Vol. 4 Num 218 Mon. January 05, 2004  

Frogs in the well

My mother is fond of telling me stories about her uncle, author Syed Mujtoba Ali. During one of his rare visits in between globe-trotting, the whole family used to gather to hear his stories. Last year, I translated one of his stories, and in the foreword wrote, "At a time when most Bengalis were still confined to the subcontinent, Mujtoba Ali spoke multiple languages and was a world traveler. His stories of travels to exotic cities in France, Germany, Egypt and more filled the reader with wonder."

When my parents complain about my refusal to "settle down" (marriage, 2.5 kids), I always reply that Mutjoba Ali's genes have trickled into my bloodstream. In fact, for most Sylhetis, Mujtoba Ali represented the innate adventurousness and wanderlust of their district. For this reason, Sylhetis are one of the dominant groups of Bengali immigrants. In London, Sylheti merchant navy-men were the trailblazers in creating a British-Asian community.

Paradoxically, these same adventurous Sylhetis also have a deep streak of conservatism. Parochialism can exist alongside an innovative spirit. This is best captured in the immigrant experience. Many Asian immigrants show great verve in moving to an unknown country, and making their living in unfamiliar environments. But once their children are older, and start to make decisions about school, career, spirituality, and most importantly, love-- an incredibly conservative streak raises its head. Suddenly the second generation is faced with: "you must not mix with blacks," "you must cover your hair," and of course, "you must marry a Sylheti."

In England, the conservativeness of the Sylheti community is legend. While the second generation is often radical in its politics and adventurous in its love (asian-black unions are increasingly common), the parents stick to a mirage of "the way things are in Bangladesh" (even if they are not that way in Bangladesh any more). Importing brides and grooms from Bangladesh who do not speak English furthers the isolation of the community. Forced marriages of Sylheti women has reached such crisis proportions that the British government passed a law banning forced marriages. Statistically, Sylhetis are the poorest and least educated community in England. The policy of "staying within our own community" is bringing adverse results.

The recent fracas involving Monica Ali further illustrates this trend. On December 3, the Greater Sylhet Development and Welfare Council ("representing many Bangladeshis in the UK") wrote to Monica's publisher Random House calling her debut novel "Brick Lane" a "despicable insult" to British-Sylhetis and "shameful." Among their complaints was the dialogue of the main character Chanu, who called Sylhetis "uneducated. Illiterate. Close-minded. Without ambition".

I accept that Sylhetis come off poorly in the book. But the effective response is to debate the book in letters pages, or better yet write your own novel in which Sylhetis are shown in a better light. But to write a letter to Random House asking them to ban the novel, shows breathtaking naivete and lack of media-savvy. The publisher will ignore the idiotic request, the media will trumpet the news, and the Sylheti Council will be a laughing stock.

The worst part is, the Council sent the letter six months after the book has already been published in the UK and US, reached Number 1 on the London Bestseller Lists, and been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. At 413 pages, it's a sizable tome, but could it possibly have taken the Council six months to read it (unless they had it translated into Bengali first)? Or was it the act of typing the 18 page letter that taxed their resources?

It's not just the Sylheti community that's slow to discover the biggest Bengali-British success story of recent times. The Bangladesh High Commission was so clueless about Monica, they denied her a visa to enter Bangladesh because she was a "journalist." As Khademul Islam asked in The Daily Star, "What do our diplomats do sitting in that building in London? Play cards all day? Don't they read British newspapers and journals?" The cultural commissars, Sylheti or otherwise, are equally clueless about other second-generation Bengalis who are creating a sensation in the diaspora: from dancer Akram Khan, to filmmaker Menhaz Huda ("Queer As Folk") to musicians like Sam Zaman (State of Bengal), Kingsuk Biswas (Bedouin Ascent), Shazna Nessa (Milky), Deeder Zaman, Aniruddha Das (Asian Dub Foundation), MC Spex (Invasian), and the Shamsher brothers (Joi).

I started by talking about my fellow Sylhetis, and expanded to all Bengalis in the diaspora. After all, I'm a proud Bengali and I want us to find more sources of pride. We can do this by embracing success stories like Monica Ali (warts and all!), not pillorying them in fanciful letters that display tunnel vision. We need to stop being frogs in the well and start interacting with the outside world.

Naeem Mohaiemen is Editor of Shobak. org.