image by: Tahera Begum

A clear sky is a rare sight in London, but it is a perfect day for my cousin’s wedding in Luton.

“Should I bring my jacket?’ my father asks.

We’re standing in the passage way of our house, he’s in his three piece suit, creeping up behind him is my sister with a lint roller.
“Most of the dust is gone but I can’t get this stain off your chest”.

I pace around the living room just around the corner, double-checking I’m not leaving anything behind.”It’s a banana stain”. There is a small echo of quiet chuckles from my sister, Mum and me. The kind of echo where all the electronics in the house are turned off and you can hear almost everything.

“Do you know how I got this stain? Nazeerah was sitting in the car with me when we were Bangladesh, on our way back from somewhere. She was eating a banana and fell asleep on me whist doing so, hence the stain.”
Laughter. I might have guessed that my youngest sibling did something like that yet I did not expect that anecdote. Right, I knew I’d forgotten something. My flats, I left the pair upstairs in my room. My feet may hurt if I carry on wearing heels the whole day, so it is good to have back up. I go up for a few seconds, only to come downstairs to see my father and sister gone and my mother waiting by the door. I do not like being the last one to leave the house. I do not like it because my father does not. If you are the last to leave it is assumed you were deliberately wasting his time and sabotaging the rest of the journey. He gets that attitude from my grandfather – there is a story that goes round that my uncle’s wife took such a long time getting ready for an event that my grandfather threw a fit and no one ended up going despite everyone being dressed. You did as he told you. So once my father raises his voice yelling “are you ready ye-“, everybody ends up blaming each other rather than telling my dad to control his temper. He gets agitated when asked and pleasing him is better than reformation. (As my mother says “your father” is quite impatient”).

Growing up I heard from friends and classmates about valuable items or objects that were passed down the family through generations. As a child I never had that physical thing that I could show, something that lived through and passed down the many families. The older I got the more I realised the treasures we value most in our family are stories. Funny stories, happy stories, sad stories, stories surrounding nostalgia or stories that make you upset or laugh. The power lies in the way people told them and my father is a perfect storyteller. It is a double-edged sword – unlike an object, storytelling relies on memory. As a first born from both sides of the family I had a tremendous amount of memories and stories that I would repeat over and over, but I missed a few bits because I could not make the distinction between dream or memory. There is a heavy atmosphere when asking about the past. There is nothing casual about it. Asking the son of a Bengali immigrant about his teenage experience growing up on the rough streets of East London is not easy to approach.

My father lived and grew up in Old Castle Street in Aldgate East. The roads in front of the house conjoined with another, you could walk round places like Whitechapel, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green and of course Brick Lane – a hub of a thriving Bengali community and still come back at the house. To this day I have a habit of just walking around the area than riding the bus.

He smokes a cigarette in the car, it is the perfect time to ask him. I anticipate rejection and questions as to why I would ask him; this in turn will lead to other questions as to why I chose this and him. I am prepared and not prepared.

“It’s completely changed it’s not like before,” I sense a unhappy tone in his answer.
Well at least I got that one out of the way, one of the last things I would have liked to ask him is about the gentrification. There was a story in 2015 on the BBC about the threats most of the residents were facing due to high price of new flats and homes, these properties were almost unaffordable and I would have liked to hear his opinions on that matter. However the tone of his voice made me dismiss it altogether, there is no point arguing about inevitable change. We were not living there anymore but why does it hurt him? Why does it hurt me?

There is a sense of community in Brick Lane, its history of immigrants arriving from different parts of the world growing around each other in a country not familiar to them. It was the consensus that you arrived to have a better life. But I try to avoid speaking about the obvious.

If anyone else were to meet my father, you would realise you cannot just ask him. His demeanour is secretive in a frightening way. As the eldest of four siblings the weight he carries on his shoulders is obvious. His own trials and tribulations appear as smoke, especially when he lights a cigarette. He wears his heart on his sleeve for definite.

“How has it changed?”

My mother laughs, “That’s all you’re going to hear tonight, on how it has completely changed.”
Driving past Canning Town, my dad is eager to get to the wedding venue on time, he weaves the car in and out of traffic, all the while when he speaks I try to imagine what it must have been like. Lending my ear all I could feel is empathy because I once walked the very same roads he did.

He arrived in Loughborough in 1985 and stayed there for one year. There is no chronology to when he recalls his memories. I remind him now and again to get back on topic but I’m not sure he likes that structure – he just wants to speak freely. It is about him after all, so it is his way if I were to receive any answers. I expected the same enthusiasm when he said everything had changed but his answers were delivered much more quietly soon after. I could not tell if he had forgotten, I did not want to ask.
Number 5, referred to 5 Jacobson House in Old Castle Street, in Aldgate East. It is the first house he lived in with the rest of his family. When he first arrived in England, it was just his father and younger brother. His mother and the rest of the siblings were back ‘home’ in the village in Bangladesh. They were not to come until everything was settled.

“We were offered the house as a two bedroom. Your grandfather was offered a viewing, heard it was in Aldgate somewhere. On the day of the viewing, he ended up seeing people living there already, another Bengali family. See back then, “(he would use this phrase often),” it was open house. You were just given the keys to go and take a look for yourself, unlike now where there is much more precaution. The guy staying there said leave the house because it belonged to him.”

“What happened?”

“Well according to the system, this house is on offer so your grandfather was not going to budge either. So he took them to court even though we were offered another place to stay.”
“That’s where your dad gets his stubbornness from” my mother chimes in.
“It was easier back then to get a house when you claimed homeless. To go homeless, you turn up at the ‘office’ and tell them exactly that and you were guaranteed a place, unlike now where there are complications and a massive waiting list.”

“It’s harder now Dad, most likely because of the population has increased especially in London.”
He says nothing to that.

“We received rationing as well – one loaf of bread, four to six eggs, milk etcetera – we did not know what to do with them because we received a new ration everyday. What do you do with a new loaf of bread when it’s hard to finish the one they gave you previously?”
“What do you do?” my sister asks.
“You sell it.”
Everyone in the car bursts out laughing, we need not ask further; of course he will sell it. How do you earn extra money on the side whilst staying in a foreign country? You sell your rations. His timing in response is comedic.

Eighty per cent of Brick Lane had garment factories. Behind Brick Lane Mosque was a leather factory called Bonus Heart. The building is still there he says “But I don’t know what its used for now.”

The majority of the people in Brick Lane were from a Bengali background – ‘Factory masters’ as my dad would recall, or those overlooking the workers were either Jewish or Turkish. The workers were mostly Bengali; occasionally he would see Pakistani or Indian workers. Before that my dad worked at a Sari house in Whitechapel. Somewhere along the line he worked in a beer factory, he would not elaborate on that.

“What was your role?” I ask. He stays silent awkwardly, and it makes my sister and me laugh, which in turn makes my parents laugh.

“Were you in charge of tasting or…”

He continues laughing “No, no I didn’t like working there I hated the smell of alcohol so I left after two weeks.” After working in the Truman Brewery, he went on to work in a leather factory. “It was seasonal work which means there was no fixed timetable, you went when they needed workers.” His job was to make leather jackets using the machines. There was a specific machine shaped like a cutter so you can cut out the shape of the jacket fast. Most days he worked early mornings to late evenings.

“Why work there? Why Brick Lane?”
“Most of the factories were there and in the surrounding area, you took your pick – Whitechapel, Shoreditch and so forth.”
“How old were you when all of this was going on?”
“Seventeen or eighteen.” My father was in early twenties when I was born, some reason I couldn’t picture him as a teenager, it is a feeling I could not shake. The fact that he was once that young.
“Did you know anyone who ran a business then or now?”
He said he knew someone who worked in, what is now known as Sainsburys at Whitechapel, when it was a broken down building called UK Grocers. “Other than that No. No friends or relatives though.”
(A chain of memories is hard to keep up with).

I wonder how that loneliness felt. My own journey to school consisted of me waking up earlier than my friends so I could get ready and pick them up one by one. It started off in Flower and Dean Walk at the top of Brick Lane, my friend insisted it is still technically still Brick Lane, behind ‘Bangla Town’, a Bangladeshi grocery store lived my other friend. Three of us will walk until Weavers Field in Bethnal Green and catch up with the rest of us who would then make our journey to school. Recollecting, it was a simple time for me and I realize how great it was to have that companionship and sense of security, which my Dad never had or felt. To ease the (weariness) in the car my mother will join in every now and again– she is always good at this. Her own personal history started in Ipswich where her dad brought his family to Docklands to live on the Isle of Dogs. My dad could not hold back now.

“It was considered such as dirty place, literally dirty,” he would use that word again. ‘Dirty’ is not only used to describe the street conditions, but the cold welcome from neighbours, and the racism. “Docklands was considered a bad place. It was all marsh. Whoever stayed there walked around during the day rather than at night because of racism.”

“We were the only brown kids in school, and the only Bengali family in the building,” my mother says, a story I’ve heard many times. “The kids were alright I guess, they were nice to us – I swam in the docks when they asked us to go for a swim, it was the teachers who treated us differently, more passive and I hated it.”
Picking up the frustration in her voice I ask, “Did they say something to you directly?”
“No, it’s just I can’t believe how vulnerable I was not knowing that racism existed.” I glance at my father who is silent and keeping his eyes focused on the road. She is definitely speaking for both of them now.
“I used to keep my head down and didn’t know how to speak to people. I wasn’t shy, I was worried…”

“That you couldn’t integrate?” my sister asks.

“It wasn’t about integration – I went to Mulberry school near Watney Market. It is an all girls school, most of the students were Bengali, so in a sense I was protected. I went straight to school and came home. It is not until I got in the Civil Service that I had white faces effing and blinding at me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I can’t believe how naive I was.”

I interrupt: “How did you overcome that, could you not leave?”

“I had to provide for your grandmother and your uncles and aunties because my dad passed away, so I was earning by the time I was nineteen. I couldn’t just leave, so…I looked them in the eye eventually” she smiled. “Now people swear at me for different reasons.”

It is funny how my mother turned that hate into strength compared, to my father who bottles up those experiences. To him it was a struggle he overcame; there was no use mentioning it again.

“It was harder for women than it was for men,” he says casually.

Which leads me to my next question, “Were there any women working in those factories?”

A straightforward and quick response “No”, my father’s tone implies that I already knew the history of women and work in England, especially women of ethnic minority.

“Women mostly worked at home. A van would come by dropping off materials and your Nan would sew jeans, dresses and so on, and they would come and pick it up. She earned a pound or sometimes less than that. Those materials would then go on to sell for thirty or fifty quid. It was a living though – everybody worked hard.”
Women did the lining for jeans, brocade and carpet bags, conditions as my dad describes it again as ‘dirty’.

We are on our way back, it’s the end of the day and the wedding went well. My parents approved of the catering rather than focusing on the bride and groom. After all these years and changes, I asked him about the curry houses and the bengali street signs, my main question is what contribution did the Bengali community make to Brick Lane. Everybody in the car is free to respond.

“We brought food, clothes and culture I guess.”

“Did you bring home, or did it remind you of home?”

“There was a slight atmosphere of intimidation, although there were a lot of Bengalis. There was the awareness of isolation, and alien and foreign feeling. Everything was overwhelming, everybody was there for their own reasons and they kept their cards close to their chest, they would not share their struggles. Somehow you knew and at the same time you did not. You may have it easier and celebrate the diversity however it was not celebrated then. Even though I don’t feel this way anymore, the concept of multiculturalism eases us now but it sure was not like that in the 1970’s or 80’s. Our differences were highlighted which made us feel we had no one but ourselves.”

I sit back with an uncanny feeling. There is an indescribable comfort that Brick Lane provided for my father and me.

Tahera Begum

Tahera Begum

Tahera was born in London and lives there still. She would like to live in Canada one day and enjoys writing short stories and poetry. She has a passion for history and has experience in teaching at various museums. This in turn helps her with her current role as a teacher at a supplementary school. With her fondness for reading, she would like to pursue a career in teaching English Literature. Her interest lies in playing video games and watching foreign films.