The streets surrounding our house were filled with sweatshops. In basements and attics - down Nelson Street, Varden Street, Walden Street and Philpot Street - hundreds of poorly paid and illiterate workers toiled over sewing machines. The pavements outside were piled with off-cuts, while the finished products - jeans, dresses, shirts and pyjamas - were sold at wholesalers all along the Commercial Road. From our house in New Road, we heard the call to prayer from the East London Mosque around the corner; in 2001, the electoral ward of Spitalfields was renamed Spitalfields and Banglatown. Growing up in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets among Europe's largest Bangladeshi community, shopping for spices in Brick Lane and visiting local curry houses, Bangladesh had always interested me. Yet to a large extent my experience of this part of east London was just as the Bangladeshi-British author Monica Ali described it in Brick Lane. Though they lived side by side, the white and Bangladeshi communities rarely mixed in any meaningful way. "If you mix with all those people, even if they are good people, you have to give up your culture and accept theirs," says the truculent Mrs Islam in the novel, "That's how it is."
At the inner city comprehensive I attended in Lisson Grove, west London, I took refuge from fights and shoplifting with my Bengali classmate Sultana. During lunchtimes we would go to the Church Street Library and read American teenage romantic fiction. Yet despite the hours we spent together, we never set foot in each other's houses or shared a proper meal. It was my grandmother who introduced me to Faruk. She lived with us and worked at the nearby London Hospital, and met him while campaigning for the local Conservative Association. Faruk was a kindly ex-lecturer from Dhaka University who came to Britain in 1973. A successful businessman and fan of Margaret Thatcher, Faruk had quickly moved to nearby Wapping as soon as finances allowed. He had started out in business with Muquim Ahmed, who formed the Café Naz chain in Brick Lane and is now one of Britain's richest Bangladeshis.
Faruk would regularly bring us takeaway curries and lecture us, rather over-generously I thought, about how Enoch Powell wasn't a racist. In 1999, one of Muquim Ahmed's restaurants would be firebombed in a racist attack; a couple of years later, I gave evidence in court against a drunk skinhead with an Alsatian who came into a restaurant on the East India Dock Road and started smashing the place up.
East India, therefore, was somewhere I had to visit - yet little did I know, at this point, just how at home I would feel there. My exploration began at the Liberation War Museum in Dhaka, housed in a crumbling mansion with courtyards filled with dozens of chattering schoolchildren. Together with the Indian state of West Bengal, Bangladesh makes up the linguistic and ethnic region of Bengal, partitioned on India's independence in 1947. It then became East Pakistan and was governed from Lahore - a permanent exhibition at the museum catalogues the economic and linguistic repression that led to its struggle for independence. A young guide, Rathin, showed me displays of graphic photographs and newspaper reports of starvation and the massacres that took place during the War of Independence in 1971. "How many people died?" I asked. "Not died," he corrected. "How many people were killed." Estimates vary at between 1.5 and three million, with 10 million refugees fleeing to India.
Dhaka is an exciting, sprawling city, where, despite the march of modernity, blackouts are frequent and the huge bazaars are full of workshops feeding cottage industries from sewing to metal-cutting. Despite the existence of five-star hotels and motorways, most people in the capital still get about by bicycle rickshaw or rowing boat. The Buriganga River resembles Venice Lagoon, except that there aren't any palaces and the smell from the water - a black concoction of factory effluent and sewage - is overpowering. I boarded one of the hundreds of wooden, gondola-like boats known as dingis which criss-cross the water. While other boats were laden with coconuts, bricks and everything in between, mine bobbed about decadently. I saw hundreds of old tankers lined up along the riverbanks for repair, and heard the incessant clanging of hammer upon iron. Workers waved and shouted their hellos - "hello!" one would cry from the boatyard - "hello, hello!" came the rejoinder, travelling like falling dominos along the boatyards and echoing into the distance.
North of the river, there was peace at the Lalbagh Fort, an impressive Mughal palace with walled gardens built between 1677 and 1684. Construction was halted after Pari Bibi, the daughter of the owner Shaista Khan, died, but three monuments - a mosque, a hall and Pari Bibi's mausoleum - remain, along with spacious lawns and flowerbeds giving respite from the heat, noise and pollution of the city. Later, as night fell, I bought spicy fried chicken and cups of chai from candlelit stalls in the grounds of Dhaka University, Faruk's alma mater. Amid such a city of toil was a striking civility and sense of cameraderie that was a world away from the harsh streets of east London.
From Dhaka I drove to Puthia with Jahangir, a 44-year-old part-time playwright who took great delight in describing the recent caretaker government's anti-corruption purge which saw more than 150 politicians, including the country's new prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, charged with taking bribes. "Corruption and nepotism is my subject," he announced, adding that his subversive material had attracted the unwelcome attention of officialdom. "I simply wrote a play about what our political leaders were doing in the name of democracy," he said. "But our government did not like it."
Puthia, a gorgeous sleepy village five hours north-west of Dhaka, has the largest number of historically important Hindu temples in Bangladesh. The buildings are laid out around a central lawn and a lake, and include the Govinda temple, a 19th-century temple in the grounds of a forgotten mansion, the 16th-century Jagannath temple and the Shiva temple, a large white stucco building dating from 1823. Unlike visits to temples in other parts of Asia, where one is swamped by tourists, beggars and vendors, I was greeted only by the languid call of cuckoos and woodpeckers.
I stayed overnight in Rajshahi, a small city on the banks of the Padma river, the main distributary of the Ganges. Rajshahi has the distinction of having been named the world's happiest city following a recent survey for the London School of Economics. Indeed, as I sat on the edge of the river, looking across the flat, expansive riverbed to India, the city's relaxed, educated, well-dressed population strolling past with their children, enjoying the sunset, a snack and a cup of tea, Whitechapel seemed like a bad dream.
Yet it was the backroads between Puthia, Parapur and Kantanagar, in the far north-west of the country, that I loved the most. For hours, our car was the only motorised vehicle on the road. We sped, a little too quickly for my liking - we ran over an innocent dog at one stage - through lush, fertile areas of mixed crops - betel nuts, coconuts, bananas and mangoes - and, every few miles, we would come across a bazaar, or market, where mountains of fruit and vegetables would be traded by the side of the road, loaded onto bicycle rickshaws and carted off. Bamboo poles up to 50 feet long, used in construction, were wheeled along on carts.
I drank the refreshing contents of large green coconuts for 10 taka (50 fils) each, and got used to attracting a crowd. Whenever we stopped, I was surrounded by groups of up to a hundred locals largely unused to the sight of tourists. "Here! Come and look!" shouted one man to his friends, who came running and fixed their eyes on me until I left. At the Kantanagar Hindu temple, a spectacular monument completely covered in immaculate terracotta tiles depicting flowers, people, elephants and monkeys, families with children gathered around to have a look at me. When I drank a cup of chai, locals castigated the chai-wallah for accepting a few taka in payment. "You demon!" one shouted. "Why do you take her money? She should be drinking her tea for free!" I relished the moment, knowing how an increase in tourism would change things.
The food, too, was divine. At breakfast, most hotels offered me white toast and were surprised and amused when I tucked into chapatti and potato curry. At lunch and dinner, staples were chicken or fish and vegetables, dhal and plain rice, followed by a choice of dozens of elaborate sugary desserts. Srimangal, in the eastern district of Sylhet, is the tea centre of Bangladesh. For miles around, the hills are covered by tea estates, pineapple plantations, lemon groves and tribal villages. I stayed at the Srimangal Tea Resort, an old colonial residence owned until recently by the British Department for International Development. When I was there, it was filled with Canadian aid workers on a retreat, eating, drinking and relaxing as they plotted how to tackle poverty and ignorance.
In the nearby Lowacharra Forest Reserve, I trekked with a local guide who took me to where we could see a group of hoolock gibbons - endangered small apes which give out a deafening cry at precisely 9.30am every morning. We strolled through rolling pineapple and lime groves and walked up to a village belonging to the Khasi tribe - a Roman Catholic community of some 35 families living in stone huts and treehouses. Standing there amid thick jungle, seemingly cut off from the outside world, I was surprised when one man brought out photographs of his aunt and family at home in Middlesex and explained how remittances from relatives working in Britain had helped them to build their homes.
Sylhetis first began arriving in Britain in large numbers in the 1950s, when sailors working on the shipping lines between Britain and Asia stopped in London and began opening restaurants. Since then, countless family members have followed. The Bangladeshi population in Britain is now thought to number at least 500,000 - the third largest overseas Bangladeshi population after Saudi Arabia and the UAE - with some 95 per cent hailing from Sylhet. What made them leave such a paradise, I wondered. "People were bored of being poor," the woman's nephew told me. "And sometimes, people just want change." As I thought of his aunt in the Uxbridge branch of Pizza Hut, I had to agree that is exactly what she got.
Half an hour later, sitting at a canteen outside a tea factory, I heard a Cockney accent. Goushul, a young British Bengali who had helped with the casting of the film of Brick Lane, was visiting relatives in the area. "Whitechapel?" he said. "You're Bangla then, ain't you - really, I mean apart from the colour. And me, I'm whitey-fied." My last stop in Bangladesh was Cox's Bazaar, a low-key, spread-out town in the south of the country which is attached to the world's longest beach - an attractive wide bar of sand running for 130km all the way down to the Burmese border. Here, huge crowds gather at the water's edge and women enter the sea fully clothed. Elsewhere in the country, I had seen few women even wearing headscarves. Here most were covered from head to foot - but it didn't seem to stop the fun. In fluorescent green, bright yellow and shocking pink, these were burqas with attitude. And when a woman in a full-length polka-dot jilbab strode towards me, we both did a double-take.