Explore the lives of Bengali and Sylheti-speaking communities 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 →
Meet Rahnuma Sultana, a teaching assistant and mother who moved to Norwich in 2013 and believes ‘except for my native country, there is nowhere closest to my heart’.
My name is Rahnuma Sultana. My husband Shahid Akhter and I live in the Dussindale area of Norwich. I was born in Chittagong as my father’s government job was based there, though I am originally a girl from Sylhet. My grandfather’s house is in Karimganj in Assam, India, and my grandmother’s house is in Zakiganj, Bangladesh. My father had a house in Shamshernagar in Moulvibazar, but we never stayed in that house regularly, rather we used to go there on vacations after the annual exams. My school, college and university were all located in Chittagong. My father worked on the railways, so we lived in the railway colony. There were six flats in each building of the colony, a densely populated area with many children. As a result, we had loads of friends. Apart from when we were in school, we used to constantly play outside, climb the trees in the compound, and only entered our house after Maghrib call for prayer to sit down and study. Extra-curricular activities kept us busy those days – we used to dance, sing, recite, act, and play sports. Our mother was a full-time housewife, looking after a large family of eight siblings, single-handedly. Our father loved to joke with us, our mother was also a very warm affable character.
Our marriage began when I had to be taken to my uncle-in-law’s surgery with a fever of 104 degrees. He was a specialist doctor. When I came out of the consulting room, he secretly called his wife and mother and asked them to catch a glance of me coming out of his surgery. They were looking for a bride for Shahid in those days. A few days later I was taken to Bijay Mela, where the book fair was being held. I went there, saw that Shahid had come there to meet me, and understood what was happening. I was only in the first year of my honours degree, and it felt far too soon to think of getting married, so I felt very angry. I did not look up at him. After three- or four-days Shahid’s family came to our house. This time I did look at and talk to him and found that I really liked him. Within 15-20 days we got married. I came to Dhaka after getting married, then came to the UK in 1997 with my husband, as his exam was in South Shields. I really liked it there. Later, when he came here as a lecturer, we settled in Shetland, Scotland. We have been living in Norwich since 2013, nine years now. Norwich is very beautiful; except for our native country, there is nowhere closest to our heart. We don’t want to go anywhere else.
We have three children. While doing the final year of my undergraduate studies, my eldest daughter was born. We were on a ship when she was conceived. That ship went to Indonesia. On the way from Indonesia to Australia I got very sick. It was a long journey of 12-13 days, there was no provision to see a doctor, so I didn’t know I was pregnant. On account of my illness, I got off the ship and stayed at a friend’s house for a week, then I was sent home. I was in bed for the nine months of my pregnancy, my husband was not with me then. I had to be kept on intravenous fluids at home, sometimes I had to be admitted to hospital for a while. That was how our first child was born. I had a lot of trouble raising her. She was very young; I had the pressure of my own academic studies to cope with at the same time. My in-laws’ house was in Dhaka and I was staying at my father’s house in Chittagong to study. I had to travel to and from every month. My father died a month and a half after the birth of my child. Having a newborn infant child to care for was the only thing that helped me to cope with such a sudden terrible loss, and the wave of grief that followed. I enjoyed motherhood very much; my daughter was my whole world. She was full of mischief! Once she poured a whole bottle of my brother’s aftershave on her head and claimed, ‘I have smeared uncle’s oil on me!’ I started sailing again when she was one and a half or two years old. Every year after the final exam I went on the ship for three months. I used to go to Australia or New Zealand by plane alone with my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter and board the ship. While in Australia, she got lost once. She went to the shop and sat quietly behind the clothes. The last time she was lost it was in 2005, the ship came to Kolkata during Puja, I was working then and had to take fifteen days leave to go stay in the ship at outer anchor because I would not sail. As a captain Shahid was very busy then, he couldn’t go out every day. I wanted to get off the ship and go to the port, I wanted to do some shopping. I went to New Market that day, with my five-year-old daughter. She just disappeared; I couldn’t find her for forty-five minutes. Luckily someone saw a little girl walking around alone. When asked her name, she said Ishra. They didn’t understand the name Ishra, so they announced on the mic that a little girl named Krishna had been found, if her guardians heard that announcement, they should contact the authority. My daughter’s name was not Krishna, but I still went there and saw to my joy that they had found my daughter.
Professionally, I am now working as a teaching assistant in a primary school in this country. I am a qualified teacher. I did a masters in economics in Bangladesh, then worked as a maths teacher in a school for five years. When I first came to this country, I thought I would join a college. I got my qualification in adult learning from the college where Shahid was a lecturer. I wanted to do something related to Economics. But at that time, we had two small children, one was already born, another one was born while the course was still ongoing. I had to give up the thought of full-time employment as my children needed to be taken care of. I didn’t go into full time teaching because teachers here must be in school for long hours, from 7am to 7pm. On top of that, they must arrange childcare for their children while they’re at work. I do their school run. As a teaching assistant in school, I have to teach all subjects, but I focus on mathematics.
It would be great if we could have something like a Bengali school in Norwich to teach Bengali to our children. My eldest daughter took Bengali for her GCSEs, but she didn’t learn Bengali at school, I taught her myself. If we can create a Bengali reading and writing platform, the relationship between our generations will grow deeper. Many people here have teaching experience; if a platform is created, we can continue it ourselves.
Rahnuma Sultana, also known as Rakhi, was born in in Chittagong, Bangladesh. After getting married, she moved to Shetland, Scotland with her husband, Shahid, before moving to Norwich in 2013. She has a Master’s Degree in Economics, and works as a teaching assistant in a primary school, focusing on mathematics.
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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Zahidur Rahman (Stories From the Quarter)
‘When we first came here, we didn’t know any Bengali families. Gradually, many people came to know us in a professional capacity, which soon lead to our mingling with them socially also. Now our social circle is considerably wider, and our days in Norwich are filled with friendship, laughter and merry making.’
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Makhduma Akhter (Stories From the Quarter)
‘Now, happily, we are part of quite a large and thriving Bengali community here in Norwich. We are always looking for a chance to plan parties.’
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Shiblee Sayed (Stories From the Quarter)
‘I welcome this initiative of the National Centre for Writing (NCW) to preserve the stories of our Bengali community. Through this project, generations will come to know how we Bengalis grew up here, how our struggles were fought.’
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