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Bangla boy – separation

January 4, 2021
My mother and I – Bangladesh – February 2019

My mum tells me, ‘your father took you away from me, like a tiger grabs his prey’. I was aged six at the time and didn’t really appreciate that sentiment until I had a child of my own.  The thought of giving her up is incomprehensible to me for whatever reason….it was at that point that I realized the gravitas of the situation and the heartbreak that it would have caused my mum. She says she stopped eating the foods that I used to eat as it reminded her of me.

My father had two wives and I was the eldest son of his second wife, it was during the 1970’s that he applied for visas to bring his first family to the UK. It was not an uncommon thing for Bangladeshi men that migrated to the UK to have more than one wife….in some instances they had a British wife too, these men were referred to as ‘mo aloo’ (sweet potato – slang for men who had strayed from their heritage and did not visit Bangladesh).  I had an uncle like that and he was my favourite. 

He brought me for economic reasons, so that a child from his second wife will have the means to support his mother and siblings.  I was not an anomaly; this was happening with other families during the late 70’s and early 80’s when Bangladeshi men finally decided to bring their wives and children to the UK. Some of them brought their nephews and those that had two marriages often brought sons from their second marriage too. 

 Growing up in Lozells, I knew a handful of other boys in similar positions and some of them were actually treated like Cinderella, doing all the housework, shopping, cooking and cleaning. I was one of the luckier ones, I was made to do the shopping on a Saturday morning without fail with my step-mum. This was really embarrassing as we went to Soho Road and I had to pull one of those old lady’s shopping trolleys.  This was done to save a few pennies so we could buy more land in Bangladesh, whilst we lived in relative poverty in the UK.  I recall listening to a conversation that my father had with his friends about Idi Amin and how Asians were being thrown out of Uganda and the hatred of the Enoch Powell speeches.  There was a genuine fear for them that we would be made to leave and go back to Bangladesh at some point.

I came to the UK in 1976 at the age of six, I don’t recall the plane journey at all.  I remember being in a flat in London and being alone and my older sister (Mina) comforting me.  My father’s plan was for us to stay in London and have his children grow up to work in the textile industry to make him money so he could buy more land in Bangladesh.  It was not to be, the house that he had planned to rent fell through so he hired a van and brought us to Birmingham. At first we stayed at one of our cousin’s houses in Frederick Road, Aston for a couple of weeks then later we moved to a cold damp place in Smethwhick.  I recall eating sugar with a table spoon and seeing snow for the first time.  I was in hospital for a period of time with Bronchitis…I remember having one of those little dinky cars that I would push and it would speed along the corridor. That is the only time I can recall suffering from poor health. 

Six months later we moved to Johnstone Road, Lozells and I started school at Heathfield infant school.  We had a three-storey house and an English lodger.  He had served in the War and he would demonstrate how he used to crawl on the floor.  He used to eat boiled cabbage and my step mum used to feel sorry for him and she would give him a plate of rice and curry.  I have fond memories of going to the fish market in the Bull Ring with my dad, he used to buy all sorts of big fish heads.  Fish heads were sold at a pittance, however, in Bangladesh they are seen as a delicacy and would be sought after.  Once the family had settled into the new home, my father decided to go back to Bangladesh to be with my mum and siblings.

My father at our wedding – 2005

This would become a routine feature in years to come as he would spend a year or two in Bangladesh until his money ran out.  I remember there was some tension before he left, my step mum said that he should take me back with him.  My eldest sister (Mina) took me under her wing.  My step mother had her hands full with five children including Molik, my youngest brother who was born in the UK.  My father returned a year later and managed to secure a council house on Graham Street and this still remains the family home for my mum and Molik.  We also had our youngest sister, Full Mala and we call her Fullie.  I vaguely remember being in a children’s home for a very brief period as my step-mum struggled to look after us all.

I started attending Anglesey Junior School and just as I was learning to read and write my dad decided to take me to Bangladesh at the age of nine.  It was during the summer holidays when we went.  After landing in Sylhet, I recall being in a boat that took me to my Bari (village home), I jumped off the boat and ran towards our family home and I saw this woman running towards me.  I turned around and ran towards my dad and I recall saying ‘Dad, there is this woman chasing me’, he said that is your mum.  Imagine that, I managed to forget what my mother looked like within three years.  As it happens, I cannot recall her face at all from my visit.  I am told that your brain has a way of dealing with things.  It took me a few days to acclimatise, I recall walking around wearing flip flops with my cousins for a few days.  I soon took them off and I can recall the squishy mud between my toes.  I totally immersed myself and became a Bangla boy climbing trees, swimming endlessly during the monsoon season, eating mangoes and all manner of fruits that were in season, visiting the paddy fields etc.  I cannot recall any moments of tenderness from mum at all.  If my nine year child had returned from  three years of absence, I would have smothered her with love…that is exactly what happened I imagine.

My mum has her own tragic story, her mother died when she was a baby and her father died when she was an infant.  My mother was raised by her aunt which happened to be my father’s mum – my grandmother.  My mum grew into a beautiful and vivacious woman whom my father married at 15 years of age.  Her first born was named Sobi, sadly she passed away and then I came along when she was 18 years of age, I had a brother born after me, sadly he too passed away.  It was during the 1970’s when cholera was rife and Bangladesh had one of the highest infant mortality rates.  My step mother lost two of her first born and several relatives I know also passed away.  It was a common feature at the time, to lose infant children.  Luckily those days have gone and Bangladesh has drastically reduced its infant mortality rate. 

After a year in Bangladesh, I returned to the UK and started school again, I had forgotten most of my English and was given additional support to catch up.  I settled back into homelife and then my father returned to Bangladesh, this pattern followed throughout our childhood.  He was trying to be a father to children in two different countries and he was not succeeding.  I was a skinny, hyperactive and naughty child and my step mother had her hands full with me.  I would often get into trouble and was dealt with accordingly; sometimes it was a stick or a belt or whatever else she could put her hands on.  I do not begrudge those beatings at all, I fully deserved them.  This is very difficult for me to write because all I wanted was to be loved, appreciated and reassured.  It was a complex relationship; she was raising the child of her younger competitor and I was a constant reminder of that woman.  It can be wrapped up as ‘tough love’ but it was really hard for me at the time, I recall one incident crying myself to sleep at the age of 13 and vowing that I didn’t need her love or approval.  In many ways, it made me the man that I am today.  I did not grow up to be a bitter person, far from it, and this is played out in my career choice later in life as a Youth & Community Worker. 

At the age of 14, my sister Mina, took me under her wing again.  She was now married and her husband worked in Bedford and only came home for one day a week.  She asked me to live with her whilst her husband was away.  This was such a blessing for me, as I was shown kindness and love.  She had two sons Jubial and Junel within a year and this was followed by a daughter named Ferdusi.  I have such fond memories of my nephews, I used to sit them on my lap during meal times and feed them.  I had nothing but love and affection for them and this continues to this day.  I am passionately known as ‘mysum mama’ (maternal middle uncle).  Mikael came some years later and I was unable to spend as much time with him as I was older then and had moved on. 

At the age of 15 I started to work in a restaurant on a part time basis, this was the norm for Bangladeshi boys growing up in the 90’s.  Having a job was like being emancipated, I was paid £16.00 for a 20-hour week.  I gave my step -mum £10.00 and I was able to keep £6.00 and it was the first time I had more than one pair of shoes and I bought Farah trousers, which I also wore when working in the restaurant as a waiter.  Giving my step-mum the £10.00 a week started to change things, suddenly I was shown affection and love.  Later on, when I started to work full time in restaurants and was paid £150.00 per week, I would give her £100.00 and I would keep £50.00.  I did this until I was 19 years of age and then I started to work in Curry’s Electrical Store. I also started to attend part time college and I began volunteering at my local youth club.

My world changed again when I was aged 20, my birth mother arrived from Bangladesh with my four siblings.  My father tried to do the same thing with his second family, he tried to keep them in London, however, my mother was not having any of it…she said, I want to be near my son and he was forced to come to Lozells.  I recall my first visit to my mums, it was a tense experience, ten years had passed since the last time I had seen her in Bangladesh.  During that period, I had grown into a man.  She came with her traditional views and I didn’t share them.  It took me several years before I fully established a proper relationship with my mum.  One of the things she told me was that I should now look after my younger siblings…I kicked against that initially saying ‘they are your children not mine’.  Eventually I came around to the notion of how a traditional Bangladeshi family operates, with the eldest son acting as a ‘proxy’ father figure.  After the passing of my father some years ago, I have reluctantly fully embraced the role of the father figure. 

My mum has taught me many things and one of her greatest virtues is compassion for those less fortunate than her.  Throughout my adult life, I have helped my poorer cousins and people in my village in Bangladesh by sending funds to support them.  Fast forward into my 40’s, I was in business and things started to go from bad to worse.  We had three bank overdrafts and all of them were maximised and we were broke.  There was one month I could not pay my mortgage and I told my mum, she said,’’ Take me to the bank” and at the counter she told me ‘take all you need’.  I borrowed £2,000.00 and more over a period of time.  I cannot forget that moment and never will.

 Things have changed now, as the debts have all been repaid and I am in a better financial position.  Mum went to Bangladesh in January 2020 and was due to return a few months later and then Covid came.  We wanted to bring her back, but she has decided to stay and still remains there now (Jan 2021) as she is happier there.  Every now and then, she mentions that she is short of money…I tell her don’t worry ‘every penny that I have is yours’ and I send her money.

Reflecting back to my childhood, it was tough but a period that defined my life for one of love and compassion.  Throughout my life, I have shown love and compassion to people around me and usually this is returned tenfold.  The periodic absence of my father made me want to be the best dad in the world and I have been blessed with two amazing daughters.  We raise them with love, compassion and tough love, I must admit my wife is better at the latter. 

I have come to terms with the separation from my birth mum and remain grateful to my step- mum for taking care of me.  My two mothers have made me the man I am today, and I will remain forever in their debt. 

My parents at our wedding – 2005

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