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 →
Listen to Wali Ullah tell the story of his ambitious and tenacious journey from Dhaka to Norwich, where he co-owns Spice Valley, an award-winning Indian restaurant.
My name is Wali Ullah, Ullah is the surname and my nickname is Rubel. My paternal uncle used to fondly call me Rubel. I was born on 22 February 1978 and up until my college life finished, I lived in the downtown of old Dhaka. After that, I studied in Chennai University in India for four years and then I came to the UK. In college life, I mostly loafed around with friends. When in Chennai, I lived a very liberated life, in another country. Students from different countries went there to study. I remember my friend from Yemen, remember my roommates from the rented apartment in Chennai. We are still in touch through WhatsApp.
Memories of Bangladesh are memories of loitering around with friends. My mother is still in Bangladesh, and my father died long ago. We were a big family of seven siblings. I am the oldest amongst the boys, I have two elder sisters. My mother was famous for her cooking in our neighbourhood, especially for her chutki shemai, a handmade vermicelli made from rice-flour dough. I miss eating her food. Frankly, I did not ever think of getting into the food or hospitality industries. I got involved in the import-export business after finishing my business degree and used to supply to the catering industry. The place I come from in Old Dhaka is famous for its Mughal cuisine, people consume biryani dawn to dusk there. So I have a gourmet’s palate, and I love cooking too. I guess that’s why I could not ignore the calling and thought ‘why not!’ That’s how it began.
Dhaka as a city is divided into two parts, the old downtown was erected by the Mughals and Nawabs. I come from one of the 22 Panchayat families from Old Dhaka, who governed that part of Dhaka after the rule of Nawabs. My grandfather’s name is written in our National Museum. Our area is renowned for great food and Dhakaiya pronunciations. People are helpful there, central banks can be found in rich neighbourhoods there. Historic buildings like Ahsan Manzil are there too.
After graduation, I started working in an export company. By 2000 I got married, and decided to go abroad for higher studies. Political upheavals brought a lot of uncertainties in political families like ours. My mother and uncle were anxious about me and pushed me towards settling abroad. In 2003 I came to the UK to do a diploma, then I returned home after one and a half years. I came back to the UK in 2005 under the High Skilled Migrant Programme. Initially I stayed in London, its stifling bustle reminded me of downtown of Old Dhaka. I hoped to move out to a town that is prim and natty, and a friend strongly suggested I settle in Norwich. I came here for a day, experienced the green city, great weather, friendliness of the natives and the presence of heritage landmarks—something I loved in my Old Dhaka. I went back to consult my wife, and we decided to settle here. We came to Norwich in 2006, on the Lord Mayor’s Festival Day, roads were barricaded for the parade, there were fireworks that night, we enjoyed the day with our son in my lap. The Mayor is still a revered customer in my restaurant. Ours is a listed building, with a listed ceiling as well. When we took the place, dark and dilapidated for 20 years, we decided to not change a thing, just added good Indian food.
Population and traffic in Norwich has increased since I came here, as well as the number of migrants. When I first came here and worked as a volunteer in Norfolk and Norwich Bangladesh Association, there were 45-50 migrant families, and now there are 150 families from varied backgrounds and professions. Before, there were more open spaces, but now there aren’t many left – especially around where I live.
After a long courtship, I got married at the age of 24. My wife’s family did not give consent to this marriage, neither did mine as Dhakaiyas do not marry outside their clan. One day, my wife’s grandfather called for me, I proposed there and then we got married in his house. Our first child is 18 years old, the second one is eight, a special needs child. When he was three, doctors told us he had autism, he began speaking very late, but I am besotted by him. The happiest moment of my life was when he was born. We are expecting our third child soon.
Bangladesh Awami League was the chief political party which called for our liberation war of 1971. My uncle was committed to that party. For eight years he was the councillor, up until 2004 in our area. Our house was big, 30-35 family members lived there together. All local political activities were co-ordinated from that house. Every day at least 50 people dined there. As mentioned before, I was more into student politics than studies as a college student. Unfortunately my uncle was killed by the opposition party in 2005. I came to the UK to escape from the political killings of BNP and Jamayat. The lesson I learnt from life is tenacity. I never gave up, made a career for myself unaided, always had an urge to move forward and aim to do things for the poor in Bangladesh. We have a charity for good students. My son will become a doctor and help out people in Bangladesh.
I would say my local MP Clive Lewis is one of the great Norwich characters. When I was invited as general secretary of Norwich Awami League to attend the British Parliament, he represented me. Once my business ran into issues, he immediately got involved.
Wali Ullah, also known as Rubel, was born in Dhaka in 1978. He studied at Chennai University in India for four years, before arriving in the UK. In 2005, he moved in London under the High Skilled Migrant Programme, before moving to Norwich in 2006. He co-owns the popular Indian restaurant Spice Valley.
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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