A Walk With Abdul Mukthadir
My friend Abdul Mukthadir – widely known as Muktha – and I indulged in a little time travel yesterday when we took a walk through the streets of Spitalfields. We met at the Herb & Spice restaurant in White’s Row as it was closing for the afternoon and the last businessmen were reluctantly finishing their beers and returning to their City offices.
Here, Muktha has worked as waiter for the last seventeen years and acquired a reputation among the clientele for the eloquence of his storytelling, drawing customers who arrive in hope that Muktha will join their table at the end of service and tell the charismatic tales of his grandfather who first came to this country as a sea-captain in the nineteen thirties.
Just a hundred yards round the corner, at the junction of Toynbee St and Wentworth St, Muktha pointed up to the corner flat of Wentworth Dwellings where he first arrived from Sylhet, aged ten years old with his mother and two sisters, to join his father in 1975. “We came at night,” he recalled “And next morning I looked out of the window at the market. It was something new to me. I was a bit scared to the see the white people that I had never seen before, only heard stories of.”
“It was very difficult for my mother to move around the flat, she had to hide.” admitted Muktha with a frown, speaking of the two-room dwelling where eight people lived, “The four of us shared one room and, only when the men had gone to work, could she go into the kitchen.” We walked through a passage into the yard at the rear of Wentworth Dwellings where Muktha had played in those days, now roofed over and converted to a car park, lit by a single shaft of daylight through a vast circular well in the ceiling. Muktha and I stood and exchanged a look of recognition in the surreal glow, acknowledging that the past was gone from this place.
After five weeks, the family were able to move into place of their own – an equally small flat around the corner in Goulston St. “My father had a friend who had married a white lady and they were moving out. So he said, ‘Why don’t you take my flat?’ and he took my father to the GLC housing office at the end of the street and they gave him the tenancy agreement right away.” Muktha told me. And we walked around to stand beneath the window of the first floor flat which had one bedroom, one living room, one kitchen and no bathroom just a shared toilet in the passageway, where Muktha lived with his parents and two sisters for four years. “My mother was very happy and, although I didn’t know where I was going, I felt this was my home.” he said, raising his eyes and glowing with delight to return to this hallowed place.
Since he was the eldest son and his father worked all hours, Muktha used to go round the corner to Cobb St, to the only Indian grocer, to do the shopping. But when we walked there we discovered that the shop is now an Argentinian restaurant. Muktha also remembers going to buy halal chicken in this street with his father.“He held the chicken by the neck and said a prayer before they cut it’s throat, and I used to like to see this,” he revealed with eyes shining in emotion.
“After the market shut, the place was dead, dark and scary,” Muktha confided to me as we turned the corner into the square behind the flats, where he played football as a teenager. “Only two or three hours after the English boys had finished playing, could we come out to play,” he admitted, casting his eyes around the empty space that is now a car park, “and, even then, they would come back, just to steal our ball. But we had one English friend called Nick, he was a good footballer, and he used to come and play with us. I wish I could see them again, those other boys. I wouldn’t even recognise them now. I hope they are alright.”
Yet there was a darker side to this yard, a child abductor who appeared regularly. “He gave sweets and money to boys and girls, so that he could get close and take them for a ransom,” said Muktha widening his eyes, “And one day, he tried to take one of us and we were all shouting and screaming, and my mother came out to stop him. She was brave as well as kind, and she was always the first to jump in.”
Although Muktha and his family moved out in 1979 to a better flat in Christian St, Stepney, with four bedrooms and a bathroom and toilet, he looks back on his Spitalfields years with great affection in spite of the poor housing and travails. “Even now, I spend more time at work here than I do in my own home.” he confessed to me with a modest grin, as he returned to Herb & Spice to resume service, “I’ve stayed working here all these years because Spitalfields my true home. And so, though I am working for someone else, I treat the customers in the restaurant as if they were guests in my own home.”
In Wentworth St – the window of the top flat on the corner was where Muktha first looked out and saw white people when he arrived as a ten year old in 1975.
The window above the shop belongs to the flat in Goulston St where Muktha and his family lived from 1975 -79.
This former sweet shop in Cobb St was where Mukhta once bought a packet of crisps, custard cream biscuits and a can of Tango for 25p.
This is the facade of the Goulston St Wash Houses where Muktha and his family came to bathe.
This is the yard where Muktha played football with Nick, his first white friend.
At Canon Barnett School, Muktha was lucky to discover the benign influence of the beloved Miss Dixon.
You may like to read my original profile of Muktha