Explore the lives of Bengali and Sylheti-speaking communaties living and working in the Cathedral and King St quarters of Norwich.
There are 14 excerpts in total for you to enjoy. You can download a Stories From the Quarter map here and embark on the walk yourself, or follow along online by listening to the story below. Explore Stories From the Quarter in full here →
Listen to the ‘true fairytale’ of Ashish K Kundu, whose passion for science, medicine and writing led him to settle in Norwich as an A&E doctor.
My name is Ashish. I was born in Bangladesh on 10 November 1976. I am now a citizen of both Bangladesh and England, they are both my countries. Before coming to Norwich I lived in Lowestoft, and before that in Southend. When I came to this country, at first I lived in London. This was a long while ago, back in 2003. Back when I used to commute to work from Colchester to Southend, I would often see the Norwich bound train at the station. That was my first impression of Norwich, prior to my arrival in the city.
I love living in coastal towns. The ocean waves lull my mind, and the wind blowing over the ocean cleanses my heart. So, whenever I applied for medical training in this country, I looked for hospitals by the seashore. That’s how I came to stay in South End and Lowestoft. These are seaside towns. I have worked in the local hospitals of these cities. Norwich is the nearest large town to Lowestoft, or ‘city’ in English. I used to come to Norwich to do some shopping, or sometimes just to visit. I met many Bengalis here, many of whom became good local friends. We visited their homes on various occasions or sometimes without any occasion at all! Our families became firm friends too. Norwich felt like the best city in the UK; the city itself has a lot of civic amenities, and enough greenery to give it a tranquil, rural feel. I liked Norwich from my first visit, and very soon decided to live here. ‘Like’ is not a strong enough word, I fell for Norwich, in a big way. I love my friends in the city, and I love its lush green and its striking buildings. So, at some point I left Lowestoft and made Norwich my home town.
A doctor by profession, I am currently working in A&E at King’s Lynn Hospital. After passing MBBS in Bangladesh, I came to England in 2003 to do my Masters. My dream was to become a scientist like my father. From childhood I was surrounded by the smell of chemicals. But my father wanted me to become a doctor. Becoming a doctor/researcher seemed a good compromise. Since completing my master’s degree, I have had to endure a long list of setbacks on the road to becoming a scientist. Though I later went back to practising as a doctor, my fond dreams of science, and the smell of chemicals, remained embedded in my heart. I became a doctor in the A&E department of the hospital, straightening broken bones, removing venom, giving medicine for itches or coughs, shedding some light on many dimly lit lives. You may call me a ‘Jack of all trade, master of none’.
My father had two other separate identities. He was both a university professor and an author. Generally, he wrote science-based textbooks, printed by Bangla Academy. Helping my father write books, I also developed a knack for writing. Now I also write, and love to write. But alas, my passion for writing has yet to resolve itself into a completed manuscript or book! In this transient digital age, whatever I write tends to evaporate after providing a few brief moments of pleasure for my friends in digital media.
For the purpose of his job, my father had to travel a lot, and we often joined him in different countries. I came to this country at the age of three or four in 1977, when father came to Sussex University for a three-year post-doctorate. We three used to live on the campus, I had no siblings. My mother is a housewife, a quick-tempered but loving woman. Her anger melts away when sweet words are spoken, then a wonderful smile slowly spreads across her face. When I was just a young child, I used to take my chalk and cover the roads and pavements of Sussex University with newly learned numbers and letters. These stories are embedded in my memory from having listened to my mother recollect them time and time again. This is the earliest childhood memory I can still recall.
When I was in year six, father embarked on a research expedition to Delhi for five years, taking us with him. He cut the trip short after 15 months, as he felt that my education was not going well in India. Firstly, I had to participate in the year eight scholarship exam. Secondly, it was not possible to practise Bengali art and culture living in Delhi because everybody speaks Hindi there. However, in Indian Institute of Technology, where we lived, the number of Indians and foreigners who spoke different languages was no less. I remember two of my friends who spoke Telugu. Like me, they didn’t know Hindi. I used to go to get milk from the shop every morning. One of those Telugu friends was named Bhaskar, his younger brother was Tinku. Tinku, who was in year three then, used to ask me every morning ‘Bhaskar is a milk, are you a milk?’ and I used to reply – ‘I am a milk.’ Language is the medium of expression. Sometimes in the simple flow of life language bounds out of the complex web of grammar and soars free. It doesn’t detract from the beauty of the language, only makes it sweeter.
As a child, there was so much pressure on me to excel academically, I could not get involved in anything that wasn’t related to my studies. That opportunity came while studying in Sir Salimullah Medical College, the oldest medical college of Bangladesh. I was associated with a voluntary organization named Sandhani for the entire duration of my studies there. I started as a humble volunteer and progressed to being first general secretary, then the president. I am still associated as a member of the advisory committee. We encouraged people to donate voluntarily. Sometimes we would lie down to give blood ourselves and we would take each other’s blood in order to inspire people to do the same in different areas of Bangladesh. Our motto was to inspire people to give blood free of charge. I used to wake up my hostel friends in the middle of the night, pay rickshaw-fare with my pocket money and send them off to donate blood. The next day, when I knew that the recipient patient was fine, I felt an incredible joy. Those are still some of the most beautiful memories amongst many from my life. Nothing gave me greater happiness than the self-satisfaction of taking blood from volunteers and delivering it to dying patients.
I don’t have a lot of leisure time. Like many, I love to garden, listen to music, write stories, and read books. Shankar and Tarashankar are my favourite authors, as well as Sunil Gangopadhyay and Humayun Ahmed. I grew up reading Sheba Prokashoni’s translated works. Along with those, I have read classics from Bankim, Sarat Chandra and even Kalidasa’s complete works. I remember when my father once bought an edition of the complete Shakespeare. Shakespearean English felt very difficult, I tried for several hours with his plays in one hand and the dictionary in the other but could not make progress. The book is still in my showcase with a picture of Shakespeare on the dust jacket jeering me in a tragicomic way.
The purpose of my profession is to try to treat sick people. It may not always be possible to treat them, but it is always possible to console and ease someone’s heartache; even if they are likely to die within an hour. Tagore wrote in his song—’when a heart is parched and dry, bring your bountiful kindness in it’. It is essential that we as doctors always strive to do this. Sadly, most of us don’t remember this.
NCW’s project to preserve the life stories of Bengali people is a great initiative as our stories are wonderfully rich and diverse. In 50-100 years, their significance will have deepened. When we read that the price of eight maunds of rice was one taka in the bountiful era of Sher Shah Suri’s reign, how surprised we were! The royal scribes wrote about the kings, and now the stories we ordinary folk tell of our lives will become history because of projects like this.
This is my story. A true fairy tale of a man born in faraway Bangladesh who somehow crossed the gulf from there all the way to Norwich.
Ashish Kumar Kundu (pictured right) was born in Bangladesh in 1976. He studied at Sir Salimullah Medical College, before moving to England in 2003 to study his Master’s Degree. He is a doctor by profession, and works in A&E at King’s Lynn Hospital. He lives with his wife, Dilara, and their two sons.
Stories From the Quarter is a National Centre for Writing project in partnership with Norfolk Record Office, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund.
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