It took about half an hour after landing in Dhaka at the beginning of my fieldwork on British Bangladeshi families from London for the feeling to hit me. I shuffled off the flight from Doha in a haze and gradually awoke as a taxi drove me into the city. The sights, smells and sounds of Dhaka took me back vividly to my childhood years spent in the city. The powerful, confusing feeling, I now think of as a combination of nerves about the beginning of my fieldwork, the weary guardedness of being alone in a far away country, and a sense of being at home, as the car honked and made its way through the traffic.
I was on my way to Sylhet to meet a British Bangladeshi family from London who were participating in my research. A brief stopover in Dhaka allowed me to revisit some of the places I had known as a child. Being in Dhaka felt like being in the eye of a ferocious cyclone. All around was chaos of breathtaking scale and complexity. The traffic had swelled to fill every inch of road, but it competed with flows of wires, goods and busy people in a city-system that was dense and diverse, seemingly on the edge of collapse and yet somehow fantastically resilient. The city had exploded into a monstrous megacity, a building site of concrete and reinforcing rods extending in all directions as far as one could see. At the same time, at the centre of this cyclone, inside I felt a sense of calm that I could not reconcile with the surroundings. It came from a subconscious, affective feeling connected with my childhood memories of the place.
I felt simultaneously calm and totally overwhelmed by the sensory experiences and impenetrable logics of Dhaka. I felt both at home and far away, a phenomena one could call ‘transnational simultaneity’. What is interesting is the extent to which this feeling mirrored the feelings of the British Bangladeshi children I had come to Bangladesh to study, research that would become first my doctoral thesis and then a book. They too experienced transnational simultaneity, the collapsing of different places and practices into transnational social spaces.
In my book Transnational Childhoods: British Bangladeshis, Identities and Social Change, I examine how British Bangladeshi families living in London are embedded within an array of local, national and international events, communities and forces. They live in a global city, connected to every part of the world through history, trade, travel, migration and media. As British Bangladeshis, their migration patterns emerged from the connections formed during the days of the British Empire. Bengalis worked as lascar, or seamen, from the late 19th century until the mid-20th century. They mostly originated from Chittagong, Noakhali and Sylhet, and worked on British ships, carrying goods from Calcutta to all over the world. On the ships they worked as bunkermen, agwallahs (fireman) or telwallahs (oiler) in the engine rooms as well as cooks, cooks’ mates and cleaners. The work was among the hardest, and on board, many worked under severe heat, stoking and tending the steam engines. From Sylhet, young men went first to Calcutta and then through ghat serangs (dock agents) they found work on ships. During the First and Second World Wars, the high demand for crews and the extreme danger of the merchant navy meant that lascar were in high demand. Thousands of lascar died anonymously at sea during the world wars and, apart from a First World War Lascar Memorial in Kolkata, there is little recognition of their contribution to the war efforts.
As British Muslims, their identities are informed by an official and unofficial Islamophobia, fuelled by the ‘war on terror’ and debates over the relationships between liberal Western states and Islam. British Bangladeshis have found themselves, often uncomfortably, at the centre of these debates.
There were 447,201 British citizens of Bangladeshi origin recorded in the 2011 census; half of them lived in London, and the vast majority are Sylheti – their families have their origins in the northeastern region of Bangladesh. British Bangladeshi education and income levels have risen over the last 25 years. Their GSCE results are now above the UK average and that of comparable groups, such as British Pakistanis. Some research indicates that compared to British Pakistanis, Bangladeshis have more friends who are from other ethnic backgrounds and are more likely to marry outside their ethnic group; 26 percent of British Bangladeshi men marry someone from another ethnic group. British Bangladeshi girls in Tower Hamlets have driven much of the improvement in education attainment. In the 2015 British general election, three British Bangladeshi women were elected in London constituencies as Labour MPs to the House of Commons. In many respects then, British Bangladeshis are well integrated and succeeding in Britain.
However, these thriving, striving families still maintain strong connections to Bangladesh. In the 2013-2014 financial year, British Bangladeshis sent just over USD 900 million of remittances to Bangladesh, several thousands of dollars per family. In the decade between 2001 and 2010, about 45,000 Bangladeshis migrated to the UK using a settlement visa, mainly for the purpose of marriage. This represents more than a quarter percent increase in the British Bangladeshi population in that decade. Up to 75,000 British citizens visit Bangladesh every year, including British Bangladeshis. British Bangladeshis are at once deeply embedded within the fabric of the UK and in transnational connections to their ancestral homeland.
Poverty and inequality
As British Bangladeshi families became embedded in the social and economic life of London, the relative security of life in the UK became increasingly important to them. Free healthcare, schooling and the justice system make tangible differences to their lives compared to the lives of their kin in Sylhet. The education that children receive in schools is seen as being of better quality, while older British Bangladeshis have become reliant on the free care and medicine that they are entitled to from the National Health Service. Life in the UK is seen as more secure in many ways than life in Bangladesh. Despite the racism and Islamophobia that many British Bangladeshis have faced; the security, reliability and predictability of like in the UK are highly valued.
While they are seen as wealthy and successful in Bangladesh, from a British perspective, British Bangladeshis are a relatively deprived group. From the 2011 census data, several key facts spring out. More than one in three British Bangladeshis live in a deprived area, more than any other group. Over half of British Bangladeshi children live in poverty. Most low income Bangladeshis live in overcrowded households and rely on benefits more than any other ethnic group. Over 40 percent of Bangladeshi men under the age of 25 are unemployed, compared with 12 percent of young white men. British Bangladeshi pupils are more eligible for free school meals than any other ethnic group.
The wildly divergent experiences of absolute and relative wealth and poverty maintain the salience of transnational connections for British Bangladeshis in three ways. Firstly the attraction of migration to the UK for Sylhetis is undiminished. Migration from Sylhet to the UK today is mainly achieved through marriage. Marriage is not just a means of migration however. Through marriages, social and cultural capital is exchanged, and families become embedded within transnational networks. The practice of transnational marriages interrupts the neat idea of first, second and third generations of ‘immigrants’ in the UK. Many British Bangladeshi couples include one member born and brought up in the UK, and one who grew up in Sylhet and arrived as an adult, marrying a British Bangladeshi. Among British Bangladeshi children who participated in the research that led to Transnational Childhoods, nearly all had one parent who was born in the UK or had come to the UK as a child, and one who had come to the UK as an adult to marry a British citizen of Bangladeshi origin.
The second way in which these inequalities help to maintain transnational links is that the difference in wealth generates demand for a flow of remittances. Despite their low economic status in the UK, most British Bangladeshi families send money to their extended families in Sylhet. According to the Bangladesh Bank, remittances from the UK to Bangladesh (which mostly go to Sylhet) in 2013-2014 accounted for 6 percent of all remittances from abroad to Bangladesh, and are equivalent to about 0.6 percent of Bangladesh’s total GDP. The flow of remittances to Sylhet is said to be partially responsible for the region’s lower than average poverty.
In a slightly different way, the differences and inequalities between British Bangladeshis and others in London and Sylhet, the uniqueness of their experience and position, along with the experience of being poor in one location and wealthy in another, increases the sense of connection between them, and distinction from other Bangladeshis in Sylhet and others in London. The access British Bangladeshis have to health care, education, benefits, jobs and the psychological and material effect of these differentiates them from their kin in Bangladesh who have limited access to these resources. British Bangladeshis experience being in a minority, racism and poverty in Britain whereas they have power and wealth in Bangladesh, where their ethnicity and religion put them in the majority. The combination of these unique positions and experiences mark them out from others in Bangladesh and in the UK who do not have these experiences.
Desh and bidesh
Katy Gardner’s work on Sylhet in the 1980s describes the discourses connected to desh and bidesh, which translates roughly as home and away, or abroad. While the desh may be materially poor, it has a special spiritual significance connected to family and religious figures. Bidesh was seen as materially wealthy, but spiritually poor. Shirin and Rafique (pseudonyms), two of the children I got to know, did not really know which was which. Was London ‘desh’or was it Sylhet? Their father laughed out loud at their confusion. While the attributes and values that ‘desh’ and ‘bidesh’ conjure up for British Bangladeshis continue to have some importance, the division between the two has somewhat collapsed. The spiritual value of the desh does not have much currency for many younger British Bangladeshis. Gone are the days when a telephone call was an expensive frustration with faint, delayed conversation. Fast flows of information, money and gifts, people visiting and migrating for marriage, have created a dense transnational network that transcends nations and notions of desh and bidesh. Some British Bangladeshis explained to me that their families in London followed religious practices more correctly and earnestly than their extended families did in Sylhet.
But this does not mean that place is unimportant. There are significant differences between those brought up ‘here’ and those brought up ‘there’. The transnational simultaneity meant that Shirin and Rafique, and their parents, engaged in transnational practices and had a deep subconscious sense of belonging to the place they had grown up. Shirin and Rafique’s relief at returning to their flat in London after a visit to Sylhet was palpable; while their parents’ relaxation in the familiar spaces of their bari in Sylhet had also been obvious. While they were in Sylhet, the children had complained about the heat, the mosquitoes, illness, the food, the television, the smell of the toilets, the hard beds, and the overwhelming attention of relatives and acquaintances. In one respect, many of these complaints are ones that are very normal for anyone travelling. Unfamiliar climates, diets and places can be disorientating. But, one of the things that Shirin and Rafique found most unsettling was the way their parents felt so at ease in Sylhet, referred to it as ‘home’ and expected them to feel at home too. There was more to this than the shock of being abroad.
Back in the familiar surroundings of London, Shirin and Rafique reflected on their trip to Sylhet. They were relaxed at home in the familiar surroundings of their flat, on the 9th floor of a council block. Gone was the bewildered and slightly anxious excitement of the visit. The predictable rhythms of their life in London had replaced the rollercoaster of the visit. Their mother was cooking in the tiny kitchen, while their father played with their little brother in the lounge. It was there that I realised how powerful repeated, familiar actions, senses and smells were to our sense of home. They referred to their visit to Sylhet as a holiday to a foreign country, not a visit ‘home’. Shirin held one of her salwar kameez to her nose and inhaled. She could smell Sylhet, and the dark, damp room where the washed clothes dried in her family’s bari.
“It brings you the flashback that you’ve been there,” she said with a smile.
~Benjamin Zeitlyn is the author of Transnational Childhoods: British Bangladeshis, Identities and Social Change published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015.