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Himalaya

Day 118: Sylhet

Sylhet, Bangladesh 
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The mansion boom in Sylhet. Build bigger, build higher, build richer.
Michael Palin - Himalaya'The Londonis' is the local name for those Bangladeshis who have made a lot of money from running restaurants and allied businesses in places like Brick Lane in East London and brought the money back to build opulent houses in their home country. Sylhetis, more Assamese than Bengali, have a reputation for being clannish, for sticking together and helping each other, and have done particularly well in England. The evidence is all over the town, in row after row of fresh-built mansions in the International Rich Style. The paint is hardly dry on some of these urban palaces, stacked with a riot of cornices, columns, pediments, balconies and burglar-proof fences. They should, one feels, all be set in ten-acre compounds, but there's no room here, so they jostle together in streets that have not yet been paved.

Abdul Rahman was one of the first successful Sylheti emigrants to Britain. He meets me outside a multistorey block of apartments he's just had built. He's dressed simply in a lungi (a long white cloth worn round the waist and legs) and a hand-embroidered white shirt. He is carrying a hookah and puffing at it nervously. His wife died five days ago and he's not sure whether he should be talking to us at all. But in the courtyard back at his house, with various members of his family watching from the doorways, he proves to be engaging company. Mr Rahman has had three nationalities thrust upon him in his lifetime. Born an Indian in 1929, he became briefly Pakistani, when Muslim East Bengal was hived off at Independence in 1947, and finally Bangladeshi in 1971.

Despite being in his late seventies, he's an energetic, impulsive and tactile storyteller, all eyes and teeth.

'When I went to England first,' he turns towards me, wide-eyed, as if about to divulge an enormous secret. 'There was not any motorway at all. Wasn't any motorway in England.'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 118: Sylhet
  • Country/sea: Bangladesh
  • Place: Sylhet
  • Book page no: 266

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