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 →
Discover how the Bengali community in Norwich has changed over time through the eyes of Shefa Begum, who is from one of the earliest Bengali families to settle in the city.
My name is Shefa Begum, I was born on 8 March 1983 in Norwich. This morning I made a lot of desi dishes for breakfast, such as choi pitha biran, which is a steamed rice flour dumpling, stir fried with eggs. My mother used to make treats like rice flour choi pitha and roti pitha biran so often when I was a child. I also feed these to my children, they’ve gotten accustomed to having choi pitha, ruti pitha, or dhupi pitha almost every day. My younger son especially demands it! They have the same habit we had of eating these delicacies. I learned cooking mainly from my mother, and from my sister. My husband cooks sometimes. In summer, all of us, namely – my elder brother Shafiq Mia and his three sons, my brother Faisal Mia and his three daughters and one son, and my elder sister Nehar Begum’s two daughters and three sons – come together and cook in the garden in a clay stove, and then we eat sitting on the garden soil. You can call it Choruivati, or in Sylheti dialect ‘tupatupi’. Girls gather the ingredients together whilst the men of the house eyeball the correct amount of spices and cook. The mens’ handmade dishes are a lot of fun to eat. Two or three weeks ago we had such a treat in our garden. My husband, sister-in-law, and my brothers cooked together. I brought a clay stove from London. We cooked dried fish or shutki broth, shutki chutney, fish biran, egg curry, puta fish biran, meat bhuna, boal fish with hyacinth beans, potato bhorta, aubergine bhorta, hilsha fish… there were ten to twelve dishes in that oven. Everyone ate happily.
We are one of the earliest Bengali families to settle in Norwich. My father first came to London from Bangladesh, then afterwards he came to Norwich. My father had a business here in Anglia Square, it was called ‘Curry House’. I cannot say when my father came to Norwich, as it was before I was born, but my mother arrived five or six years before I was born. I was their only child born in Norwich. The rest of the siblings were brought by father from Bangladesh. I was 13 when my father died. Our elder brother raised us. When we were kids, we didn’t have the computers, X-boxes and other gadgets that kids have these days. Rather we played in the garden with friends, hung off monkey bars, and went roller skating. I didn’t have a bike though.
Norwich was very different back then. We kept getting invited to each other’s houses. I used to come home from relatives houses as late as 12-1am. These days, if you are still in someone’s house by 10pm, people say ‘Oh, I really must sleep now.’ A lot has changed. There were no Bengalis in my school then, everyone was white, and all my friends were white. I was the only Muslim and the only Asian girl in the whole school as well. Luckily I did not experience any racism during that time. I wasn’t treated by the others as though I was in any way different, or a misfit. Norwich has changed a lot since then. My kids are going to that same school now. The school was then called Blyth Jex, now it has since been renamed Sewell Park. So many Bengali children study there now! When I go to parents’ evenings at that school, I often see and chat with many of my former teachers. My daughter is always surprised by this and asks, ‘Were these teachers teaching in your time?’ I answer in affirmative. It’s fun to see the same teachers bridging the gap from one generation to the next. My husband gets a kick out of it too. Before, I used to go to everyone’s house with my mother, to my paternal uncle and aunt’s house, my maternal uncle-aunt’s house, and many others, where we would merrily chat with everyone in the extended family. Today’s kids are not like that, they want only to loaf about with their devices, they steer clear of their family and it’s impossible to forge a relationship with them if there is no motivation on their part. All communication is carried on exclusively within their circle of friends, they have no contact with the people we know, and those they do converse with remain strangers to us.
When we were growing up, there was no mosque in Norwich, nor any provision of Arabic lessons, and there was just one desi restaurant called the ‘Prince of Wales’. Of course, people of our community and kind were far scarcer around here also. Now there is a big mosque, and proper facilities for children to study Arabic.
My husband Jewel is my first cousin, so naturally I knew him before we were married. We got married on 16 February 2001, it was a family arranged wedding. After three to four months of marriage, my husband moved to this country. In those days it did not take long to bring a spouse into the UK, as their rules were not as strict as they are now. We have been married for almost twenty-two years, ours is a happy family blessed with beautiful children. Immediately after getting married, I worked at the local Tesco and Boots for a while. But that didn’t last long. As the family started to grow, I spent more time at home raising the children, although sometimes I had to give time to our family business also. My eldest son is twenty one, he runs his father’s take away business now. Next came my daughter, who is now going to sixth form after passing her GSCE. My youngest son is 12, he goes to secondary school.
I haven’t been to Bangladesh for a long time, I went once about six years ago. We often plan to go, but the kids want to spend their holidays in other places, like Turkey or Spain. We plan to go to Turkey for five days next October as my daughter has repeatedly pleaded with us to go. I miss Bangladesh because my late father’s grave is in Bangladesh soil. Whenever he went to Bangladesh, he stayed there for a long time, at least eight or nine months. I went to Bangladesh in 1995 to be with him, and I came back in 1997, about two years later. My father died on 4 October 1996, just after seeing my brother get married. We then buried him in our motherland.
Shefa Begum was born in Norwich in 1983, and her family was one of the first Bengali families to live there. In 2001, she married her husband, Jewel, and he moved to the UK shortly after. She helps with her husband’s business, and stays at home to support their three children.
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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