalThese two migrant tales arise from a three year AHRC-funded research project on 'the Bengal diaspora', which explores the process and experience of migration and settlement within and from the Indian state of Bengal in the period after 1947, from the viewpoint of migrants themselves. It is estimated that there have been 20 million people from this region who were displaced or migrated in this period – one of the largest migrations of the modern era. Of these, less than 2% migrated overseas, mainly to the UK or the Middle East, and while some of these stories have been told (often and most powerfully as fiction), the vast majority – particularly of those who remained behind - remain silent and invisible. The project brought together the 'big histories' of this migration – Partition, the Liberation War, post-war global migrations – with the stories of (extra)ordinary people caught up in these movements, providing a evocative lens onto the sweep of history 'from below'. The project researchers collected over 160 life histories with Bengali Muslim migrants in India, Bangladesh and Britain, and these intimate family portraits form the basis of a unique collaboration with the Runnymede Trust, aimed at bringing these stories into the classroom.

Bangla Stories home pageFunded by the LSE’s Heif 4 Knowledge Transfer Fund, the Bangla Stories website and educational resource pack is designed for Key Stage 3 (English), and its primary aim is to bring these hidden, unknown or forgotten histories to life for a generation of British young people, whatever their background or heritage, to encourage them to learn more about these stories, to discover the experiences of their parents and grandparents, and to consider how far we have come – literally and symbolically.

East India HouseBut there is a bigger picture too, one which speaks beyond English lessons and reaches throughout the curriculum to the idea of multicultural Britain itself. The stories of Shamsul Huq and of Shamuz Miah are travellers' tales which tell the story of Britain writ small – their migrant stories are inherently British as well as insistently global. Theirs is the story of the East India Company, of the rise of Empire, of two World Wars when anonymous Bengali sailors fought and died in the bellies of the merchant navy ships, of the Millcareless abandonment of the Imperial project. Theirs is the story of the Imperial Docks in East London, where Bengali sailors jumped ship and headed to Brick Lane, of the post-War labour shortage, of the invitation to work in the cotton mills and the steel industries of Oldham, Bradford and Burnley, and the sweatshops of Tower Hamlets. Theirs is the story too of deindustrialisation, of the struggle against racism, of the rise of multicultural 'Cool Britannia' and, of course, of chicken tikka masala. And in the current climate of debates around the notion of multiculturalism, the tales of Shamsul Huq and Shamuz Miah are perhaps most telling – that their stories are also our story.

Dr Claire Alexander
London School of Economics
copyright © Runnymede Trust and individual authors.