The middle-aged men among the villagers in Babnan, a rural hamlet in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, still tittle-tattle about the time when there was a “mem” in their midst. She spoke Spanish, wore gowns and would scream “cover, cover” whenever flies hovered over the food. In a Muslim-majority village, the memsahib, locally called Mrs Politon, had appeared unannounced one day in 1931—wife of the US-returned Niyamul Haque Mondal, a Muslim who had followed his father to the distant land as a chikan peddler.
Sitting in one of the inner chambers of the once-showy mansion of the Mondals—a “dollar bari”, one of the handful of palatial houses dotting the Babnan landscape and reportedly built with dollar earnings—Mohammad Ali, Niyamul Haque Mondal’s son from his second wife, an Indian, revisits the story he has heard since childhood. “On the day my father arrived from America with his memsahib wife, a local Muslim elder rushed to the bazaar with a rifle. He would have shot at them had an influential Hindu man of arts from the area not intervened,” says Mohammad Ali. In the years following, the lady would discard her gown for a sari, join the family women for namaaz in a burqa, develop a taste for local food and language and give birth to a girl.
In Babnan, the Mondals, as well as some of the stately mansions with their Belgian glass mirrors, archways, wooden carved doors, tinted glass windows, cutlery and antique closets with combination lock systems, represent the trail’s end of an invigorating, recently published book on the forgotten history of South Asian emigrants to the US. With Mondal’s daughter having died recently, and the eldest family member having reportedly lost his mind and subsequently, his memory, a chunk of the history of the emigration to the US that took place between the late 19th and early 20th centuries lies permanently buried here.
Bengali Harlem And the Lost Histories of South Asian America is a landmark work at exhuming an unknown past of South Asian emigration. Researched and authored by Professor Vivek Bald, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it deals in fascinating detail with the little-known narrative of Muslim men travelling from undivided Bengal from the 1880s onwards to seek a living in the US.
While many of them were workers of British-operated shipping companies who jumped ship at ports like New York, at the heart of Bengali Harlem are the stories of chikondars—chikan peddlers from Hooghly who worked the streets of American cities like New Orleans, New Jersey and New York, selling their handcrafted ware. Braving the odds, many were assimilated into American life or similar immigrant experiences, marrying Puerto Rican, Creole or African-American women and forming a rare culture of mixed ancestry. Some, like Mondal, returned to Babnan, foreign wife in tow.
The chikondars went in an era when interest in everything Oriental ran high in the US, the author says. By the turn of the 20th century, Vedantic philosophy and The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breath had reached American shores, dancer Ruth Saint Denis had performed in jewels and colourful silk sari on Broadway, Tin Pan Alley songwriters turned out tunes like My Hindoo Man, Indian nautch dance had entered burlesque theatres, tobacco was marketed under “Hindoo” and Bengal brand names and 15 acres of the Brooklyn amusement park had been turned into a replica of Delhi, with 300 Indians, 40 camels and 70 elephants on show.
Prof. Bald, who is also a documentary film-maker, mentions over email that the book came about while he was working on a documentary project with the Bangladeshi-American actor and playwright Aladdin Ullah. Ullah’s immigrant father Habib had married a Puerto Rican woman and lived in New York’s Harlem, as many others like him did, in the 1930s. Habib Ullah’s story triggered other questions—that South Asian emigration to the US predated the emigration of white-collar professionals from the mid-1960s, and even that of Punjabi farmers who settled on the US west coast in the early 20th century and went on to form the Indian nationalist Ghadar Party. While researching on Indian steamship workers jumping ship in US ports around World War I, Prof. Bald “stumbled” upon an earlier migration pushing the date back further to the 1880s, when the first batch of chikondars arrived.
In his largely academic treatise of South Asian migration, backed by ship manifests, census records, marriage documents, letters, news reports and interviews, nuggets of information add colour to the mesmeric narrative—jazz legend Miles Davis patronized a New York restaurant set up by an Indian immigrant especially for the music played there; the emergence of halal hot-dog vendors; and in some of the early halal restaurants in Harlem, immigrant South Asian Muslims debated Islam with Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Then there’s the story of Bardu Ali, the son of Bengali-African- American parents, who was employed as emcee by Harlem’s popular swing jazz musician, Chick Webb, in the 1930s. He reportedly introduced Webb to a young singer, who went on to become the celebrated Ella Fitzgerald. Bardu Ali later joined forces with drummer Johnny Otis to open the Barrelhouse, America’s first nightclub devoted to rhythm and blues music.
In Jennat Bibi’s letter in Bengali, sent from Hooghly to her husband Roston Ally, a chikan peddler in the US for 23 years who married again there, there is the heartbreak of those left behind. Jennat Bibi pleads with her husband to return. Ally returns, settles thorny issues, but does not take his Indian wife back to the US with him.
In Babnan, it is still usual to see women doing chikan embroidery work between household chores and gossip. The village continues to be a hub of the lesser-known chikan trade in Bengal and every Sunday Marwari businessmen from Kolkata’s Barabazar troop down to source goods. Compared with many other Muslim-dominated villages in Bengal, Babnan stands out with its paved roads, old buildings, street lights and a general air of prosperity.
There is also an air of settled stagnancy that good commerce and comfortable lives can sometimes breed. Salim Iqbal Hussain, a 38-year-old, English-speaking local Khadi worker, explains. Unlike their ancestors, who were world travellers, the spirit of exploration is missing, he thinks. “There is no out-of-the-box thinking and Babnan couldn’t exploit the era or evolve with time,” Hussain says. “Nobody in recent memory has thought of reaching out to the US market. It is also an irony that in the globalization era it has become more difficult for us to get visas,” says Azizul Haque Halder, owner of a chikan wholesale store.
"The ‘chikondars’ went in an era when interest in everything Oriental ran high in the US, the author says"
In his large, high-ceilinged room in the palatial “dollar bari”, Mohammad Ali admits to a craving for foreign lands. He is a “cutting master”, somebody who does the cutting of the clothes on which chikan embroidery is done, but doesn’t really know—or care—where the end product goes. “I wish I could have been in America,” he says, giving credence to a recent Gallup poll which suggests that 10 million Indians would want to settle permanently in the US— India was third on the list, after China and Nigeria. “If only my father had gone back…,” Mohammad Ali’s voice trails off.