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Abdul Mukthadir, Waiter

November 4, 2010
by the gentle author

The charismatic Abdul Mukthadir – widely known as Muktha – is a born storyteller, blessed with a natural eloquence. As I quickly discovered when I sat down with him yesterday 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 for today in Herb & Spice Indian Restaurant in Spitalfields serving curry to City businessmen.

A waiter since the age of fifteen, Muktha is distinguished by a brightness of spirit that makes him a popular figure among regular customers, who all hope that he may join their table at the end of service and regale them with his open-hearted stories. He becomes enraptured to speak of Spitalfields, because the emotional intensity of his childhood experiences here have bound him to this place forever, it is 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

21 Responses leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010

    A lovely portrait indeed.
    Your writing makes me want to meet each person you write about.

  2. AKB permalink
    November 4, 2010

    I found this to be very moving. Gentle Author, I don’t know how you find the time to do such a continuous succession of interviews and great writing. I get a lot of inspiration from you and the people you feature. Thank you!

  3. Joan permalink
    November 4, 2010

    I went to school in Christian Street in the 1970s and have memories of the National Front trying to recruit outside our school (which had lots of West Indian students as it was a Catholic school). Terrible times which, of course, politicised a lot of us – happier memories revolve around going to see Tom Robinson and lots of Rock Against Racism concerts. My kids, of course, wouldn’t believe their mum capable of such things and, being at multi racial East End schools, would find the idea of such blatant racism totally abhorrent and mystifying. Easy to forget how much progress there has been.

  4. November 4, 2010

    Thanks for this portrait about how things were for many of my neighbours in Spitalfields. Housing conditions were very poor and even today many families are overcrowded. A lovely man with a great story to tell. It will strike a chord with many others.

  5. Alan Gilbey permalink
    November 4, 2010

    Yes, as Phil says, lovely to see that. Whilst almost all the writing on the East End these days seems to centre around on artists, Georgian houses and Victorian slums it’s wonderful that you’re putting important stories like these on record too.

  6. Rowena permalink
    November 4, 2010

    Really fascinating. Unbelievable how different things were in the 70s. I was born in 1974 and it doesn’t seem that long ago but reading this makes it seem like a different world.

  7. jeannette permalink
    November 5, 2010

    again, the photographs you persuade people to share with you are just electrifying. his classmates and his teacher evoke the whole world — imagine moving from a one-BR apartment to a four.
    give mr. mukthadir our regards and thank him for his wonderful story.

  8. Naz permalink
    November 14, 2010

    I went to Herb & Spice a few months back and met Mukhta he was my waiter. he told me one of his stories and it made my night..a truely charming and interesting man..definely will go back!!!

  9. Ayshah permalink
    November 22, 2010

    Me and my family love Herb & Spice and we’ve been going there ever since I was really young. We met Mukthar from many years back. My family love his charasmatic and beautiful personality. He’s a very genuine guy and believe me, i’m not too suprised from this story since i’ve heard many more relating to his childhood memories. He inspires me so much and from what he’s told us over the years, I believe he is the great man he is today because of all the experiences he’s been through. I’m certain this story will inspire many others too!

  10. Sharron permalink
    December 10, 2010

    Herb & Spice would not be the same without Muktha. The food is always excellent but Muktha makes the evenings special and makes us feel like we are visiting old friends. He is a kind, quiet, unassuming man but has a brilliant sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye. See you again next week, Muktha, and hopefully at some point if you are not too busy, you can treat us to another of your wonderful stories.

  11. Rabani permalink
    December 11, 2010

    Born and bred in the east end of London I must say I have eaten more or less in every single restaurant located in Brick Lane, and all I can say is the place you most feel at home and relaxed will be Herb & Spice, not only for the delicious food but for the overwhelming service and care given by Muktha, one of a kind, so humble, friendly and a great sense of humour. If anyone wants to know the true stories of the east end then this is the man to ask, so much knowledge, facts and stories, could make his own book one day and make millions. Any one who has not been yet Herb & Spice yet need to make a move on and try it, its like my second home.

  12. January 18, 2011

    this story is really quite moving
    i am this guy’s age and i was also the daughter of immigrants (to NZ), but i never ever lived as he describes – i am really touched by his love for his area

  13. Phil permalink
    January 21, 2011

    More stories please. And thank you for the hospitality in your lovely restaurant.

  14. Nick permalink
    March 2, 2011

    What a moving story. I rarely visit London but my family ate in the restuarant last weekend, he was delightful. The world would be a better place if there were more people like him.

  15. Adam & L permalink
    September 24, 2011

    We had dinner in Herb & Spice on Friday night (as we have many times), and Muktha told us about this site. He’s always welcomed us amazingly warmly and has often entertained us with stories (as well as with fantastic food) and made the trek to east london worthwhile.

    The stories shared here are an insightful and moving history of the area.

  16. Anwar Hussain permalink*
    November 21, 2011

    I booked this place for a work event, there was 11 of us, when we walked in we thought straight away what a small place, will we get served on time, will the only waiter be ok to handle all of us? All our thoughts were dashed away by this fantastic man. He was friendly, he had great hospitality standards and the food was nice too. This man should be working in every food establishment!!! Fantastic warm feeling. Well done Mr Mukthar. Thanks for a lovely time

    Anwar Hussain

  17. Manoj Kumar permalink
    December 23, 2011

    Me & Mr. T Garrett used to visit Herbs & Spice very frequently. Mr Mukthar always entertains us by his stories. Good one Mukthar..Keep it up, All the best. Thanks for your lovely time

  18. Shrijesh Bhaskaran permalink
    December 23, 2011

    Herbs and Spice is my first Indian restaurant where i had Lunch with my friends Tony Garrett and Manoj during my five months stay in London. I personally have many sweet memories attach with this restaurant especially the Cobras and pappadam combo. Mukthar was always there to greet us with his sweet smile.I am glad to know more about Mukthar. Thanks for all the hospitality good luck…..

  19. Naz Hussain permalink
    December 25, 2011

    I visited this place a few weeks back and I must say that the food was amazing, this was my second time there, it did not live up to my first visit as we got served by someone different the second time. Mr Mukhtar IS herb and spice..his personal touch when it comes to sevice is very special..i was told he was on holiday when i went there..hopefully he will be back the next time i go..!!!

  20. Ros permalink
    January 16, 2013

    Went to Herb and Spice tonight and the food was delicious, full of delicate tastes and textures. And we were served by Abduk Mukthadir himself, with careful attention. Perfect!

  21. Mick permalink
    November 26, 2013

    I just heard the sad news, RIP Mukthar, you left your mark on Spitalfields and the people who met you x

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