What happens when you die? It’s a question asked by scholars, poets, writers through the ages. It is also, in a far less philosophical way, a question I travelled 5,000 miles to ask my father.
Like thousands of people in West Yorkshire my roots lie in another country. Mine, on my paternal side, are from a small region of Bangladesh called Sylhet. It was to this region in the 1950s that the British government sent representatives to recruit cheap labour for the factories of England. They went to Sylhet because the region was so poor, therefore the potential workforce, motivated. They recruited men like my grandfather to come to England.
In the mid-1960s when my father was about ten years old my grandfather sent for him. The young Abdul Ahad stepped out of his house and crossed the mud road of the six-house village where he grew up. He headed for a future that would mean a son born in Keighley in a world entirely different to his own.
The first time I returned to my father’s home in Bangladesh I was 30 years old. And three months. And four days. I know this because I wrote about that journey for the Yorkshire Post. I was a ‘Yorkshireman whose roots lie half a world away’, said the headline.
In October this year, I returned to the village. It was my third visit, but the hardest one I’ve undertaken. This time I had to ask a question no son ever wants to ask a father, but one that becomes ever more pressing as the years go by. It’s the question of what happens when he’s no longer here.
Last year my always apparently immortal father had a heart attack and a mini stroke. It’s a tough moment when you realise the man who bore you on his back a thousand times might be made of too solid flesh. A couple of stents pumping blood from the engine of his body now help keep him upright, but even he is clearly now mindful of the fact that he was born, as Samuel Beckett said, astride the grave.
The future needs to be talked about. Getting your affairs in order when you begin your journey in one country and end it in another is a complicated matter and when the journey’s end is quite so different from the journey’s beginning, then the task is mind expanding.
That is the phrase that followed me around Sylhet during this most recent trip. I felt like my mind was being expanded, or perhaps more correctly, stretched. To stand at the side of the pool where my father learned to swim, a mud pond with grass verges all round, and remember my own swimming lessons in the freezing Victorian-built Keighley Swimming Baths seemed to pull and stretch at my understanding of the world. Each generation hopes to be outdone by the next, but to travel so far, from a mud hut with a tin roof to my own experience of life seems the kind of leap only the creators of Superman imagined.
This story, my story, is of course one shared by all children of immigrants. When they leave the country of their birth, their lives and all they know, immigrants do so in the hope of sending their children into life in a different direction to their own.
When you are born where my father was born, most directions are up. If you start life in a village in Northern Bangladesh and your children are born in Yorkshire, they will always be a superhero’s leap away from your own beginnings.
So it was with me. That first trip to Bangladesh, a decade ago, I remember an epiphany arriving as I stood on the porch of the house which my father had left 50 years before. I stood and looked out into a light-swallowing jungle and imagined the journey he had made. Tears flowed and I understood something about where I’m from.
This time I stood on that porch and attempted to understand something else. What will happen when the house my grandfather built passes to me?
Marrying a white English woman, having four mixed race children who had in their first three years at school more formal education than he ever received has done little to sever the link between Bangladesh and my father’s heart.
But what about my link to his land? My father never taught me his language. I don’t speak Bengali. It means that when I sit in the house where he grew up, listening as he speaks to the other men in the village, I can’t fathom what they are saying. What I do understand when I listen to the men talk is that in Bangladesh for me it’s not just an inheritance, but a responsibility. These men who I don’t understand are family. The women and children in the village are also kin.
My head tells me that this house, a house which my grandfather literally built with his hands, is a link to where I come from. It is the most impractical thing in the world for me to take on the responsibility of maintaining this house.
And yet. To turn my back on Bangladesh and to say that my life is and will always remain an England of warm beer and cold winter nights is to turn my back on a vital part of my heritage.
Life here in Yorkshire is what I understand and it is where I know I belong. And yet. The heart and the head tussle. When I came back to England after this most recent trip I went to a curry restaurant in Leeds.
I spoke to the waiter, a Bangladeshi whose grandparents came from Sylhet (most ‘Indian’ restaurants are staffed by Bangladeshis by the way). He had no such interior struggle.
He, like me, had been to Sylhet to see his roots. He hated it. Couldn’t wait to get back to Blighty. Every child of immigrants has their own take on the story of their attachment to ‘back home’.
The stories are as varied as the people we are. One thing we do all share, however, is the undeniable knowledge that some part of a foreign country will be forever us.
In the future, hopefully a long way off into the future, I will become the heir to my father’s land and home in Bangladesh. It’s not worth a fortune. It’s a house and seven rice fields that my grandparents gave their blood and sweat to have and that my father has worked hard to hold on to. It’s a priceless link to a past that created my present.
What happens to it in the future? I went to Bangladesh with that question seeming to hang between myself and my father. We spoke the future, about what might happen to the land when we were in the village.
Now that we’ve returned, the truth is the question is still there, just out of earshot every time we speak, hiding between the sentences we exchange.
It’s a question that hangs over every second generation immigrant, no matter which country they are born in. I’m still working on my answer.
A Walk Through My Father’s Village, an hour long BBC documentary about Nick’s journey to Bangladesh with his father will be broadcast on BBC Radio Leeds, 92.4fm, on December 29 at 6pm.