‘Where are you from?’
I adjust my hijab. Tucking in a strand of white hair that’s sticking out. Yes, I’m ageing…
Then, just to make sure they get it…
‘Born and raised.’
No matter how many times I am asked this question as I walk through the streets of my hometown, it always surprises me.
And my answer surprises them.
‘Really? That’s why you speak such good English. You have a Cambridge accent.’
It would be odd if I didn’t.
My family has been part of the fabric of Cambridge for more than 60 years. My late father, Abdul Karim arrived in London and then moved to Cambridge in 1957. He came from a rural village in Fenchuganj, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). He sought a better life for himself and his siblings.
In the years between World War I and World War II, the Indian restaurant community started to expand beyond London. As the number of Asians entering Britain increased so did the demand for more Indian restaurants and so business within the Indian cuisine market gathered momentum.
It was during the 1950s and 1960s when a large influx of Punjabis, Bengalis, Kenyans and Africans migrated to Britain that the Indian restaurant concept started to spread even further throughout the UK, which now boasted around 500 Indian cuisine eating establishments.
In 1963, he took out a 12-year lease on an office space at 43 Regent Street, Cambridge, which was converted to the New Bengal Restaurant. The property was owned by the estate agent, Watsons and Son, who had premises next door at no. 45. It was located at the heart of the city centre.
In November 1975, the lease of the New Bengal was due to expire but Watsons did not wish to re-let the premises, wanting it to enable them to expand their own offices. They were already using the top floor of the restaurant. A public enquiry was held and Watsons won an appeal to use it as offices. My father did not want to lose the New Bengal. He was extremely disappointed by the decision.
By then he owned another restaurant, which was named as The Bengal Tandoor Mahal restaurant in Fitzroy Street, Cambridge. It was knocked down in the mid-1990s to pave the way for new shops.
So most Bengali men worked in this trade. Some helped other male members of their family to come to England and had work ready waiting for them in these restaurants.
My mother arrived in 1964, during one of the coldest winters on record. She said it was cold, bone-chilling cold. She’ll never forget how cold it was.
I am a British-Bengali-Muslim. So what does this mean?
It means that I was born in the Mill Road Maternity Hospital, originally a poor house built in 1838, which became a maternity hospital by 1948. I was born two days before East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh.
I was raised with my twin sister and three older brothers. It means that, before Margaret Thatcher scrapped the plan for under 7s, I drank free milk at play time. The straw was the best!
My earliest memory of school was drawing pictures for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1975. My picture, a crown, was displayed in the school hall.
And later, when we learnt about the Titanic, my teacher had a Daily Mirror newspaper dated the day after it sank. I was allowed to take it home and show my parents.
I watched Play School, Bagpuss, Trumpton, Fingerbobs and, in the 80s, graduated to Grange Hill and The A-Team (the best Saturday night show on ITV – everyone watched it!) and Doctor Who. I listened to A-Ha, Wham! and Rick Astley and was teased for it at school. And yes, I even wore leg warmers.
But this is only part of what it means to be a British Muslim woman of Bengali heritage.
It also means that my sister and I spent many hours in the kitchen as girls, watching my mother as she bustled around cooking Bengali dishes. We were expected to put what we saw into action, learning from our mistakes. I remember a lamb curry I once made. My mother was not impressed.
‘Wait until you’re married, and you’ll have to start doing this yourself.’
As Bengali women, we were expected to know how to prepare and cook many Bengali dishes by the time we were married. This was a source of pride in many families like ours. Being married meant taking on the husband’s entire family. If a woman didn’t know how to host and cook for others, her mother was at fault.
My mother was right. I was married off at 18 and wasn’t the best cook. Who is at that age?
My mother is a strong woman with strong opinions. She loved us deeply, but her parenting is very different from mine. We grew up in a strict home with many rules. We had a firm routine and bedtime was 9.30 pm. We missed out on many parties and weren’t allowed to go into town with our friends.
In my own home, I laugh with my four children (I have three boys and a girl). I talk with them. We share ideas, thoughts and dreams. We applaud each other’s successes and support each other’s decisions. They know I am not just here to cook for them, do their laundry and drive them around. I shout at them too. Who doesn’t shout at their children?
Who I am today will shape their lives as well. I teach them to value people over possessions and to reach out to those in need.
I also want my children to remember that their privileges and luxuries came from the blood and sweat of their forebearers. They need to know that their grandfather was orphaned at a young age and lived a difficult life before leaving Bangladesh. He worked hard to find a better life and he did, for himself, his children and his grandchildren.
Sometimes I think that things were easier for my mother as they were more clear cut. She knew her role in the world and tried to fill it perfectly. We all try to fill our lives perfectly. I understand that role, but want something different and am paving the way for my daughter to choose the life she wants to lead.
As the bridge between these two generations, I have the opportunity to look both forward and back and weave the differing strands of my life into a rich tapestry of culture, belief, freedom and balance.
My children are the speakers of tomorrow, the next generation. I want them to have a voice. I want to prepare them to deal effectively with the difficulties of the world today and to stand up for themselves and their beliefs.
I tell my children, ‘There are many who want to forget their heritage and don’t wish to acknowledge it at all. Never forget your roots. Because it has made us what we are today. This is who I am today.’
‘Be counted,’ I tell them. ‘You don’t have to justify who you are. Just be it.’
It reminds me of the Take That song ‘Never Forget’.
‘Never forget where you’ve come here from, never pretend that it’s all real…’
So where am I from?
I am a British Muslim of Bengali heritage and I am from Cambridge.