While South Asia is tearing itself apart in different pockets, there is a large corner of East London where, on a breezy Sunday in May, thousands of people, most of them, but not all, Asians, most but not all Bangali, are gathered for a Baishakhi Mela. There are Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds and other joyrides, there are stalls in what looks like their hundreds selling food and other goods, there are two sound stages set up for music. Through and around this mills what feels like the entire brown population of the United Kingdom, though I’m told later by a former organizer that the figure is “only” 50,000.
My younger son goes to a North London Secondary that’s mostly white. He looks around with some awe: “It’s like my school, but the opposite — count how many white people?” There are quite a few of what an old West Indian lady once called “pinky people” but the mass of the half-lakh crowd is brown, Asian, Bengali from Bangladesh. My friend G is one of them, while her husband, S, is from Sylhet. They have been living in the East End for nearly 20 years and both their son and daughter were born here. Today, we form a gang of about ten, adults plus kids ranging from infant to 14, with as many agendas as gang members.
G, who teaches the social history of this part of London, is here for pleasure but also to observe. Her own thesis, out soon as a book, looks at this eastern end of London, this chief maritime hub of the Empire with its history of shipping and trade, and examines how all traces of that bloodthirsty commerce have been wiped out from these docklands while all sorts of other voyages are richly commemorated, including the departure to the Americas of ships such as Godspeed and Discovery which left before The Mayflower. One of G’s projects is to retrieve and document the history of this place from which the not-so-bahadur Company ran the lives of millions across the planet. Today, the empire is certainly not invisible. A parallel ongoing interest G has is in examining how the Bangladeshi community has grown and changed after settling in the ghost-arrondissements of our former rulers.
The history of this Baishakhi Mela is instructive in this regard. Begun in a small community centre in 1993, it has now reportedly grown into Europe’s second largest public event after the Notting Hill Carnival. Initially conceived as a cultural fair, it was a celebration of Bangla-hood which included stalls with Bangla books and periodicals. Now the mela is heavily commercialized, the environment of the two parks across which it is now spread totally shot with ads and sponsors’ logos. Across the years, the mela has also drawn the ire of the local Bong Jamaatis who see all this festivity as anti-Islamic and generally shoitanesque; recently, the long-beards allegedly allied with George Galloway, the maverick MP and leader of the Respect Party, to try and shut the mela down, even bandying about the idea that some Bangladeshis might try and slip into the country posing as folk musicians. This year, the local council has taken over temporary control of the fair while an independent committee is constituted to carry on next year.
The struggle to maintain notions of a Bangla identity while faced with Polit-beards on one side and greedy globalizers on the other is reflected all over the mela. Someone is selling headbands with the colours of the Bangladesh flag, deep green background and red circle in the middle. Others are wearing T-shirts which proclaim “Bangladesh, the Soul of our Dream” over a lurid sunrise. There are more saris in the crowd than I have ever seen in London, spangly ones, bright yellow ones, and the classic white-with-lal-paar combo, but most fascinating is the array of different kinds of hijab.
G points out the different styles: there is the tent which covers everything except the eyes; then there is a new one where the eyes and nose stick out but everything else is under wraps; then there is what I’ve heard people call “the toothache hijab” which is a headdress with a fold that goes under the chin; then there is a whole array of what is known as the “sexy hijab, where the woman (or, more likely, teenage girl) has the Toothache on her face but tight T-shirt and super-low-waisted jeans or slinky skirt below. S, who is a practising Muslim but anything but illiberal, starts to laugh when we see a pair of women peacocks flit by in fitting salwars and plumed headdress. “I don’t care if they don’t wear a hijab, but what I find odd is this ‘sexy hijab’ fashion — kirom ekta odbhut laagey! (it looks quite odd)” As I look around with G and S, what I find interesting is that you see all varieties of hijab and no-hijab in one family group, though I don’t manage to spot any sari and hijab mixture in one cluster.
Turning from the women to the men, the entire array of East Bengali masculinity is also ranged across this London maidan. There are some long kurtas with amazing paintwork and embroidery — no Fabindia standard or Gariahat boredom here. There are a few young men in traditional kurta-lungi but clearly not traditional in any other way. There are teenage Bangla rude boys in gangsta kit (occasionally walking along with hijabed sister or girlfriend but mostly in male posse formation) and then there is a large sampling of middle-aged homo sapien South-Asiaticus in ill-fitting jackets and shiny shirts. Everyone — men and women — has some sort of portable telephony attached to them and all sorts of sounds from London-dropped-glottal to Dhakai and Comilla to Sylheti are being delivered into the mouthpieces.
Out of this crowd comes a tall, elegantly dressed woman in her early thirties, no trace of hijab but her clothes a perfect mixture of the sober and the celebratory: smart shirt, designer trousers and a muted golden shawl wrapped around her arm, very subtle gold glitter in her make-up. As she greets G and S, I realize I’ve met Rushanara Ali before, when she was a rising star in the Foreign Office. Now Rushanara is running for parliament as a Labour candidate from this area. A brief conversation is enough to convince me that in terms of looks, intelligence, passion and articulation, Rushanara could be the British Obama, which, I’m later told, is exactly what people are apparently saying about her. I’m tempted to ask her how she feels about sitting in the opposition benches should she win, but I don’t. I can guess her answer — it would actually be better to come in when there’s a lot to play for, rather than as junior treasury MP in a party on the downslide. In either case, it would be a win-win situation for a young, bright and ambitious politician.
As Ali goes off to work the crowd, another star of the Foreign Office takes the smaller stage in a T-shirt and jeans. Anwar Chowdhury was the British High Commissioner for Bangladesh before being promoted to some other diplomatic post. None of this stops him from belting out a Bangla folk number, dancing with three or four singers who’ve flown in for the mela.
In a sense, there are two Londons wandering around on this maidan. There is the mixed but largely Asian and Bangla crowd with a smattering of whites, and then there are the policemen and women who are out in force but very understated; there is also a substantial presence of paramedics with ambulances and teams of two wandering around the crowd; on top of these there is also a private security firm that has been hired and you can see their uniforms too, mingling with the salwars, saris and kurtas. In between these is the occasional Polit-beard, walking past and checking out all these thousands enjoying a Sunday of Haraam. I ask S why there aren’t any stalls selling beer and wine as you’d get in a normal British Sunday fair and he grins. “That’s the one concession to the Jamaatis, but take another look at all the lads with Coke cans. Many of them have spiked the cans with whatever. People can’t do without booze on a holiday!”
As my son and I start heading back to our part of London, a middle-aged woman wearing a tight-fitting blue sari and blouse starts singing a popular Bangla song on the big stage. The attendant video-cameras do their trapeze acts on long remote jibs, zooming and twirling and gliding over the crowd, showing the thronged audience to itself on two large screens. The crowd is now freaking out, dancing and waving to the cameras. The song is in an accent I can barely understand, something about the woman’s zoibon and abaadi, and the voice is shrill and the musicality not great, but I’m glad for the singing and the dancing. Joy Bangla, I’ll take it over the ersatz beat of manufactured music or the evil silence of radical religion any time.