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Abdul Mukhtadir, Storyteller

August 27, 2019
by the gentle author

Celebrating our tenth anniversary with a week of favourite posts from the first decade



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). 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 restaurant in Spitalfields, serving curry to businessmen.

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

Abdul Mukthadir died in 2013 and Herb & Spice is now the Gunpowder restaurant.

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 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 Mukhtadir 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

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A Walk With Abdul Mukhthadir

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Liz Hardman permalink
    August 27, 2019

    So sad that he died, l would have loved to have read more of his stories.

    I’ve been reading Spitalfields Life for about 3 years and really enjoy it, the only downside is that interviews like this are far to short, just as you start enjoying it it’s over. But please keep them coming ?????

  2. Amanda permalink
    August 27, 2019

    Gosh ! when l reached the unexpected ending l felt bereft to find that Mukhtar has already died young at 55 ish.

    Half expecting to pass his restaurant on one of my walks, l felt sad.
    l imagine many people were fond of him in all aspects of his life from those tough beginnings. A waiter since the age of 15.
    He was fortunate to fall under the inspiring influence of school teacher Miss Dixon and that we can see how marvellous she looked.
    l too had an English teacher who would have a forever impact of my life. Someone who had faith in me helping me to excel in English as well as languages.
    l have never put my finger on why some commanded utmost respect and admiration even from the naughtiest.

    These photos depict how beautifully and trendily dressed he and his pals were in that era. As soon as l saw SUKURE in his grey loons, l knew he was going places and sure enough it would be judging X FACTOR in Bangladesh.
    Curious that characters with a special aura shines out in photographic images and not because of their apparel.

    In teenage photos of my musician father before he left his homeland forever aged 19, he stood out in his family group photos, almost as though he’d never belonged. Perhaps it is bottled ambition and determination which help to create an outward aura?

    And within a couple of years he was boarding a P & O cruise liner to travel the world for years as the leader of his own band, responsible for the livelihoods of his college classmates – much like ‘EKUSH POUND’ trusted and sent to recruit for the mill owner.

    In the words of the late and highly intelligent, well read actor Kenneth Williams, integrity comes from acceptance and carrying out ones current role no matter how humble or tedious to the very best of one’s ability without resentment until a new opportunity knocks.
    Make the best of and improve every circumstance until we can change it – if we need to.

    RIP dear Abdul Mukhthadir.

  3. Eric Forward permalink
    August 27, 2019

    Another nice story, with a bittersweet end. Far too young to pass away.

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    August 27, 2019

    A very moving story, and sad that he’s passed away so prematurely.

  5. Pamela Traves permalink
    August 28, 2019

    What a Wonderful Story and the Great Pictures!! Thank You So Much and I Will Remember This Well!!????????

  6. Amanda permalink
    August 28, 2019

    Dear GA

    On your return, please collate some more special stories of Abdul from the Bangladeshi community and former customers if you are able to.

    l just read the link article with warm tributes from some of his past acquaintances. He loved Spitalfields so much. He must never be forgotten.

    Hope you had a happy rest. Looking forward to hearing your recovery bulletin ?


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