To say I’m a proud Bengali is an understatement. It has shaped my childhood and every part of my personality and identity. From those long summer holidays in Dhaka visiting family and not wanting to come home; to weekends feasting with our family friends; to celebrating Bangladesh’s landmark festivals singing at and hosting shows every year. I’m so lucky to have had such a vibrant upbringing and my life is eternally richer for it.
My elder brother and I are second generation British Bengali. Dad arrived in London in 1969 to study accountancy. Mum finished her Master’s degree before joining him in 1973 and was a secondary school teacher for 27 years. They settled in north east London and formed a close-knit community with their many friends who arrived around the same time. They were determined to build their new lives, but also keep their heritage alive.
They did this by maintaining a culturally active environment. From a young age, we learned about the bloodshed that led to Bengali being recognised as an official language on 21 February 1952, and the devastating civil war with Pakistan that began on 26 March 1971 and led to the Declaration of Independence on 16 December 1971.
They formed organisations which celebrated these events every year and I was very active in this. I grew up singing Bengali and Indian music and later learned Indian classical music. We would perform these patriotic songs in groups and solos, wearing traditional dress.
Honestly as a kid, I hated it! I can’t tell you the number of times I got told off for messing around and not taking it seriously! This music didn’t resonate with our generation at all. However, with age and experience, I now truly appreciate everything it taught me.
My parents are incredibly patriotic - it’s empowering! That stirred a strong sense of identity in me too, particularly on a deeper level as a politics student. To think, Bangladesh is a country around 60% the size of England, but look at that passion to fight! Our parents’ generation lived that and witnessed the horrors. My Dad was in England at the time and kept every newspaper article published during the war in six leather-bound books. It’s incredible and definitely belongs in a museum. I used these as first-hand sources in my final year dissertation at university.
In addition, that background of performing from such a young age means that presenting came very naturally to me and it’s why audiences don’t faze me – whether it’s one person or millions.
When I wasn’t performing, much of our spare time revolved around our parents. They had the most active social lives! I was lucky enough to grow up with some amazing friends who are still amongst my dearest now. It was like having hundreds of cousins all over London! Some of us would go on holidays together (siblings included), nights out, concerts, paintballing trips - you name it, we did it! We all cheer each other on in good times and we acutely feel the pain in the dark moments too. I guess that’s what happens when you have so many years of history and know each other’s families intimately.
We would spend almost every weekend at one another’s houses and feasted together on Eid and during Ramadan. How our mums worked hard all week and cooked for up to - or above - 50 people on a Friday night amazed me. It actually showed me a different level of hard work, organisation and generosity and is why I’m so passionate about cooking.
That’s not to say it didn’t come without its challenges. Every community comes with gossip, back-biting, the judgmental ones and the stupidly competitive ones. My brother and I were lucky that our parents gave us the freedom to choose which elements of the culture we took into adult life. And they trusted us not to do anything (too) stupid…. ☺
I loved growing up with a dual heritage and our holidays to Bangladesh every few years were full of love and laughter. I also adore Bengali as a language. I always say that you don’t know what a telling off is unless you’ve had a right old rollocking in a south Asian language - and Bengali is every bit as absurd and harsh as you would expect! We genuinely cry with bellyache laughter at some of the things our parents come out with!
My non-Asian friends always respected my culture too - and loved coming over to sample my mum’s cooking! Sadly, much of this heritage has been diluted with my generation, as we straddle busy lives and many identities, but we do try. I only hope my 9 year-old daughter and 7 year-old son could have even half the rich and vibrant childhood that I had.
Reshmin Chowdhury is a sports journalist and broadcaster and works across all football coverage