Not so long ago, rosogollas or not, no one went to Brick Lane unless they had to. It was a neighborhood of derelict shops and empty spaces in the Tower Hamlets borough of east London where Jack the Ripper once stalked his victims. This is where Bengali immigrants, mostly from Sylhet, Chittagong, and Noakhali, came in the 1940s as seamen working on British ships. Some were abandoned, some jumped ship, and they all settled around Brick Lane. In the 1960s, during a manual labor shortage, many more came from the Commonwealth under a voucher system. Many of the Bangladeshis headed for Brick Lane.
It was not such an unusual choice. Brick Lane was historically next to the city borderline (the nearest tube station Aldgate actually marks one of the gates to the old city) and close to the Docklands. In earlier centuries, when there were restrictions about who could actually live inside the city of
London, the area around Brick Lane, the tiny ward of Spitalfields, became a haven for waves of immigrants, says Anne Kershen, director of the Centre for Study of Migration at Queen Mary University of London. “The air was historically less pure and people huddled there worked for the lowest money in the docks,” says Kershen. “But it also had a reputation going back to the 15th and 16th centuries for political and religious freedom.” Kershen has just completed the book, Strangers, Aliens and Asians, about Huguenots, Jews, and Bangladeshis transforming the Spitalfields district where Brick Lane lies. The Huguenots were French Protestants who came here fleeing Catholic persecution. The Jews fled eastern Europe in the 19th century and at the head of Brick Lane a 24-hour bagel shop stays true to the neighborhood’s Jewish roots with hot corned beef on bagels. Now it’s the turn of the Bengalis.
“My grandfather came here on a ship and then brought my chacha and then my abba,” remembers Ansar Ahmed, who is an officer of the Shadinata Trust, which is trying to preserve the Bengali history of Brick Lane. But long before Ahmed’s grandfather boarded a ship, Brick Lane already had an Indian connection. This is where East India House had its headquarters from where it took control of Bengal, its ships hauling back cargos of not just spices but also ayahs and lascars (seamen) who became the blood and sweat of the empire. The archives in the old St. Botolph’s Church mention the burial of “James,” the converted Indian Christian servant of one James Duppa Brewer in 1618.
Now, of course, traces of the old desh are everywhere, not just in crumbling archives. Now it’s the old gravestones with inscriptions like “Nathan Maddock who died Nov. 6 1774 aged 44 years” which are hard to find, lost in the dusty Altab Ali Park. On a sunny afternoon, the threadbare park is empty. Pigeons flutter in front of the Shahid Minar, a replica of the one in Dhaka. A quotation from Rabindranath Tagore is embedded into the path winding through the park.
The area around the lane itself is 70 percent Bengali (Tower Hamlets itself is about a third Bengali) and it’s hard not to notice. Women in headscarves walk into the Sonali Bank promising remittances to Bangladesh. Men in skullcaps hang out at the entrance to the mosque. The sounds of Bollywood songs waft from stores, mingling with Bengali soap opera and Islamic prayers. At the Taj supermarket there are piles of jackfruit and a freezer full of all the fish an expat Bangali could desire—shole, katla, rui, tengra. And yes, even paan. “Whatever you want, ask, it will be here from Bangladesh by the next flight,” says Kamruddin who works at the store, which has been a mainstay of Brick Lane for at least 50 years.
Fifty years have seen a lot of change in Brick Lane. Taj is living proof. Ever since celebrity chef Jamie Oliver called it “an Aladdin’s cave” in the Evening Standard, it’s become quite the Brick Lane destination. It’s not alone. Where there were once little dives, now there are fashionable restaurants with frosted glass and names like Monsoon, Sampan, and Naz Café. Some even have a photograph of local East Ender David Beckham out front, though a local whispers that some of those are really Beckham look-alikes.
Be that as it may, Brick Lane is suddenly proud of its Bengaliness. What used to be Indian cuisine has now been re-christened “authentic Bengali food,” though it’s mostly the usual curries and tandooris with an occasional nod to Bengaliness with dishes with vegetables like shatkora. There are some Bengali touches—whereas most lunch buffets might have hot naan served at the table, the Naz Café plops down a bowl of maachher jhol or fish curry in front of every diner.
Brick Lane is calling itself Banglatown these days. It even has a rather gaudy gate. It’s all part of a regeneration of the East End. Ansar Ahmed admits that the 1996-97 declaration of Banglatown was really “business branding.” “We wanted to promote it like Chinatown,” he says, adding that Bengalis always just called it Brick Lane.
Though Bengalis have mixed feelings about Monica Ali’s depiction of the community in her novel Brick Lane, dismissing it as a marketing stunt, Ahmed says, “Whether it’s positive or negative publicity, it did put Brick Lane on the map.”
However, gentrification doesn’t come easy to this part of London. If you walk even half a block off the restaurants and stores on Brick Lane, the bustle and color disappears. Rows of standard-issue brick council houses with patches of crab grass in front stand in drab contrast to the trendy restaurants on Brick Lane itself. “It’s really a tale of two cities,” says Monica Ali.
Here it’s easier to believe the dismal statistics of Brick Lane. Spitalfields ward is one of the most deprived wards in all of greater London, whether it is in terms of unemployment or overcrowding. “Some of the people who were our original tenants 25 years ago are still there now,” says Stephanie McDonald, housing manager for the Spitalfields Housing Association, explaining in part why the area is so crowded. “For many it’s a starting point and for many it’s a terminal point,” says Kershen.
As the city moves in and the area rapidly gentrifies, longtime residents find themselves being squeezed out of the market. The housing stock is not increasing. By some estimates, 15,000 are on the waiting list for housing.
Historically, the Bengali immigrants found themselves locked out of much of the market anyway. The old Huguenot mansions with rooms for silk weaving on the top floor once attracted Bangladeshi squatters. So the Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust was formed, which bought up the old Georgian mansions and sold them exclusively to Trust members, mostly upwardly mobile whites. Even now these mansions stand just a block away from the cramped brick council houses where entire families are squeezed together. Ansar Ahmed remembers how in his father’s generation eight or nine people shared houses, often in two shifts, the day workers going to bed when the night workers left for work.
The Spitalfields Housing Assocation is itself located in a once-notorious tenement building where a Bangladeshi man died, trapped in a house fire, says McDonald. His wife and baby, who were about to join him were immediately not allowed to come, causing a big stir in the Bangladeshi community. There were other rules to keep families out. Single men were told they were only entitled to one-bedroom flats because they were by themselves, even if they had families back in Bangladesh. When their families tried to come to England, the British High Commission stopped them on the grounds that their husbands and fathers only had one-bedroom apartments.
Now the community is politically more powerful, boasting Bengali councilors and mayors. Every political party in Bangladesh has some kind of branch here. Though Altab Ali Park at the end of Brick Lane commemorates a young Bengali clothing worker who was stabbed to death in 1978, and a nail bomb exploded in front of the Naz Café in 1999, Ansar Ahmed doesn’t worry about race relations so much anymore. “Now we are the majority, I think the skinheads of the BNP (British National Party) have unwillingly accepted that reality,” says Ahmed. “I don’t worry about just walking around. Perhaps whites might be more afraid to come here now.”
But there are other worries. Monica Ali remembers how shocked she was to hear that “there is heroin use in almost every other apartment and even young women are users.”
“Disaffected Asian boys with nothing to do sometimes go around in gangs terrorizing residents,” says McDonald at the Housing Association. “Heroin, crack, cocaine are big problems. Tuberculosis has re-emerged. Asthma is a problem.” “These are the concerns of any inner city—overcrowding, damp, colds, coughs, fevers,” says Ahmed.
But Brick Lane is trying to put these hard times behind it. Everyone wants to come here for a spot of curry and the area has had a face-lift. Other than some travel agents, financial remittance places, and music stores, almost all the businesses are now restaurants. Competition is fierce. At night, men stand outside the stores with business cards, trying to entice customers. “Now most restaurants are serving alcohol, which I don’t,” says Abdul Shahid, owner of Gram Bangla, as he serves up samosas and hot tea.
The restaurant economy has meant women have largely disappeared from the workplace. In the old Brick Lane women worked in the clothing industry, sewing at home. “Some of the older houses still have industrial sewing machines but there is no call for it anymore,” says McDonald. “All of that got priced out of the market.”
Ansar Ahmed’s Shadinata Trust is trying to preserve this history through the Bengali Oral History project where youngsters interview elders in the community. Nowadays there isn’t the same stream of Bengalis as there was right around the 1971 war of independence. “Because of stricter immigration, communities won’t see large-scale influx anymore,” says Kershen. “Instead, as the area gets re-gentrified, I see the Bengali community gradually moving out.”
Kershen’s prophecy might well come true. Old breweries like the Black Eagle are now some of London’s trendiest hotspots with clubs like Vibe Bar. Property prices are shooting up and some fear that soon Brick Lane might become preserved as just a gentrified tourist destination for curry.
But not just yet. Sweet and Spicy is still pretty much a dhaba—its ripped seats and faded posters of pehlwans on the walls showing few signs of gentrification. The daily special (prawn curry today) is a handwritten scribble tacked above the counter. The water comes in a stainless-steel jug and lunch is served with salt, a piece of lime, and a green chilli. Hasmukh Sanghvi is not Bengali but has been coming here for 20 years. “When I have European guests I take them to the fancier places,” says Sanghvi, tucking into his chicken curry and rice. “But for myself I like coming here. It’s down to earth, and the quality is still the same. And the décor hasn’t changed either.”
Thank goodness for that. And yes, Brick Lane still has rosogolla. At Madhubon Sweet Shop, Shamsur Rehman says, “Our sponge rosogolla is the most popular.” I try it. It is soft and spongy and is an instant ticket back into bylanes of Kolkata and fresh rosogolla in clay pots. So all is not lost yet in Brick Lane. Amidst the frosted glass and fake Beckham posters, you can still find the authentic Bengali, excuse me, Bangali, experience.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.