A Small Bengal, NW3

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A Small Bengal, NW3

Book excerpt

By: Amit Chaudhuri

Date: February 1, 1999

Source: Chaudhuri, Amit. "A Small Bengal, NW3," Granta, (February 1, 1999).

About the Author: Amit Chaudhuri (b. 1962) is an Indian novelist, poet, and non-fiction writer who has been the recipient of many literary prizes. His first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address, won the Betty Trask Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Other works include Afternoon Raag and Freedom Song.


Immigrants from the Indian sub-continent and their descendents form one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Great Britain. Yet, up until the 1950s, there were very few Indians in the country and most of those who did come were transitory migrants, such as the students that are the subject of this book excerpt. Although many of them were only in Britain for a few years, they established their own ethnic or national communities in specific neighborhoods of London and other cities, setting a trend in which future mass immigration from the sub-continent and other former colonies would result in high geographical concentrations of specific ethnic groups.

Britain's links with its former colonies have influenced patterns of international migration of various kinds. Before the mass immigration of the late 1950s and the 1960s, the more wealthy nationals of the newly independent India and other former colonies started sending their children in significant numbers to study in Britain, a country with which they had a long historical association.

Indian migration increased rapidly during the 1950s and changed in nature, as successive post-war British governments encouraged low-skilled labor migrants to come to Britain to work in industries that were facing labor shortages. After 1962 in particular, the South Asian communities in the country increased rapidly in size, and the continuing policy of allowing dependants of migrant workers to immigrate with them encouraged more permanent settlement of Asians. These included substantial communities of Asian immigrants who were mainly employed in the textile industry in the Northwest of England, metal manufacturing in the Southeast and the Midlands, and in transport and catering throughout the country. Later waves of South Asian migrants brought more skilled and professional workers, especially health professionals, who were in demand in the National Health Service.

Around a third of all immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s settled in London, changing the character of many of the neighborhoods where they settled. This resulted in social tensions, as the working class white populations of these areas felt threatened by the large numbers of black and Asian immigrants, and many immigrants faced discrimination when applying for jobs or trying to rent accommodations in London. The hostility they often faced from landlords encouraged them to restrict themselves to particular neighborhoods where it was easier to find housing and contributed to the geographical concentration of particular ethnic groups. Race relations problems, such as the violence that broke out in Notting Hill in 1958 between West Indian immigrants and local white people, led to a tightening of immigration controls, and the implementation of Race Relations Acts intended to address the problems of racism and discrimination being faced by black and Asian immigrants.

Steps were also taken to tighten immigration controls and reduce the overall numbers of immigrants entering the country. It had been easy for people from the former British colonies to enter Britain in the 1950s and early 1960s, as they had been granted British citizenship under the 1948 British Nationality Act and there were no controls on their entry to the country. However, in response to concerns about rapidly rising levels of immigration, the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and the Immigration Act of 1971 were passed, with the eventual consequence that Commonwealth citizens came to be subject to the same immigration controls as other foreign nationals.


About five or six years after the war ended, and soon after India's independence and the beginning of the end of the British Empire, Belsize Park in the borough of Camden became home to a number of Indian, mainly Bengali, students. They lived in neighbouring houses, and were often neighbours in the same house; they talked with, and jostled, and cooked for, each other, and had small rivalries and sympathies between themselves; but they knew they were a transient lot, because they were here to pass exams, and very few intended to stay, to get swallowed by the London that had become their temporary home. Time went by quickly, although, in retrospect, the procession of years would sometimes seem long.

Strangely enough, while Kilburn came to be known as black and Irish area, and Golders Green a Jewish one, Belsize Park was never identified with its Bengali student population. Perhaps this was so because it was made up of itinerants rather than emigrants; most had left by the mid-Sixties—if not England, then at least Belsize Park. They were mainly young men and, now and again, women, in their late twenties or their thirties, diligent and intelligent on the whole, who had come to study for professional examinations whose names seemed to have been invented to enhance their job prospects: Chartered Accountancy, Cost Accountancy, MRCP, FRCP, FRCS. For these Bengalis, at least, there was a romance about degrees that had the words 'Chartered' or 'Royal' in them which will now probably seem absurd. The few who stayed on in England were often the ones who hadn't been able to get the degree they'd come here to acquire; they couldn't face their mothers and fathers without it; thus they drifted into the civic life of London, became railway clerks or council officials, or moved elsewhere, and eventually bought a house in Wimbledon or Sussex or Hampshire; at any rate, they left Belsize Park. Those who stayed on had their reasons—'staying on': those words had possibly as much resonance for them, though for entirely different reasons, as they did for the last Anglo-Indians—and none of those reasons, it is safe to suppose, had anything to do with an overwhelming attachment to England.

But most studied, and left; and, in Belsize Park, the emphasis was on exams and recreation. They'd brought Bengal with them though Bengal itself had become a state of mind, partitioned into two, half of it in India and half of it East Pakistan. They fell into a routine of buying 'wet fish', shopping at Finchley Road, going to work, listening to Tagore songs, in between bouts of memorizing the pulmonary functions of the heart of the intricacies of taxation law.

Some of the students had wives, and were newly married. The wife, like Draupadi in the Mahabharata, who married five brothers at once, not only played wife to her husband but often to all her husband's friends, making food for them, being indulgent to them when they were depressed, exhorting them to such hard, and generally lightening the air with her feminine presence. Later, the men would always remember these surrogate wives, the Mrs Mukherjis and Mrs Basus and Mrs Senguptas. In India, the new wife comes to her new home and is greeted by her husband's family and a way of life both pre-arranged and untested; every couple must, in the end, make what they will of their own lives. Here, in Belsize Park, the making of that life was both more naked and more secret; the new bride would be received not by her in-laws, but Cost Accountants to-be and would-be surgeons and physicians. She would come not to her husband's house but to a bedsit with wallpaper and cooking hobs which was now to be her own, and which cost three pounds and ten shillings a week.

Among the tenants was a young man who was supposed to be studying Chartered Accountancy but was actually doing everything but study. He was thinner than normal; his mother had died when he was seven years old. When he had left India in 1949, he had been twenty-seven years old; he had lost his homeland with Partition; and he had got engaged to his best friend's younger sister. In 1955, she travelled to London with her younger brother to marry the young man. They, my parents, were among the people who lived in Belsize Park in the Fifties….

Both, in the first yeas of their marriage, went out to work in the morning, and had their daily meeting-places outside work hours; during break-time, my mother would hurry to Jermyn Street, where my father worked for a few years in the Accounts Office of India House, and they would go for lunch or tea to the Lyons restaurant nearby. Once a week, they would have a Chinese dinner at the Cathay restaurant; watching, through a window, Piccadilly outside. Nearer the exams, my father would study at home while my mother went out to work as a clerk.

Without a harmonium or any other accompanying instrument, my mother would keep practicing the Tagore songs that she had learned as a child, in Sylhet, which had become part of East Pakistan. Her singing was full-throated; her voice would carry in the silent afternoons; once, the spinster landlady, Miss Fox, came down to complain.

Then, in 1961, a year before I was born, my parents left for Bombay; my father had, after passing his exams, got a job that paid for his and my mother's fares back; the ship would take two weeks to reach India. As the ship sailed forth, my mother (so she tells me) stared at the cliffs of Dover to imprint them on her memory. In a year, she had conceived, and, at the age of thirty-seven, she gave birth to her first and only child in Calcutta.

This is what they left behind. Haverstock Hill leading on one side to Hampstead, and Belsize Avenue sloping downward to Swiss Cottage and Finchley Road on the other. Other lives begin; other stories; and the human capacity to create is at least as strong as the capacity to forget.


The South Asian population of Britain increased significantly during the second half of the twentieth century. By 1991, there were 1.5 million South Asians in the country, accounting for 2.7 percent of the population. Within the South Asian population in Britain, around 840,000 were from India, 477,000 from Pakistan and 163,000 from Bangladesh. By the end of the century, South Asians owned more than fifty percent of the independent retail trade, accounted for nearly twenty percent of all hospital doctors and more than ten percent of pharmacists and were also successful in other areas of the economy. Their geographical distribution remains highly concentrated: In London, for example, most Indians live in ten boroughs to the west and east of the city.

As for the earlier immigrants who came to Britain to study or to work for short periods in the 1950s and 1960s, these mostly returned home as qualified professionals or businesspeople, and some will have entered politics and public life. Their association and familiarity with Britain, its legal and business systems, and way of life no doubt helped to shape the development of their own countries and to strengthen post-colonial links with Britain.



Hansen, Randall. Citizenship and Immigration in Postwar Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Mcleod, John. Postcolonial London: Rewriting the Metropolis. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Paul, Kathleen. Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Spencer, Ian R.G. British Immigration Policy since 1939: The Making of Multi-Racial Britain. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.


Parekh, Bhikhu. "South Asians in Britain." History Today, September 1, 1997.

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