Published in The Guardian on 20 June 2002
The path to the village of Gonipur is thick with mud, forcing walkers to go barefoot for fear of losing a sandal. It is half an hour from the main road to this village, and the main road is a two-hour bus ride from the bustling town of Sylhet in Bangladesh’s north-eastern corner.
Alongside the path, paddy fields lie flooded with monsoon rain and children pull nets through the murky water, hoping to find small fish or snails to supplement their diet: they and their families are among the poorest people in the world.
Kazi Abdur Razzak used to farm these paddy fields but at the age of 80 he has now retired. He still owns some fields although flooding means he cannot rely on an income from rice.
But Mr Razzak is lucky: he has a son in London. A son who, together with his wife (who is also the daughter of Mr Razzak’s cousin and next-door neighbour) sends around £300 a month, which is more than enough money for the extended family of 20 to live on. Every couple of months, the postman makes his way up this path with a much-needed money order from London.
As the rain clatters off his corrugated iron roof, Mr Razzak says: “My son sends me a little money and it helps. I have someone who works in my paddy fields now that I have retired but we need the money from London to live. My son helps with food, clothes and the family expenditure.”
Sitting in a cafe just off Brick Lane in east London, his son Kazi Iqbal Hussein, explains: “This is my responsibility as a son and as a Muslim and I want to share what I have with my family. I am lucky that I can do that, that I am able to look after my father and brothers and sisters.”
Mr Hussein and his wife Ruksana feel well-off earning around £2,500 a month between them and are happy to help those in Gonipur.
It is a tenet of Islam that followers give to those less fortunate than themselves. A little money from the UK goes a long way in Bangladesh, and Sylhet is now one of the richest towns in the country with the area’s economy largely built on British curry.
More than eight out of 10 Indian restaurants in the UK are owned by Bangladeshis, the vast majority of whom – 95% – come from Sylhet. In 1946, there were 20 restaurants or small cafes owned by Bengalis; in 1960 there were 300; and by 1980, more than 3,000. Now, according to the Curry Club of Great Britain, there are 8,500 Indian restaurants, of which roughly 7,200 are Bengali. An awful lot of chicken tikka masala, apparently now Britain’s national dish, has its origins here. Even the little village of Gonipur has despatched more than 200 people – called Londonis – to Britain.
The money sent by Mr Hussein and his wife has also helped to build a kindergarten in the village. In addition, the primary and secondary schools as well as the local mosque have been reconstructed with the help of foreign remittances.
There are madrasas and other schools, health centres, hotels, shopping centres, a children’s playground – all built with foreign investment. There’s even a drug rehabilitation centre built to deal with British Bengali heroin addicts, a big problem in Tower Hamlets. (One Sylheti doctor says that between five and 10 new heroin addicts arrive in Sylhet from London each week, sent for treatment by their parents. But, he adds, heroin and hashish are cheaper and more freely available here.)
Although poverty is endemic in Sylhet, shopping centres adorned with marble and chrome and houses with pillars and columns have been built with Londoni money.
Much of the money comes from the East End, where the majority of Bangladeshis settled when they arrived in the UK. They came from one of the world’s poorest ar eas to London’s poorest borough: Tower Hamlets, where around 37% – 123,000 – of the borough’s population is Bengali. In April this year, Tower Hamlets council officially renamed an electoral ward Spitalfields/Banglatown and a few years ago erected lamp posts made in a South Asian style and painted in green and red, the colours of the Bangladeshi flag. Each year, thousands throng the streets around the area for a massive festival celebrating Baishaki Mela, the Bangladeshi new year.
In Brick Lane, Bengali staples such as jack fruit, betel nut and paan leaves and frozen fish caught in Sylhet’s Surma river are for sale. Dozens of travel agents offer flights to Sylhet with Biman Bangladeshi Airlines for around £500; the weekly Sylheter Dak – with a UK circulation of around 7,000 a week – has an office here. There’s a shop called Sylhet Stores, a lawyers’ office called Sylhet & Co and a Bangladeshi Welfare Association. There are Bangladeshi banks and remittance shops, and a booming black market in money transfers. Almost everything, it seems, harks back to Sylhet.
And in Sylhet, many things hark back to London. There’s a shopping centre called London Mansions and shops named London’s Fashions and London’s Shoes. There’s even a Tescco, with the same typeface as the British supermarket but intentionally misspelt to prevent any legal action. Some are even opening British-style curry restaurants with names like Taste of Bengal and the Last Days of the Raj.
The close ties between the two places is perhaps best illustrated by the Sylhet Partnership, a European Commission-funded venture. Ayub Karim Ali, a worker with Tower Hamlets, has been seconded to Sylhet for two years to establish a project to clean up the town’s previously filthy streets. Most of the waste, much of it household rubbish, is traditionally simply dumped in the gutter – but, now, in a small part of town, the pilot project sends rickshaws to collect it.
Mr Karim Ali, who moved to London with his family in 1973, at the age of 11, says: “The first generation in London still dream about Sylhet, still want to come back here if they can, although they have been living [in the UK] for 20 to 30 years. Apart from taking part in the local mosque and local community organisations, they rarely get involved in anything else in the community that they are living in. Within a few minutes the conversation will move on to Sylhet.”
He is criticial of much of the building work that is being financed by Londonis in Sylhet, wishing that more sensible investment would take place. Big Londoni houses in the area of Uposhoar lie empty and the upper floors of many shopping centres remain unoccupied. He says: “I get really irritated because we don’t need so many shopping centres in Sylhet. We also have big houses and nobody lives there. The guys who are building big houses and big shopping centres, it’s their way of saying ‘I’ve made it’. It’s for emotional and psychological reasons.
“They are buggering up the city with all this bloody building work and it is supported and sustained by London money. Some sensible investments are also taking place – they have invested in a children’s amusement park and healthcare facilities, but they need to do more.”
Others are critical of Londonis who come over for extended holidays, wearing western clothes and displaying their wealth. But the Londonis feel they can’t win.
Abdul Mannan is building the Sylhet Millennium Shopping Centre, an ostentatious construction of granite and stainless steel, with his brother Razzak and other partners. Mr Mannan moved to London in 1973 when he was 12 years old and his first job was working as a tailor. He later moved into the restaurant business, then property development and the stockmarket and is now a millionaire.
He says he has built the shopping centre to help create jobs. He wishes more British Bengalis would invest back in Bangladesh, but understands how political turmoil and corruption has prevented this in the past. “I am urging people in the UK who have businesses to do something to create jobs. I am asking them to start non-profitable organisations. There are people in the UK who are Bangladeshi who have millions of pounds and they are doing nothing for this country.”
But there are others who help as best they can. Numan Ahmed, 22, was left behind when his family moved to London. His mother, whose parents lived in the UK, moved there five years ago and three years later his father and younger brothers were allowed to follow. He is studying history and political science at a college in Sylhet and lives entirely on remittances – £200 every few months – sent by his father, who works in a restaurant. He too wants to go to London. “London is very good, very nice and very clean. The life there must be good because everyone wants to go there.”
But moving to Tower Hamlets is not always a ticket to riches. For all the BMWs and Mercedes sitting outside the restaurants in Brick Lane, there are men inside working 14-hour shifts washing dishes and living in decrepit, overcrowded council flats.
Syed Zain al-Mahmood, a Sylhetti journalist who has studied the Bangladeshi-Londoni phenomenon, says: “People [in Sylhet] think that people in the UK have it easy because they have more money and when they come here they throw it around. People think it’s a utopia. They don’t know that people are having to work in restaurants for long hours, that they live in horrible council estates.”
And then there is the problem of identity and belonging. Ruksana Hussein, Mr Razzak’s daughter-in-law, was born and grew up in Tower Hamlets and says that she can neither shirk off her Britishness nor return permanently to Bangladesh. “I often find I am in conflict within my own thoughts. I have got western culture and gone through school and lived here so when I go back to Bangladesh I am looked upon as a Londoni. When I am here, I am not seen as British, even though I have a cockney accent. We have got a mongrel of something and it can be difficult to know what it is.”
The marrying of the two cultures, and the numbers of Bangladeshis permanently settling in the UK means that the number of remittances going back has become less and less. In a paper presented to London Guildhall University, French academic David Garbin said that the financial relationship between Londoni families and those in Bangladesh was “rapidly changing”. He said: “In 1995, a report indicated that 20% of the Bangladeshi families in east London were sending money to Bangladesh whereas in the 60s and 70s, a proportion of 85% were remitting their savings.”
Many British Bangladeshis say they no longer need to send money home because “my family is all here now” or “my family is well-educated and does not need money”. Elders within the community predict that it is a tradition that will eventually die out along with others. Abdul Murkth, who runs Sunrise Wedding services off Brick Lane, providing outfits and paper decorations for Bengali weddings says his business has a lifespan of 10 years and thinks the same about remittances.
“My dad used to send us money every month but that’s going back a good 20 years and then we joined him here and it stopped,” he says. “It’s becoming rare because people are moving out of that country and bringing their children up here.”
Yet in Bangladesh, impoverished families are relying on the remittance lifeline. In the village of Sabharang, in Sylhet’s Jagarnath district, a mother sits in her simple, one-room house and tries to explain why she needs money. She says she sent her son to London 22 years ago but recently he stopped sending money.
“We are very poor. We as a family decided that he should go to London because we wanted money. There’s lots of money there,” she says. “But he is not sending money for a long time. We sent him there to help us but he is not sending money.”
In Gonipur, Mr Razzak knows he is lucky: “My son is a good son. He is a good Muslim.”