“Western civilization and British power grinned at me shamelessly as I stood there meekly with gaping mouth.” (11)
From Bengal to Birmingham (1967) is a title that begs one question: how and when Faizur Rasul managed the not-so-simple trip that crosses half the globe. This is exactly what intrigued myself. In the post-colonial era we live in now, this harks back to a time that few have a living memory of, enticing us in to a world that no longer exists. The migration of a working class individual from India to England is a unique and rare subject matter that proves irresistible, with the sixties-esque printed cover and the element of travel implied by the title also contributing to the gravitational pull that I feel towards this book before having even read it.
Rasul began his life in 1914 “in a Bengal village” (7), and his passion immediately comes to the fore when he enthusiastically involves himself with India’s move for independence headed by the then relatively unknown Gandhi. This engulfed the young Rasul, the fact that “[t]he word ‘independence’ was at that time under a taboo” (7) no doubt making it more exciting and therefore attractive to him. His early engagement in political movements paves the way for the highly moral life that Rasul goes on to lead, who remains at all times a gentleman, scolding himself whenever he believes he has stepped out of line. He attracts trustworthy friends and acquaintances because of this amiable quality, who regularly go out of their way to help him. One such co-worker, a Mrs Norbury, invests so much in him that she treats him like a “second husband” (95). Rasul’s qualities conjured friends out of the most difficult situations, the best example being when he stowed away on the SS Rawalpindi for England, living in comfort on par with paying passengers.
Being so caught up with the independence movement in his youth meant that Rasul’s early education was somewhat lack-lustre and he “scrambled from class to class each year without distinction” (10). It is only in later life that he turned to self-education through reading. It began when he worked in a large market in Calcutta, where he “borrowed books from a nearby library and began to read them”, and he “steadily acquired the taste for reading” (16). Rasul’s taste developed in to full-blown hunger, his auto-biography a testament to his strong command of the English language gained through his constant reading.
As he went on, H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw became a huge part of his life, their writings having a direct influence on his behaviour, as well as his own writing. After reading Shaw’s play, The Philanderer, Rasul felt that he had learnt “enough … to start philandering” (116). The result of which he documents in the format of a script, complete with stage directions in some parts:
MISS BOWDEN Don’t joke about the dead! Here, this plot is neat and well looked after. Look at the roses around the graves.
I [Rasul] Yes, it belongs to the Parsees. They are active and rich people. They like to lie down in cosy and sumptuous graves.
MISS BOWDEN Anyway, I like the Parsee graveyard better than your Muslims. Isn’t it a lovely place they have?
I Yes, it is a good graveyard to go away from. Let us get away, or we might be tempted to die here.
MISS BOWDEN Tempted to die here! Don’t talk Bernard Shaw. Talk what you think yourself. No wonder Mr Khan calls you little Bernard Shaw.
The book is split in two, with the first half being Rasul’s travels within India based on his own desire for independence, followed by an equally hectic, albeit different life in England. He spent a lot of time in domestic work, eventually finding work as a travelling fortune-teller, skipping from borough to borough in London avoiding the police, and then from city to city. Rasul’s travels provide a highly engaging story, interspersed with insightful personal views on topics such as religion, class, and culture which he compares with his native India, culminating in an informative and exciting read that is difficult to put down.
Rasul, Faizur. From Bengal to Birmingham, 1967 (London: Andre Deutsch, 1967).