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Shahida Rahman interview: 'My mother may have been the first Bengali woman in Cambridge'

Writer Shahida Rahman discusses the small but significant Bangladeshi community in Cambridge, in a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence.

Shahida Rahman walking along Devonshire Road past the house she first remembers, number 6 Devonshire Road. Picture: Keith Heppell
Shahida Rahman walking along Devonshire Road past the house she first remembers, number 6 Devonshire Road. Picture: Keith Heppell

One of the earliest settlers to arrive in Cambridge from what was then East Pakistan was Abdul Karim, a young man who had left his family behind in pursuit of a better life.

As was the custom at that time, the men would usually arrive first and seek to establish gainful employment before bringing over their wives and children – or following a different path and setting up home with a local girl.

What must Abdul Karim have made of the city we now take for granted as multicultural when he first clapped eyes on it in 1957?

Bangladesh officially celebrates its independence each year on March 26, although East Pakistan didn’t officially become Bangladesh until December 16, 1971, following the defeat of the Pakistan Army after a nine-month war.

Abdul Karim’s daughter, writer and author Shahida Rahman, was born two days before, on December 14, 1971 at Mill Road Maternity Hospital in Cambridge.

Although her father was one of the first East Pakistanis to move to the city, Shahida has discovered there were others who had come earlier.

“We do have a small community here, but it’s probably one of the largest South Asian communities in Cambridge,” says Shahida, who is fluent in both English and Bengali. She recalls that her father set up two restaurants in Cambridge in the 1960s and 70s.

Shahida Rahman's father Abdul Karim, probably dated 1963
Shahida Rahman's father Abdul Karim, probably dated 1963

Abdul’s first home in the city was in Willis Road, and Shahida’s three older brothers were all born while he and his wife, Fultara Banoo Karim, were living there. Shahida’s father then moved the family to Devonshire Road, before locating to the Chesterton area in 1976.

“He was one of the early settlers but by the time he came, I think there were about three or four other men – and we do know that one of them had arrived in 1949,” says Shahida.

“I think his grandchildren still live in Cambridge. Obviously it was the men that came first and then they brought their wives over – but some of them married English women and settled here.”

Why did Shahida’s father choose Cambridge as a place to live? “He passed away when we were quite young, but from what we understand he came to London first and I think someone he had contact with told him that there was work available in Cambridge,” she says.

“So he came here and lived in the Mill Road area, and then my mother followed in January 1964. We think that my mother may have been the first Bengali woman in Cambridge, and she’s still alive today –

she’s 82.

"It’s just the stories that she tells us... and especially during those times of the independence where it was quite an anxious time.”

Shahida, who has a twin sister, adds: “I’ve been in Cambridge all my life and it’s just nice to be able to tell these stories, where sometimes they can be forgotten.”

Abdul Karim had two restaurants, Shahida says, “by 1973”, noting: “He also bought a house and was established here. He was one of the lucky ones, I think, to be given that chance to come to England – and it was post-war Britain; I think they were looking for people to come here and help boost the economy.”

Shahida Rahman walking along Devonshire Road past the house she first remembers, number 6 Devonshire Road. Picture: Keith Heppell
Shahida Rahman walking along Devonshire Road past the house she first remembers, number 6 Devonshire Road. Picture: Keith Heppell

Shahida, a mother of four and a trustee of Cambridge Central Mosque, says that an influx of South Asians came to Cambridge – and to the UK in general – in the 1960s and 70s, but has discovered that some South Asians were in fact in Cambridge a number of years before, in the early 20th century.

“We managed to identify five graves at the Ascension Burial Ground on All Souls Lane,” she reveals, “and two are listed as being residents of East Pakistan. It’s very rare to find two gravestones with East Pakistan written on them.

"They died in the 60s and we managed to trace what happened to them.

“We came across the story through a Facebook post, and one of them was actually knocked down by a bus in the city centre. That was in April 1964, so my mother remembers a time when someone in the community was knocked down and killed...

“And because the community was so small at the time, it’s quite a sad story because he didn’t have any family here and was buried in Cambridge.

“Then another person died of an illness in 1966, and again he was buried at the burial ground.”

Shahida is researching East Pakistani history in Cambridge and helped set up the website, cambridgemuslimheritage.co.uk – “just to find the lost communities, the people who might have been forgotten and who lived in Cambridge.”

Shadida adds: “But why Cambridge? That’s the story I’m trying to find out: what brought them here, what was it that attracted them here?”

The first Indian restaurant in the city was, Shahida thinks, the Kohinoor on Mill Road (an Indian restaurant under different management is still on the site today), which she believes opened in 1943.

“Then my father opened The New Bengal restaurant on Regent Street, and that was just a few doors down from Pizza Hut.”

Shahida says that the restaurant’s neighbours, estate agents Watsons & Son, wanted the premises back in 1975 and that, following a public inquiry, her father sadly lost the restaurant.

Abdul Karim's restaurant on Fitzroy Street. Picture: Cambridgeshire Collection
Abdul Karim's restaurant on Fitzroy Street. Picture: Cambridgeshire Collection

“By then he had one on Fitzroy Street,” says Shahida, “which was opposite where Eden Chapel is today.

“That was the only business he had afterwards, but I think with the public inquiry there was a lot of interest; there was a fight over that other premises because it was for a 12-year lease but he wanted to continue trading because the business was very good.

“We do see comments on the Cambridge Memories Facebook page where people post old pictures and comment that they used to eat there – they still remember that restaurant. It’s lovely to hear these kinds of stories.”

Abdul Karim died in Bangladesh in 1985. “Since then we’ve just seen the community grow,” says Shahida, "we’ve seen other members come and settle here. But I believe the Bangladeshi community is probably the largest [ethnic minority] community in Cambridge.

Shahida Rahman's father Abdul Karim
Shahida Rahman's father Abdul Karim

"I think South Asians only make up about 1.3 per cent, if I’m correct, so it’s still very small.”

Shahida says the 50th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence will be commemorated by the community, but notes: “You could say it’s a celebration but we do have to remember that many people lost their lives – it was a nine-month war and lots of things happened.

“So it’s more of a poignant reminder really of the suffering that some people faced – as with any independence, there’s good sides and bad sides. There will be things being held in bigger cities [in the UK] but for us it’s just remembering our past heritage and culture.”

Find out more about Shahida at shahidarahman.co.uk.

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