“BANGLADESH WILL win, Bangladesh will win. If Tamim scores a ton, India is finished,” Shafayat Rahman starts declaring as soon as he realizes where you’re from.
Rahman, like 80,000 other Bangladeshis who live on or alongside Brick Lane, moved here from Sylhet. And like most of them, he’s a cricket nut and very confident about the result in the second Champions Trophy semi-final on Thursday.
Shafayat manages Preem Restaurant, one of the dozen or so curry houses on the narrow street, and plays club cricket for his Borough over the weekends. He will be working while the match is on, but insists that he will be live streaming the game on his phone because as he says, “how can I miss the biggest match in Bangladesh history”. He then grudgingly reveals that hundreds of more fortunate fans from Brick Lane will, however, be travelling to Birmingham to see the biggest match of their lives in person. The rest will, like Shafayat, be using their own tactics to catch the action.
Unlike Shafayat, Islamuddin was born right here and has spent all his life on Brick Lane. He is an oddity of sorts and doesn’t really follow cricket unless when Bangladesh is playing. And he too doesn’t give India much of a chance at Edgbaston.
He can name only a handful of players in his team, but is desperate for Bangladesh to win. “It’s a matter of pride. Indians have underestimated us for long enough, despite us being of the same skin-colour. If they win, we can walk around with our chests puffed out and tell them that we are equal,” he says.
It’s a thought that seems to resonate around what is popularly known as Banglatown-even the signboard outside the local metropolitan police station refers to the area as that. This sense of retribution, to finally show the big bullies, who have always kept them at arm’s length on and off the cricket field, their place.
Brick Lane is situated in the East End of London right next to Whitechapel, which till the early part of the 20th century used to be one of the most impoverished and downtrodden areas of the capital, with a massive population of immigrants and a very high crime-rate. It’s Whitechapel that witnessed the notorious Jack the Ripper murders but Islamuddin recalls that death was very much a part of everyday life even while he was growing up.
A complete takeover
“I grew up running through these streets, and was used to seeing people being killed and random dead bodies around. This used to be a rough neighbourhood till recently when it got more cosmopolitan,” he says. The Bangladeshis started settling here right after the war of independence, and many like Islamuddin’s father just broke into houses abandoned by Jewish immigrants over the years and started occupying them. The Bangaldeshi population kept burgeoning rather rapidly and before long the London city council was forced to recognize it officially as Banglatown. To the extent that some 15 years ago they added street-signs in Bengali below the traditional English ones.
You are welcomed to Brick Lane by the sounds of Bengali and the smell of mustard-oil and the distinct gondhoraj lebu. The lamp-posts are all painted in the colours of the Bangladeshi flag, green and red. Just a 10-minute walk away is Shoreditch High Road, known for its hipster culture and loads of chic and retro cafes and bars and even the odd Jamaican braai shop. But on Brick Lane, you are transported to the streets of Dhaka, Mirpur to be precise with shinghadas being sold alongside fish and mutton chops. Strangely you also find a dosa shop in one of the narrow lanes, which not surprisingly is empty on the weekday evening.
Back in the day, Brick Lane would play host to the members of the Bangladeshi team on a regular basis. These days security regulations have limited these visits. Both Misbah and Shafayat recall having spotted fast bowlers Taksin Ahmed and Rubel Hossain at Nazrul Restaurant, which calls itself the oldest curry house on Brick Lane.
It was established in 1971, the year of Bangladesh’s liberation. And owner Romz Shehel is already planning a celebration for when Bangladesh beat India. He recalls the rowdy scenes that followed Bangladesh’s shock win over Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup and how there was no space for cars to pass with people crowding Brick Lane with flags and bugles. He expects the scenes to be played out similarly, and is already looking for tickets for the final at the Oval. For him, the Champions Trophy semifinal is more than even a victory on the field, it’s about helping his country create its own identity, even if only on Brick Lane alone.
“We have been synonymous only with Balti shops, selling so-called authentic Indian food. A win against them on Thursday will give us the individual identity that we’ve always sought,” says Shehel.