Who we are
Dr Claire Alexander
I have been working in the sociology department at the London School of Economics since 2003. I was born and brought up in Banbury in Oxfordshire, and studied English Literature at Oxford University. I later studied social anthropology and did research into Black British youth identities, which was published as The Art of Being Black in 1996. I then did a 5-year study – based in London – with Bangladeshi young men, looking at their experiences and how they saw themselves. This was published as The Asian Gang in 2000. It was because of this study that I became interested in Bengali migration to Britain. Although I have mainly done research with Bengali young people who were born and brought up in Britain, I also became very interested in how their parents and grandparents had first travelled to Britain and what their experiences were. This led to my involvement with the 'Bengal Diaspora'/Bangla Stories project.
I was very keen to learn more about why Bengalis first came to Britain and what their lives were like here. Because my mother is a Bengali Hindu from Calcutta, with family roots in Sylhet, the project gave me a chance to explore some of my personal family history. The research taught me a lot about the history of Bengal and its people, and about the very long-standing connections between Bengal and Britain that led to my birth here. I was surprised to learn about how long Bengalis have been present in Britain, about the lascars and about the early migrants who settled here. I learned too about the difficult challenges these migrants faced, how they formed communities to resist racism and how they adapted to changing circumstances – for example when the mills closed and Bengalis turned to the restaurant trade. I also learned about how this community is changing all the time – moving to new places and creating new lives. Hearing the stories of the people we spoke to brought this history to life for me, and I hope it will do the same for others.
Dr Joya Chatterji
I was born and brought up in Delhi, the capital city of India. I did my first degree in History at Delhi University, and then went to Cambridge for further studies, completing my PhD there in 1991. I now teach History at Cambridge.
My doctoral dissertation explored the causes of the partition of Bengal and India in 1947: it was published as Bengal Divided in 1995. (The Bengali language edition, called Bangla Bhag Holo, came out a few years later). Thereafter I became interested in the consequences of partition, and of the mass migrations that accompanied it. I wrote a book about these themes called The Spoils of Partition, which was published in 2007. I was then teaching International History at the London School of Economics. I continued to be fascinated and preoccupied with migration, and when the opportunity arose, worked with my colleagues at the LSE, Dr Claire Alexander and Dr Annu Jalais, to apply for a large grant to conduct an inter-disciplinary study of Bengali Muslim migrants.
By this time, my own son was growing up in Britain as a young British Asian, with strong ties to his family in India but equally firm in his commitment to Britain, to his life and community here in the UK. It seemed to me that I too was living a 'trans-national' life, with a foot in two very different worlds. I began to wonder about my fellow Bengalis in Britain, about their experiences and histories, and to think about how this related to the wider processes of migration in Bengal that I had been studying for a long time. The project enabled me to explore these questions and I learned a huge amount about the history of Britain – for now my home – in the process. I also learned about the many ways in which migrants, both here and in Bengal, had adapted, survived, and responded creatively to the challenges of new contexts. It was also extremely interesting to learn about people who had not moved, despite the many complex pressures they faced. Above all, I was struck by the grace, generosity and good humour of our respondents as they let us into their lives and told us their stories. It has been a pleasure and privilege to help to bring these stories to a wider audience.
I was born and brought up in Bangladesh where I obtained my early qualifications, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. In 2002, I came to the UK to do a PhD in Anthropology at SOAS, University of London. I was interested in Bengali immigrants long before I moved to the UK, partly because I have close relatives who live in the UK.
My first trip to Brick Lane (which I visited as soon as I set foot in London) came to me as a big surprise. It was beyond my wildest imagination. The smell of curries, loud Bangla music, deshi clothing stores, posters of actors and actresses from Bangla cinema displayed in shop windows, and lots of Bengalis wearing deshi cloths made me feel like I was walking through a street in a busy Bangladeshi town. I became a regular visitor to Brick Lane and have built strong ties with local community organisations. My contact with local people helped me to write a short monograph on 'An Indian Restaurant'. The colourful and vibrant life stories of the people who work in the 'Indian' restaurants, most of which are owned by Bangladeshis, made me interested in various aspects of Bengali migration. This led me to apply for a job with the Bengali Diaspora Project.
The project gave me the opportunity to widen my knowledge and understanding of the British Bengali community in many ways. Because of my involvement with the project, I have travelled around the UK to interview Bengali migrants in order to understand their stories of migration. I have lived in Bengali-dominated places in Oldham, Manchester, Tower Hamlets and Newham in London. I have interviewed first-generation migrants to understand their backgrounds, their initial experiences in the UK, their struggles, joys and sorrows, and how the community has grown and become part of British life. It was a privilege for me to be able to write their stories of struggles with racism, about the courage they have shown to embrace life in a new place. These are the extraordinary stories of 'ordinary' people.
Dr Annu Jalais
I am Franco-Bong. I was born and brought up in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and after my Uccha Madhyamik (A-levels) went to Paris to study literature. As part of my degree, I decided to work on Bhaowaiya songs and travelled, in 1996, to Rangpur in northern Bangladesh. While conducting interviews I became more interested in the singers' lives than in translating the songs. So as soon as my dissertation was completed, I shifted to Anthropology and joined the London School of Economics in 1997 as a Masters student.
As a child, I spent many weekends and holidays in southern West Bengal and grew fascinated by stories about the Sundarbans - the largest remaining natural habitat of Bengal tigers. 'What do people think of man-eating tigers?' 'Why do Sundarbans islanders have a special place in their heart for Bonbibi?' 'Why do the islanders sometimes think that they’re just "tiger-food" for the urbanites?' 'Where did the East Bengali migrants settle after being chased away from the island of Morichjhanpi?' These were some of the questions I kept pondering over. So I decided to do a PhD on life in the Sundarbans, which eventually led to the publication of my book, Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans in 2010.
When Dr Joya Chatterji contacted me to work with her and Dr Claire Alexander on the Bengali Muslim Diaspora project, I was thrilled. I wanted to return to Bangladesh and learn more about the Bengali culture of the 'other side of the border'. Having grown up in Kolkata, Bangladesh was both a source of fascination and 'an area of darkness'. While working on this project, I travelled to many places along the Bangladesh/West Bengal border and met both with people who had migrated and with those who had refused to migrate. Some were Bengalis, some were Biharis, some were from Kolkata, others from villages. The stories I heard shattered many of the stereotypes I had grown up with and made me discover and appreciate a hitherto hidden, rich and throbbing part of Bengali culture. It was an immense challenge as well as very enriching to collect stories and experiences from all of my interviewees. I am currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Agrarian Studies Program, Yale University, and my work, inspired by Dr Joya Chatterji, centres on the effects of the partition of Bengal, the state of refugees in Bangladesh and West Bengal, and what it means to be living along the edges of Bengali bhadralok culture and politics.