So Long, Abdul Mukthadir
This is a sad week in Spitalfields as I must report to you the tragic death of Abdul Mukthadir – known as Muktha. In recent years, Herb & Spice Curry Restaurant in White’s Row, where Muktha worked as a waiter, became a popular destination with people coming to be regaled by his famous storytelling abilities. He always waved to me as I passed and I shall not be able to walk down White’s Row without thinking of him there.
The charismatic Abdul Mukthadir – widely known as Muktha – was a born storyteller, blessed with a natural eloquence. As I quickly discovered when I sat down with him in the brief stillness of the afternoon, while the last diners emptied out of Herb & Spice Indian Restaurant in Whites Row. The businessmen were still finishing off their curry in the other half of the restaurant, whilst in a quiet corner Muktha produced a handful of old photographs and discreetly spread them out on the table to begin. Our only interruption was a request for the bill and once it had been settled, in the silence of the empty restaurant, Muktha’s story took flight.
“I came to Spitalfields in 1975 when I was ten years old. My father got married one day when he went back home to Bangladesh, it was an arranged marriage. At the time I was born, he was working in this country. He didn’t see me until two years later when he came back again and stayed for three months. I have another two sisters, and a brother born here.
My father missed his family, so once he got his British citizenship and he had the right to stay in this country, he made a declaration to bring us over and my mother had a big interview at the British consul in Dhaka. When we came we had nowhere to stay, my father shared a room with three others in Wentworth St. The other gentlemen moved into the sitting room and gave one room for us all to live there. After three weeks my father went to the GLC office in Whitechapel (where we used to go to pay the rent), and they gave us a one bedroom flat in the same street without a bathroom, and a loo in the passageway shared by two households, for £1.50 a week. My father earned £55 as a presser in the tailoring industry, and supporting a family on it was really difficult. On Saturday, he gave us each 10p and we used to go to the Goulston St Public Baths. They gave you a towel, a bar of soap and a bottle of moisturiser, and you could change the bath water was often as you liked. Six hundred people used to line up. It was very embarrassing for the Asian ladies, so one day my mother called all the ladies in the building into our flat. She said, “We can buy a tin tub so we can bath ourselves at home.” Everyone contributed, and they bought a long tin bath and took it in turns. But there was no hot water, so they worked out a rota, eight ladies put their kettles on at the same time. They put the bath up on the flat roof, and sent the smallest boys round to collect all the kettles and fill the bath. Only the women could do this.
We were not allowed to play outside alone, because of the racist movement. The skinheads used to prowl around the area. We could not go out to play football in the Goulston St playground until after the English boys had gone home, but even then we had to watch out for their return – because anyone might come and snatch our ball or beat us up. One day, my mum came out swearing at them in Bengali, “Leave my boy alone! Let them play!” We had that sort of problem every week, and for us that was the only playground we had. Although we were not allowed out after dark, we used to go to Evening Classes in Bengali on Saturday and Arabic on Sunday. At that time, there was a man who went round with a sack and if he found anyone, he would capture them and ask for a ransom. There were one or two incidents. One day he pounced upon our neighbour’s daughter as she was coming from Arabic. He caught her and tried to put her in the sack and carry her away. She was screaming and we were all at home, everyone came outside and I saw. We saw this three or four times. Between the English kids and the man following us to rape or take us, fourteen was very tough. My people were scared in those days. At that time you couldn’t even go out, it wasn’t safe.
We had to move because they were expanding the Petticoat Lane Market, it was really famous then. So the GLC offered my dad a flat in Limehouse but my father thought it wasn’t safe because there were no other Bangladeshis. Then he refused Mile End, even worse for a Bangladeshi family. Finally, he was offered a flat in Christian St off Commercial Rd. It had four bedrooms and a bathroom, and he fell in love with it. This was in 1979, after the six of us had lived in a one bedroom flat for four years. He was over the moon. I can remember the day we moved. He moved all the furniture in an estate car in five or six trips.
That was how we lived in England in those days. It was tough but it was fun and everyone was more sincere, people spoke to each other. No-one worked on Saturday and everyone used to invite each other round, saying “Come to my home next Saturday, my wife will cook!”
I have hundreds of stories because this is my playground. I belong here, I have so many memories, where I played and where I practised football. If I see a mess in this street, I clear it up because it matters to me. I am a poor man, if I was a millionaire I would do something here - but I am just a waiter, working to pay my mortgage.”
The first of Muktha’s family came to Britain in the nineteen-forties to work in the Yorkshire cotton mills and he married an English woman, a sailor lured by tales of Tower Bridge, the miraculous bridge that rose up to let the ships pass through. And when he returned to East Pakistan, crowds followed him shouting, “He comes from England. Wow!” They nicknamed him “Ekush Pound” because he earned £21 a week as a foreman at a cotton mill in Keighley, and at the request of the mill owner he sponsored eight men to return with him. Thus Muktha’s father and uncle came to Britain, setting in train the sequence of events that led to Muktha working in Herb & Spice Indian Restaurant in Spitalfields serving curry to City businessmen.
A waiter from the age of fifteen, Muktha was distinguished by a brightness of spirit that made him a popular figure among his regular customers, who all hoped that he might join their table at the end of service and enchant them with his open-hearted stories. He became enraptured to speak of Spitalfields, because the emotional intensity of his childhood experiences bound him to this place forever, it was his spiritual home.
Muktha with his beloved teacher Miss Dixon, “She was like a mother to me.”
Muktha (centre) with his class at the Canon Barnett School in Commercial Road, 1976.
Muktha at the Goulston St playground, with his friend Sukure who became a pop singer and is currently one of the judges of the Bangladeshi X Factor.
Muktha recalls that the winter of 1979 brought thirteen weeks of snow. (He stands to the left of the tree.)
Three friends sitting in the rose garden in Christian St – from left Akthar, Hussein and Mukthar.
On a day trip to France from the Montifiore School, Vallance Rd in 1980. (Mukthar is in the pale jacket)
Abdul Mukthadir in Goulston St outside the flat where he grew up
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