by Asa Willoughby
If someone asks you what word comes to mind when talking about the diaspora in Brick Lane, Whitechapel, Shadwell or Bethnal Green, you would probably say Bengali or Bangladeshi, which is true to an extent. Most people outside of the Bangladeshi diaspora are however completely unaware that the community that has become famous in East London, are actually mostly from the same region in north-eastern Bangladesh; Sylhet.
Sylheti is an ethnicity in its own right within the larger context of Bangladesh and therefore Sylheti culture has a number of differences with mainstream Bangladeshi culture, often referred to as “Dhakayee” or from Dhaka, by the Sylheti community. One major difference is language. The official language of Bangladesh is Bengali, the same language used and spoken in the Indian state of West Bengal. If you went from Dhaka to Kolkata, you would hear the same language with minor differences. In Sylhet and Tower Hamlets however, Sylheti is the main language. But is it a language? Linguists have debated how to classify languages and dialects for years and a similar debate could easily be had when comparing Bengali and Sylheti. There is a huge amount of vocabulary overlap but the languages are not always mutually intelligible, at least not in the diaspora. Naima grew up in Tower Hamlets in a British Sylheti community and says she barely understands spoken Bengali, but speaks Sylheti with her parents. As someone with mixed Pakistani and English heritage myself, I often go to Whitechapel as one of the closest South Asian areas to shop, and found that my basic knowledge of standard Bengali got far fewer responses than my more or less fluent Urdu. Sylheti is in fact said to have more differences with Bengali than Assamese which is recognised as a separate language.
Sylheti does in fact have its own script, and so far only one Sylheti I spoke to was aware of this
Another interesting point to note is that Sylheti does in fact have its own script, and so far only one Sylheti I spoke to was aware of this. The script is called Sylheti Nagari and was developed in order to create a script distinct from the Brahmi script which was seen as a Hindu writing system. The script is considered by some to be extinct today but a number of literary works including novels, medical journals and poetry still exist in the script, it was added to the Unicode standard in 2005 and it is being promoted by the Sylheti Language Society at SOAS, University of London. I think it is interesting then, that Sylheti continues to be considered a dialect and that of the British Sylhetis I spoke to, the vast majority would never refer to the language as Sylheti amongst themselves but rather as Bengali or Bangla.
I originally wanted to write this article to raise awareness of Sylheti identity but in my research I discovered another side of Sylheti identity that I wasn’t expecting. A side that is completely at odds with my experience of Pakistani identity in the diaspora. The more Sylhetis I spoke to about recognising their language as a language and not a dialect, about whether they saw a need to differentiate from mainstream Bengali culture, the more I realised that my notions of South Asian diasporic identity in the UK were based almost solely on my Pakistani and Sikh identities and that these were often at odds with the Sylheti experience.
A lot of Sylheti youth simply do not see the value in retaining a strong command of the Sylheti language nor in reviving Sylheti Nagari, whereas I grew up with the notion of Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto and other Pakistani/Indian/Afghan languages being celebrated and proudly retained. In the Sikh community Punjabi is seen as a vital key to understanding the faith which is why most practising Sikhs born and brought up in Britain can speak, read and write Punjabi to some extent. It was explained to me by one Sylheti friend who grew up in a close-knit Sylheti community in Lozells, Birmingham, that the Sylheti experience is one of hardship. Most Sylhetis who came to Britain were not educated and worked night and day to put food on the table and provide a better future for their children. In this struggle, language was often seen as unimportant and irrelevant in the wider picture of surviving and succeeding.
The future of the Sylheti language as seen through the eyes of the Sylhetis I spoke to also seems fairly bleak. Aysha from Birmingham,would like to see Sylheti Nagari continue to survive but feels that it isn’t her battle to fight as someone born and brought up in Britian and Naima from London feels that the language may not survive amongst future generations of British Sylhetis. Farzana also from London, Aysha and Naima all felt that the language had been useful for them almost solely to communicate with their families and grandparents. But with future generations born in the UK, will that still be relevant? A striking difference between Sylheti, Pakistani and Indian diasporas is the link with the homeland, whereas most British Pakistanis and Indians have a continued connection with India and Pakistan, follow their politics, have been back on numerous occasions and often still have a lot of family still living in the country; the Sylhetis I spoke to had very little to do with the modern state of Bangladesh at all, for a lot of them their families were now very much based in Britain and they had often not been back more than once or twice to their parents’ homeland if at all. This disconnection with Bangladesh is often quoted as a further reason as to why Sylheti language and culture is not always at the forefront of peoples’ minds.
Initially I wanted to write this piece to raise awareness of Sylheti as a unique and distinct identity, but the journeys lead me to a stark realisation that the Sylheti experience is vastly different to that of other South Asian diasporas. As a non-Sylheti I cannot and do not claim to speak for the community and of course there will be many Sylhetis with other stories and different experiences, such as one SOAS student I met who comes from a small Sylheti community in Exeter and whose grandfather used to translate texts written in Sylheti Nagari into standard Bengali script. What should be noted though, and especially by members of the South Asian diaspora, that in the same way that India is seen as a diverse melting pot of ethnicities and languages, so too is Bangladesh and Sylhetis are an ethnic group with many differences from their neighbours in Dhaka. Sylhetis in fact make up 95% of all British Bangladeshis. Is it important to differentiate between Sylheti identity and Bangladeshi identity? I think it is but I will leave you with an opinion of Aysha’s mother who left Sylhet for Birmingham when she was 14; “There is no point differentiating a district or smaller ethnic group. The more you differentiate yourself the more you ask for trouble.”