Nick Ahad is a Yorkshireman whose roots lie elsewhere. In the second part of his story about visiting his father's birthplace and family in Bangladesh for the first time, he finds himself changed by his experiences.
Previous part: Journey in search of my heritage
On Christmas morning 1990 one of my presents was an Indiana Jones diary. That year I'd read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13, and was delighted with this present which would let me write my very own diary.
I wrote stories, my innermost thoughts and feelings and took it on holiday to Skegness the following year. On the way home I suddenly felt ill. Not because of the usual travel sickness that afflicted all the Ahad children on the seemingly epic journey between Keighley and the east coast, but because of the thought of my Indiana Jones diary lying on the floor underneath the bed in the chalet where I had forgotten it.
Some stranger was going to find it and read all my hopes and fears and dreams.
I've never kept a diary since. Until I went to Bangladesh.
The first night I arrived in my father's childhood home, I was almost too exhausted to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, jetlagged, I got up, ate something, went back to bed. Later I got up, had a cup of tea, went back to bed. The second day I crawled out around 11am to sit on the front porch with my father and two other men.
"This is your uncle Mukhit and your uncle Jakaria," said Abagee (the Bengali word for father).
"Assalamalikum Sarsar." I mis-pronounced the respectful greeting to both uncles. A trickle of other men arrived to sit in the porch. Mainly to look at me, it seemed.
"Who's this, Abagee?"
"Oh, he's your uncle."
After six more men had arrived and this same conversation had taken place, I took the initiative and greeted the next arrival with "Assalamalikum Sarsar".
The laughter at my mistake was neither embarrassing nor cruel.
"Babul is your bhai sahib (older brother)," explained my father. Babul was the only man in the village who was a bhai sahib as opposed to a Sarsar. Family trees are complicated in Bangladesh. Nine uncles and one "older brother" arrived to sit on the porch. Tea was drunk, quiet conversation swapped, jokes were told. All in Bengali. The only time I understood anything was when my Mukhit Sarsar attempted some of his rudimentary English. It was one of the most beautiful mornings of my life. This is what I wrote in my diary:
"I woke early this morning and found my father sitting with a group of men. Some of them had travelled from other villages and seem afforded less respect than those living in the village because they are related through my grandmother rather than my grandfather.
"I started to feel something I didn't truly understand. I started to feel taller, bigger… fuller. When I left England, M told me that if I did one thing on this trip I should feed my soul. In the village now we – my father and his family – are well respected, well-educated, rich people. We used to be like everyone else, scraping an existence. In the rest of Bangladesh we were poor people from the village, descendants of fishermen. In the rest of the world we had nothing.
"And yet my grandfather and my father could see another world. It makes me want to grab my father by the shoulders and scream in his face 'how, how, how?' Then hug him and say 'thank you'."
My father's decision to teach his children nothing of their dual heritage is something I have come to understand better as I have grown older.
Sometimes a particular saying or phrase will stick with you. One etched itself onto my heart. "You don't know who you are until you understand where you have come from." That morning I understood. I had worked hard to become part of England. My love of Yorkshire is boundless. My pride in the beautiful hills high above my home town, Keighley, is endless.
Rupert Brooke said that some corner of a foreign field will always be England but in spite of all my efforts to "become" I've always known that some corner of a foreign field is me. When I saw what my corner looked like, I was filled with pride, love, happiness.
This was the porch where my father, 44-years ago, had taken his first faltering steps towards England and to my future. To have had those dreams in a village in the jungle must have required ambition bigger than oceans.
Later that day we – my father and an assortment of uncles went to see our land. These rice fields had been purchased with money my father sent back from Yorkshire.
Sylhet is the name of this region and the capital is Sylhet town. Within Sylhet is Bishwanath, also the name of a town. Within the Bishwanath region are villages mostly built around a bazaar from which they take their names.
In our village of Habra Bazaar are six houses, each one belonging to a family to whom we are related.
In England I have three English aunties, five English cousins, one Bangladeshi auntie and four Bangladeshi cousins. In Bangladesh on the second morning, my family exploded to the point where I couldn't keep track. Walking through Habra Bazaar, every other person was an uncle, though the further we walked from the six houses of our own village, or bari, the more distantly related these became.
"His dad married my dad's cousin from another village," explained my father on meeting the first uncle. "His mother had a sister who married your grandad's cousin brother who…", at the second.
Meeting new friends I'm always asked, "So where are you actually from?" Depending on how the question is asked, I am either happy to reveal the source of my unusual looks or challenge the questioner to guess. Walking through Habra Bazaar was another revelation. Everyone looked like me. There were plenty of variations, people were darker, slimmer, had larger noses. But my oval-shaped eyes, and the shape of my face I recognised over and over.
On the way to the rice fields we came to a pond dug into the mud next to the road. "This was where I used to come swimming when I was younger," my father told me. I have a painful memory of childhood involving a trip to Keighley swimming baths. A mother ordered her children out of the water when my family climbed into the pool. I couldn't have been any more than eight-years-old, but I remember the way my white mother looked at the other white mother. This "swimming pool" of my father's childhood helped me to understand the scale of the sacrifices that are made on behalf of the children of immigrants.
I stayed in Bangladesh for just under three weeks. Village life slowed to the point where time was measured only by sunlight and darkness. I watched England play cricket on Khoyer Sarsar's television, the only one in the village. I travelled to Sylhet town – a horrible, dirty, heavily polluted place where regard for human life seemed minimal and where child beggars hung on to our auto-rickshaw pleading "money, Englishman".
It was also one of the most alive places I have ever seen. The threat of death from disease covered every piece of fly-infested fruit sold on the side of the road, and yet life continually conquered.
I sat in a tea shop in Habra Bazaar watching men violently spit red saliva from their paan-chewing mouths onto the floor. I listened to my father, equally violently, discuss politics with my fundamentalist Muslim uncle whose money was made in Saudi Arabia. Out of mischief my father referred to him as "your Osama Bin Laden uncle" on account of his white robes, headdress, long beard and attitude to his faith.
I picked up little bits of Bengali – enough inadequately to express the thanks for the way we were received and fed in each family member's house.
I woke each morning to the sound of the sunrise Azaan – call to prayer – and then listened to my Mukhit Sarsar sing verses from the Quran outside his house next door.
I played cricket with my brother on the patch of concrete in front of our house and watched the children swarm around whenever we brought out the bat carved by an uncle. I visited the graveyard where my grandfather, who sent my father to England, is buried. I sat with my grandmother in the house where she raised my father and saw a smile and a look I've never seen before.
I missed England, my family, and my fiance. I watched my Jakaria Sarsar commentate on an illegal domino game. I rode on the back of a motorbike and watched chickens and goats scatter before us as we raced along mud roads. I fed my soul and returned to Yorkshire to my old life with a new phrase ringing in my ears – "Ami Bangla Bari Balla Fie" (I like my Bangladeshi village very much.)
I recalled the argument I'd once had with an Indian girl, when I told her I was half-caste and she was horrified at the term.
I now realised how misguided I was to consider myself half-English, half-Bangladeshi, half a person. When I stepped off the plane in Manchester I realised I was not a half-caste any longer but maybe a double-cast – twice of everything.
I have a memory of moving into a new house and finding a wall with empty faded marks where something should have been hanging. There were similar omissions on the wall of my life.
Back from Bangladesh, I understood that I had discovered there the bright, colourful pictures that filled my blank spaces.