Journey in search of my heritage

Nick Ahad is a Yorkshireman whose roots lie elsewhere. Here, in the first of two pieces, he journeys from Keighley to Bangladesh to discover them for the first time.

It takes a long time to get to Bangladesh.

A recognised route takes you from Manchester to Dubai, Dubai to Dhaka, Dhaka to Sylhet. Around 31 hours. As hauls go, it's a long one.

The journey took me a total of 30 years, three months and four days.

That's how old I was the first time I stepped foot on Bangladeshi soil. Trod in the earth of my father, grandfather, his father and fathers before them.

Up to that point my world had been filled with the sights and sounds of England, the place where my mother was born. I was a typical boy from Keighley. I was born at Airedale Hospital. I lived on Bront Street. I played in Victoria Park. I went to Bradford Grammar School. But there was something that always marked me out as different. The colour of my complexion and the fact that inside I only ever half belonged to the country in which I grew up.

Half-caste is a funny word. It's not used much now – it's not politically correct. But it was the word I always used to describe myself growing up.

Having used it all my life, the word never offended me.

It didn't make me uncomfortable. It was only at university that I began to realise that perhaps there were better words to sum up the explanation I'd used as a child: "Me mum's white and me dad's brown."

I remember vividly the horrified look on the face of a friend, an Indian girl, when I first told her: "I'm half-caste." It prompted a long and heated discussion, at the end of which, I continued using the word and she continued to be horrified.

Often when you move into a new house, the walls have faded areas where pictures once hung. I was aware that something similar marked the wall of my life – pale squares where something seemed to be missing. Would my trip help to fill them in? To understand my journey, there are a few other things you need to know.

First, the byline at the top of this article. Nick Ahad is the name I've always used on my stories – it's not my real name. My given name, Nicholas Ahad, was a gift from my father. When his first child, a son, was born, he made the decision that had a profound effect on the rest of his family and on himself. It shaped lives and had consequences that reverberated across an ocean.

As Nicholas, I was sent out into the world with a complexion neither English nor Asian – certainly strange in a small Yorkshire town in the Seventies and early Eighties – and an English first name. Nothing really matched.

A couple of years ago, I met a wonderful woman, a Leeds-based poet named Sitara Khan. She wanted to know about the decision, why I did not speak any Bengali, why I knew nothing of my Bangladeshi heritage. The shortest way to explain is that my father did all he could to give me a clear path.

By making me as white, or English, as possible, my father was giving me the best chance of success. He was giving me a pass. Or so he believed. I love my father and owe him and my mother everything, but the pass he gave me came at an awful price.

A Jewish couple I became friends with recently told me that they experience a similar feeling. They learned how to "pass". If we adopt the right attitude, deny our true selves, we can pass ourselves off as indigenous, as a full part of the society we are in. The name Nicholas was a key part of my pass.

I explained this to Sitara, explained why Bangladesh was an undiscovered country to me, why there was a Bangladesh-shaped hole in my life.

"You do know that your country has a long and proud history of art and literature? Some of the most beautiful and poetic writing from South-East Asia comes from your country. Haven't you even heard of Rabindranath Tagore?"

I didn't answer.

This woman, who I had met half an hour earlier, held me in her arms, barely able to blink back the tears filling her eyes and said: "What have we done to our children?"

I had heard variations of this question when I was growing up in Keighley. "What about the children?" people would sometimes ask my mother while I stood with her. It's one of my earliest memories. I look back now and realise how unusual we must have looked, my mother walking around a relatively poor Yorkshire town, a white woman who fitted in with all the other mothers in the playground – except that the baby in her pushchair was brown. I never met another child like me all through primary school.

The children were either white or brown. None, like me, were both.

People said to my mother – fine, you may have married an Asian man, that was your choice, but the poor children will grow up confused and shunned by all, be without a choice. Such was the lot of a half-caste child.

Thirty-odd years later I sat in my Khoyer Sarsar's (uncle Khoyer's) stall in Habra Bazarr, a fizzy drink called Tiger (which seems to be the national drink of Bangladesh), in hand. Those early memories returned. What about the children? I'll tell you about the children.

We – my brother and two sisters – are among the luckiest children in the world. We are children of the world. We might not be fully accepted by all of English society, nor all Bangladeshi, but that gives us an outlook few others can share. We can find our pockets in both societies in a way that very few will ever experience.

Growing up, my father had told us little about Bangladesh. The less we knew, the less we could betray. One thing my father did allow himself and us was a word. When all the children in the street shouted "Dad" or "Daddy", we called him "Abagee", the Bengali word for dad. It was a whisper of a connection, a spider's web link to Bangladesh.

My dad flew out to Bangladesh a week earlier than us to prepare the family house for my brother and me for our first ever visit. We set off from Yorkshire with my auntie, his only sister.

At Dhaka airport we joined the back of a long queue. Two hours queueing saw us move 10 yards. An official came forward and fast-tracked us into the country.

Such help comes, like most things in Bangladesh, at a price. The 10 note we proffered was thrust back with disdain. The 20 was more acceptable.

An eight-hour delay in Dhaka saw our connecting flight touch down in Sylhet. This is the region where the majority of the Bangladeshis in Britain – and my father – come from.

Shortly after 11pm on December 2 last year, I hugged my father as we arrived. It was a hug between two men who had not shown such affection in over a decade. Awkward.

"This is your uncle," my father told us four separate times when we asked about the men with him at Sylhet airport, a terminal less sophisticated than Bradford Interchange circa 1985.

"These roads are perfect compared to where we're going," Abagee shouted back to us from the front of the minibus as it swerved to avoid yet another goat in the road on the way to my dad's village. "In 10 minutes you'll see proper poverty."

We headed out of Sylhet town, a place I would visit several times over the coming few weeks and like less with each trip.

We travelled 50 minutes, took a right, travelled 50 minutes more and took another right. The blackness outside the windows restricted our first glimpse of Bangladesh. After almost a couple of hours of bouncing in the back of the cab, with the roads becoming gradually narrower and more potholed, we took another right, met a bridge and almost didn't make it to the top. We learned later this was for a good reason. It was built to be virtually unpassable in order to protect the village on the other side, my father's village. Lurching down the other side of the bridge, the chassis of the vehicle scraped along the ground. We turned left and were welcomed by a jungle.

Trying to explain our arrival to friends since returning to Yorkshire has proved impossible. I'll try again now.

There were trees everywhere. A narrow path had been cleared, just a little smaller than the width of our minibus taxi. As it took a left deeper into the jungle, it stuck fast between two trees. We climbed out and stepped on to that mud track, which led directly into the village. I want to tell you it was a moment of revelation. I'd like to tell you I cried, felt a sense of connection. I want to write that a powerful force ran through my body into the earth beneath my feet. I want to say I'd arrived home and I'd waited 30 years for this moment.

How did I actually feel? Knackered. Confused. A cacophony of voices speaking an unfamiliar tongue filled the air. Someone took our bags out of the minibus. A strange bearded man tried to take my rucksack containing my important documents, money and passport. I held on fiercely. Later I was filled with shame when I learnt he was my Mukhit Sarsar (uncle Mukhit). He had grown up in my father's house, and his smile was to greet me each morning I stepped out into the village. He spent a week's wage on the breakfast his family cooked for me, my brother and father later that week. The moment of revelation I was looking for would come a few days later.

My grandfather died when I was a young boy. My grandmother is a fearsome, formidable woman who commands respect among her community in England. In Bangladesh she rules the village. Although she is a mother to two children of her own, she has acted as a mother to many in the village, raising a number of children in our family home.

All of this I know at second hand because my grandmother speaks no English and I no Bengali. I've never had a conversation with my grandmother. We've sat together and she always used to hug me whenever she saw me, pulling me close and sniffing my cheek, a sign of affection in Bangladeshi society. But I've never been able to tell her anything directly unless my auntie or father were on hand to translate.

When we finally arrived at the village in Bangladesh, my grandmother was also waiting. Although we don't share a language, we share enough. Words were unnecessary when I saw her face. I saw the way her eyes looked when she saw me, my brother and my father standing together in the house which my grandfather had built with his own hands and where my father had grown up.

The first night in that house was strange and confusing. We were given the grand tour. It is by far the grandest in the village – not only does it have an indoor toilet, it has an indoor version known in the village as a "London toilet". This means a porcelain bowl and a seat, as opposed to a hole in the ground. The house even has a shower.

It was also filled with the smell of petrol. The electricity in the village goes off at around 5pm and comes back on around 9pm and for the bit in the middle, a petrol generator takes over. When I arrived it sat in the corner of my father's bedroom.

That night, not for the last time during the trip, I sat in the front room watching strange faces watching me and speaking a language I didn't understand. It was exhausting.

I went to bed. The room where I slept was separated from my father's room by a wall that didn't meet the ceiling. Through the three-foot gap came petrol fumes that filled my room.

And still the epiphany refused to arrive.

Next: Nick Ahad comes to terms with his Yorkshire-Bangladesh heritage