I, Relic: the story of my grandfather and the Bengalis of the East End

Whenever I walk towards the Brick Lane Mosque in the east end of London I always look at it as a continuation of a Dicken’s novel; from the Artful Dodger picking pockets, cockney’s selling jellied eels, Jack the Ripper spying his next victim in the prolific bawdy houses of the area, to three Bengali Lascars with cutlasses entering said house to reclaim what the prostitutes had taken from them, to Bengalis worshipping in that very building. It is an intrinsic part of the East End where the poor huddling masses have always congregated. 

Before its manifestation as a mosque that very building used to minister to the Huguenot community as it fled Catholic persecution in France in the mid-eighteenth century. For sixty years it stood thus until it was turned into a Wesleyan chapel with an eye to convert the local Jews of the area. But the Jews to no avail clung on to the law of Moses, and so it evolved into a methodist chapel 1809. By 1880 a series of Russian pogroms brought Lithuanian Jews to the area filling it with tailors, bagels, fish and chips and handy boxers, who transformed the church into a synagogue. It remained thus until the area saw an influx of Bengalis and the building became a mosque in 1978- a year before I was born.  

But don’t think for one second that Bengalis are new comers to the area, far from it, they have been there since 1700s. Perhaps the most notable being a secretary to the East India company, I’tisaam Uddin who wrote the first Persian work on Blighty and helped develop the country’s understanding of the Persian language. But what is curious is that it was mostly Sylhetis who came as Lascars or sailors even though that part of the country is landlocked with little access to the sea. Some have posited the idea that the hills so favourable for growing tea and the presence of a navigable river meant that the local populace developed a close relationship to the sea. Bengal after all has always been a stopping off point for ships on the way to the Far East. It was no wonder that Islam came to Bengal within a hundred years of its inception. The area was famous for its shipwrights and would have no doubt remained so had it not been decimated by the arrival of the East India company. Others point to the local populace’s foreign stock coming as it did from the saint Hazrat Shah Jalal and his followers whose offspring configured their character to look outwards and be like the Irishmen of the South,  voyaging and settling in many parts of the world. This includes my Nana, my maternal grandfather who established the Brick Lane mosque.

If truth be told never before have I felt compelled to write his story down, as a journalist I am usually concerned with other people’s stories and not my own. I have as of yet, not figured out why I have this sudden impulse to put pen to paper so to speak. Maybe because I am approaching my fortieth year, and I don’t know yet whether my place is in heaven or hell. Or maybe it’s simply a mid-life crisis when men become particularly vulnerable to nostalgia knowing that one’s youth is no more and one is one the way to becoming a relic. I am after all entering the autumn of my life and the grave does not seem so remote. After all I can no longer walk down the Brick Lane thinking that I shall live forever or that those beautiful women who grace those pavements are within my grasp, if indeed they ever were! And yet those things that satiated me once, satiates me no more. 

I increasingly feel the need to tell my children about this place when I am no more. Perhaps I have seen so much now or am bewildered by the changes around me, that I have a need to return to that idyll of my ancestors which, if not told, will most certainly be forgotten in the saw dust of eternity. I worry that my children will forget who they are and their past becomes mere grist to the ever consuming city that needs a constant flow of the throng to stay alive, erasing their pasts in the process of moulding them into Londoners. After all does the young banker who enters the City of London’s plush offices, remember that poor slave who was thrown overboard in order for the merchant to claim for loss or damage to goods at Lloyds of London? There be no statue for that poor soul. And so perhaps it is now important to put down the story of my Nana, his brother and these Bengali seamen who came to the East End, before they too are forgotten and perhaps even more importantly, the teachings they brought with them are swallowed up in the Londoner’s swagger. 

As much as I love London there are things that our grandfathers taught us that London values less. If the truth be told, what use is honour in London? But that’s what they instilled in us; honour, filial piety, loyalty to kith an kin, honouring the old, respecting wisdom, being a man and looking after one’s own come what may. Love God and be true. Those things don’t seem to matter as much in the city that doesn’t love you back. And should you mention these things to the British-Bengali youngsters, they  laugh, “what you on about bruv?” 

Perhaps I am being melodramatic, over indulgent infected by the same emptiness and narcissism of the selfie generation that I am railing against. But if that be the case indulge me and let me tell you about my grandfather and those like him because they made the East End and I am grateful to him as I am to Mrs Winston who came on HMS Windrush, Mr  Singh, Mrs Jones, Ms Goldstein, Mr Khan, Ms Rashid and Mr Abdullahi as well as Mr Smith and Mr Anderson and all those other people who with their graft and hard earned taxes raised me and educated me. And if the cry is raised that I have become an Uncle Tom then I will retort as my Nana did: Baba to show gratefulness to God is to show gratefulness to people who are mere instruments of His will.

I have never really considered Brick Lane Mosque a relic reposing as it does in quiet dignity in Spitalfields between Fournier Street and Brick Lane. The building has a  sundial and queer avant garde minaret appended to it like an afterthought. Inside, it is a lofty tranquil place with a crystal chandelier and blue carpet. It is a perfect place to find peace away from the busy goings on outside. The mosque is not as slick as its larger counterpart on the Whitechapel Road, East London Mosque. That mosque is run like a business, full accounts, debts, extensions, trustees and all that. And so it should be, it is a thoroughly modern place for modern times. Brick Lane Mosque still struggles to be transparent about where donations are spent, not due to any hint of corruption but probably due to the old ways of those who run it. They still struggle with the monthly bills.  

Unlike the East London Mosque with the Akhis dem, many of Brick Lane Mosque’s worshippers would struggle to outline the religious evidence as to why they perform the rituals the way they do. Their reply runs simply thus: this is what my father taught me, he was a righteous man and closer to the Prophet’s time than you. And they would pray to God with such devotion, that discussing such intellectual issues seems almost pointless, almost sacrilegious, for in their hearts there is no doubt about the veracity of the Prophet and God’s oneness. They look at you as if you were a strange fellow when you quibble over such things. Why quibble over something that was established by those that came before you, how is it that you in the 60 or 70s aided by Saudi petro-dollars have somehow discovered a flaw, when greater intellects than you could not discover them? Does it not sound a tad bit arrogant young man? 

And so, these old timers irrespective of what East London Mosque youngsters think, celebrated the Milad, the birth of the Prophet, like they did in Bangladesh and fed the multitudes; and look at you strangely if you hesitate to celebrate it. Is it a sin to remember and celebrate the birth of the Prophet? Is it a sin to remember Ashura and the death of Imam Hussein at Karbala? They don’t have many sectarian qualms, after all the Persian saint who brought Islam to them in Sylhet, Hazrat Shah Jalal with his followers, had done so, it is said, having crossed that riverine land on their carpets settled there and busied themselves with good- nothing more, nothing less. There were no stalls, no loud speakers, no shariah patrols, nothing, just love and good conduct to all and sundry, and so my ancestors be they Hindu or Buddhist flocked to them. And later, centuries later, the descendants of these men, stood up to the Ingrez  when it was needed. 

These days youngsters find these old sufis docile but forget that it was these very people who started India’s first rebellion against the East India Company in 1782. One of the descendants of Shah Jalal’s followers, Pirzada drew his talwar and beat the local governor, Robert Lindsay in a sword fight and the latter in a most ungentlemanly fashion got hold of a pistol shot him dead. And after that Lindsay met many others who wanted to wreak their revenge on him for that un-chivalrous act. In fact, back in London he met a Saeed Ullah a man servant who had sworn to avenge Pirzada and when he discovered that he stood in front of Lindsay himself drew his sword again. But Lindsay somehow managed to deescalate the situation and Saeed Ullah curiously ended up cooking a curry for him and his family which seems like such a thoroughly Bengali thing to do. 

These are the descendants who now old and wisened sit underneath the crystal chandelier waiting to meet their Maker, some recite Quran in a hypnotical tone that soothes you whilst others snore like brown Santa Clauses warming themselves beside the radiator. Sometimes you might catch one of them reciting a poem to the mawlana in the side room. I watch these old timers and I cannot help but marvel at that generation of men who weren’t ever allowed to be offended, even when they were called Pakis, Wogs and chased down the streets by all sorts of thugs and yet achieved so much. 

My grandfather Shamsul Haque and my great uncle, Ayub Ali landed at Tilbury docks in the East End in 1919. The brothers had left their village, Achol in Jagarnathpur in Sylhet in East Bengal, India, and had already done a stint in New York. I say landed, but they had actually jumped ship and swam for it having nothing to lose and everything to gain; in those days, Lascars didn’t get paid until the job was complete, and that job contract could go on for years. It was akin to modern slavery. Many a Bengali sailor died hungry and penniless on the streets of London no doubt yearning to die in Bengal.

My Nana was only twelve when he came to the East End. Sturdily built, he was a grafter and had an extraordinary gift, whatever he touched turned into money. Along with his older brother, Ali, he worked hard shivering in that cold and strange country. He dragged rolls of cloths on his back in Petticoat Lane and saved enough money to open up the Curry Cafe a year later on Commercial street. The business succeeded and by 1935 he had managed to open up the famous Cafe Shah Jalal, a restaurant and cafe catering for Bengali and Indian Lascars as they were known. He was also a partner to Dilkush Delight in Soho which was run by a compatriot and friend Shah Abdul Majid Qureishi who came to the country in 1934 following the example of the two brothers. The name Dilkush Delight was named after the store that my grandfather had opened in Dhaka, Bengal.

Unlike many of the Bengali sailors in the East End these three men were literate. And so it fell on my grandfather and great uncle and Mr Qureishi to help those who had jumped ship, hunted by the ship companies to fulfil their contract. They sheltered them, fed them and helped those sailors writing letters and sending their remittances to their families. They would register them at India House and the local police station and settled them in their own home number 13 Sandy Street allowing them to live there rent free until they found work and could stand on their own feet.

But whilst my grandfather had the Midas touch, my great uncle was a political animal. Ayub Ali loved the cut and thrust of politics, he seemed to live for it. He wanted Indian independence and demanded Indian sailor’s rights and so the cafe they opened in 1935, Shah Jalal Cafe, were filled with the politicking of activists from Calcutta to Delhi where troublesome lawyers and thinkers were agitating. 

My great uncle went on to set up the Indian Seaman’s Union or league with a view to look after the welfare of Indian sailors. For one shilling a year, the organisation with its office in Christian Street promised to: ‘look after the economic, social and cultural interests of Indian seamen, to provide them with recreation in Great Britain and to communicate with their relatives in India in the event of any misfortunes befalling them’.   During the Blitz they succeeded in establishing the East London Mosque in a meeting which catered for their spiritual welfare. 

But one suspects that there was more to Ayub Ali’s political activities than mere welfare. For he held meetings in Shah Jalal Cafe where all sorts of Indian activists attended from Khrishna Menon to the Indian radicals like Bose. Ali became treasurer to Menon’s All India League and hobnobbed with the founders of Pakistan, Mohammed Jinnah and Liaquat Khan who dropped into the cafe. When Pakistan became a political ambition he became treasurer of Jinnah’s Muslim League in the UK.

By the time the Bengal famine struck after the British empire had impoverished what was one of the richest provinces in the world, my great uncle returned home to his village, got married and involved himself in local politics. My grandfather, remained after independence and set up Orient Travels and other businesses on the Brick Lane. And by the time he became a Pakistani national he had opened up branches of the travel agency in Bradford, London, Karachi and Bangladesh. By the sixties he was successful enough to open up cloth businesses in the East Pakistan’s capital, Dhaka, he returned to his ancestral village married, fathered children and moved to Dhaka.

But as the business prospered my grandfather became increasingly political, and became convinced that East and West Pakistan could not remain as one. They were not only culturally different and geographically distant, but he felt that East Pakistan was being exploited by West Pakistan. He joined the Awami League and set up various associations both in London and East Pakistan that campaigned for Bengali independence and yet although, my grandfather had perhaps the most to lose, he was never a fervent nationalist. When East Pakistan declared its independence in 1971 after Mujibur Rahman was denied the presidency by Bhutto,  he was in Karachi. There the authorities detained him alongside thousands of Bengalis all of whom were unable to leave the country.

One of his Pakistani colleagues, Mr Begg, visited him and advised him to join the Tablighi movement in Pakistan as a way of escaping his detention. My grandfather joined them with a view to escape. But instead of it being merely his get out of jail card, the Tablighi movement this proselytising organisation that spanned all over the world, took hold of him. Though Nana was devout in the ordinary sense, the movement reawakened his devotion to his faith, and for several years or so he abandoned his business interests and travelled the Muslim world preaching the gospel of Islam to lapsed or non-devout Muslims like himself. 

My mother received occasional letters saying what a beautiful country Beirut, Tripoli and many other places were. But his desire to awaken Muslims meant that his businesses went to ruin and his young sons were left to run what remained whilst he flitted between London and Dhaka. It was  during this time that he established the Brick Lane Mosque. But his religious zeal impacted his children to this day. My uncles still have an aversion towards religious movements and imparted a healthy scepticism of religion in us. It has held us in good stead especially with the proliferation of YouTube sheikhs who vie for you to press the ‘like’ button and donate to their cause.

Things were only halted when my Nano, my grandmother and uncle were murdered over a property dispute leaving the whole family devastated. My uncles held the fort and fought a court case whilst my grandfather somehow trundled on. It was God’s will after all, and he had an uncanny way of accepting what has passed, good or bad. And even in that, I now see some of his stoic wisdom. As a journalist it is easy to despair, especially when you see all the horror around you, nothing seems to make sense. And yet I keep despair at bay through the example of my grandfather, he had that unshaken belief that all this madness is in the hands of a loving wise Maker who like a weaver knows the pattern of a beautiful carpet whilst the ant, us, knows it not. And even though the killers were able to bribe their way out of prison and emigrate to the streets of London, at least they and their children still walk, perhaps even pray in that very mosque that my grandfather built and perhaps through it found salvation. 

My grandfather’s ability to forgive them astounded me. How could he brush shoulders with those murderers? But as my Nana would have it, what has passed is due to God’s will. Even if that be the rapaciousness and cruelty of the East India company, for after all perhaps they were the instruments of His will and a manifestation of his divine names. Is one of God’s divine attributes not ‘The Punisher’? And the real test for him and us is perhaps how we deal with the buffeting of history and fate, for whilst one might reject these organisations and cruel acts of men, the way things are after all is due to the Divine will. And to reject that would be to reject His decree. And so Nana accepted Fate even if it hurt. It allowed him to heal and move forward and not be angry where as many of my uncles never could. And so by not accepting that which passed they could not fully heal and move on. After all, even you or I, would we want to change the fact that we now think in English or walk the streets of London? In order for us to be who we are, certain historical events in a Liebnizian way had to happen. And so whilst many historical events surely angers me, my grandfather taught me how to accept the past and so oneself in order to move on. In order to heal one has to accept the past even if it be the way a son accepts a cruel and neglectful father. For in the end it was still that cruel father who gave the son the most precious gift of all- life. These were the cards one had been dealt and the sooner one accepted that, the sooner one could move on- this I think is the secret of Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov.

After my Nano’s passing my Grandfather returned to the East End busying himself with raising money for the Tablighi movement helping to set up their head quarters in East London. He only returned to Dhaka to spend his last days there. And though I didn’t know him as a young boy growing up finding him often distant and strange, now that mosque of his is one of the places where I find peace. In many ways, I feel his presence, as if I can touch him there, as though I am in communion with him. And I pray that I and my descendants too will bear good fruit.

This was a piece I wrote for Critical Muslim|33 (Hurst)