As a child I was taken several times to Bangladesh by my parents (they were born in India, which then became East Pakistan and eventually Bangladesh) and the trips usually involved a very, very long journey starting with an overnight bus from North Wales to Heathrow, endless stopovers (as these were probably the cheapest flights!) and ending up in the house of a relative we barely knew throughout the excessively hot and humid summer months, so memories of those trips are mixed. The stopovers often involved a long time in St. Petersburg, Moscow – between 4 – 24 hours, Karachi, Mumbai and finally Dhaka.
I have distinct memories of having to switch from speaking English to Bangla – in the household we spoke a mixture which we called ‘Benglish’. I’ve been told that this is a strange experience for an outsider to look in at this seamless code-switching between siblings and parents. I had of course been brought up on Bengali food, but through going to an English school I developed a taste for Western foods too. So as an adult I have learnt to cook dishes from all over the world and cook according to whatever my mood and taste buds are screaming out for!
I grew up in a traditional Bengali family, but the influence of the West was heavy with me and I integrated well into Western society, hence think of myself as a world citizen with a mixed identity, naturally curious of all cultures and traditions, eager to learn as much as I can through the privilege of travel and happy to ‘adopt’ traditions and cultures that attract and touch me, all integrating into my own strange muddle of ‘me’.
Identity is an ongoing question for me and one which I assume will remain unanswered, but I strive to at least find some resolution as I continue to explore, enquire and understand.
My first trip back as an adult was different in many ways. So much so that I had to write a piece about how I felt after the trip – how I felt about going “Back to My Roots”:
BACK TO MY ROOTS
Another trip to Bangladesh, another month of hell – I was absolutely dreading it. My childhood memories came flooding back – begging beggars; sticky, sticky heat; dusty, dusty streets. A world alien to me, but still my roots. It was important to my parents that I remembered those damn roots! Of course, being a child of migrants based in a predominantly white area of the UK, with little support or influence from their native country was difficult for them, especially as they watched their children develop personalities and characteristics so unlike their own – another world. So the regular visits back ‘home’ were essential to at least try to keep some of those connections and customs alive.
First trip back for years and I was scared. A slap, or a kiss? The plane doors opened and that familiar heat hit me in the face. The next thing I knew was that I was surrounded by brown people. It may sound stupid because I’M brown, but I was just not used to being surrounded by so many brown people! Bengali was pounding in my ears – some of it familiar, some of it not. Women covered in layers and layers of clothing and men in next to nothing. I was sweating, yet this wasn’t a place for shorts and t-shirts, but a place of dignity. I was to spend the next few weeks being a ‘Good Muslim Girl’, yet also a hypocrite – an alcohol drinking, pork-eating, miniskirt wearing hypocrite. I had grown up being taught all the ‘rules’, but I did question. Why was I not allowed to do everything that other children around me were allowed to do? I understand now that my parents only wanted to protect us. In my youthful eyes, I saw myself as like all the other children, even though I had experienced numerous racist incidents – but I still didn’t understand that I stood out amongst that crowd, exposed in my vulnerability. I could never blend in. Protection.
As we drove through the Dhaka streets, the smell of fresh spices wafted through the warm air – that beautiful, beautiful smell that I had so desperately missed. Smoke from burning wood filled the lunchtime air and that particular smell directly from the streets of Bangladesh has remained a thread that connects me to my roots wherever I’ve travelled. Every now and again, I’ll be walking down a road of a place where street food is in abundance, then I’ll walk past a stall that’s using that same wood that I’ve smelt in Bangladesh and it transports me straight back. I’ve smelt it in London, Jamaica, Nanyuki and even at a barbecue in North Wales. It’s powerful, poignant and deeply moving and I don’t know why, other than the fact it takes back to my childhood.
Excitement started to rush through my veins as we drove down those streets of Dhaka. The roads were pandemonium and all I could hope for was to survive the manic Bangladeshi driving and to arrive safely at my destination. There must be something in my blood because this chaos triggered another childhood memory. The joy and sheer fun as ‘English’ kids of waving down a rickshaw and piling in with my siblings after bargaining a fair price for the ride using our pigeon Bangla, pleased as punch at the deal we’d negotiated.
And then feeling the warm breeze on our young faces as we drove through madness almost in slow motion, ignoring the crazy cars, the perilous buses, the ‘baby taxis’ and the ox-drawn carts. As children we felt no fear, focussing on the pleasure of the rickshaw ride alone, just us simply giggling and laughing all the way. So despite these uncertainties, I had missed the madness more than I had known - missed the noise, missed the thrill of unknown threats and the constant confusion. And I realised in that moment that I would always wonder who I am and that I must always be confused.
A trip to the countryside followed travelling in a minibus, an 8-seater, and in typical Bangla fashion we managed to squeeze in twelve of us plus my baby niece on my cousin’s lap. The Western me, the me that I used to a seatbelt and a Starbucks, was annoyed at the thought of this long uncomfortable journey with too many people and no air conditioning being forced upon me, but on reflection it was one of the most memorable bonding experiences that I’ve had, despite the lack of leg room. We laughed the whole way and the adventure across rivers and roads that are not really roads at all, was worth it.
The countryside as we approached the lands of my grandfathers is beautiful. There, I felt complete calmness and luxuriated in the delicious tastes of tropical fruits straight from the trees and my Auntie’s magnificent cooking. My mother is an amazing cook. We grew up on freshly prepared delicious cooking but there are certain dishes that you can only experience in Bangladesh, mainly because of the availability of fresh produce and ingredients that are required to create the very particular taste of the region. So of course, as memories flooded back, I took full advantage of those favourite dishes and my Aunty willingly spoilt me rotten, offering me fresh fish curries with vegetables picked from our farmland and sweet dishes made with fresh coconut and molasses. I could have happily have stayed there a month to cleanse my body and soul, to escape the pressures of the West and work.
To be honest, the memories I had of Bangladesh were childish memories. I had visions of inquisitive relatives poking and prodding, asking question after question. But to my surprise, I was more curious about their lives. You see, I’m a grown-up woman now, and realise that adults do poke and prod children in an attempt to identify with them. But we forget what it is really like to be interrogated in that way and can lose the truth of our own childhood.
I realised that in actual fact, I was privileged – I had the best of both worlds. East meets West and I was a product of that union. I have retained the family values of the East and gained ambition from the West. Deep down I know I’ll never live in the country where I have language and roots, but I will always feel the need to go back to the beginning. So I embrace both worlds enjoying the richness, insight and understanding from both and endeavouring to harvest the wisdom of two cultures that are poles apart.
I think I will be greedy, because I want to and I know I can.