Banglaphone Fiction: British Sylhetis in Writing by Londoni Authors
Abstract: Around the time the Raj was disintegrating, Bengalis, many of them from Sylhet, were coming to Britain in large numbers. Settling in areas such as London’s Spitalfields, these Sylhetis pioneered Britain’s emerging curry restaurant trade, labored for long hours and with few rights in the garment industry, and worked as mechanics. Sylhetis’ inestimable contribution to the fabric of British life is recognized, for example, in their association with Brick Lane, a popular road of curry houses in East London. However, too often their contribution to literature is reduced to one novel, Brick Lane, Monica Ali’s novel about the famous street and its denizens. This paper seeks to broaden the debate about English-language literature from Londoni writers across the Bengaliyat. In 1793, Sake Dean Mahomed published his The Travels of Dean Mahomet. What is unique about this text is that it was originally written in English to give European readers a glimpse of India. Its creation was probably part of the author’s attempt to integrate in Ireland, where he was living. Two centuries later, we are witnessing an efflorescence of Anglophone writing from the two Bengals about Britain. I discuss Amitav Ghosh’s portrayals of Brick Lane in his 1988 novel The Shadow Lines as an early precursor to fellow Indian novelists Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart (2010) and Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad (2014), which also demonstrate a fascination with Sylhetis in London and their material culture. From Bangladesh and its diaspora, Manzu Islam’s Burrow (2004) and Zia Haider Rahman’s novel In the Light of What We Know (2013) come under the spotlight. What we might call “Banglaphone fiction” is, I argue, currently experiencing a boom, and portrayals of Sylhetis in London, their cuisine, and other aspects of popular culture form an enduring fascination among the male writers of this fiction, at least.
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Published in December 2015