Sai Gulam Bi, grandmother

Estimated reading time:5 minutes, 42 seconds

Everyone has a story, so meet early retiree Sai Gulam Bi. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Sai Gulam Bi: “Everything is near in Islington”

“I’ve lived 33 years in this street,” says Sai leading me through the front door and into her immaculate front room that faces on to the N4 road. “It’s always been friendly”. From the kitchen comes a delicious waft of slow-cooking chicken and lamb curry. Because it’s Ramadan, Sai will pray at the Mosque every evening this month. “I don’t fast because I take a tablet twice a day,” she says, obviously in discomfort from a swollen right leg. “I can’t cook too much because I can’t stand,” she admits “and I can’t walk too far.” She’s also recently left her work looking after crèche-aged children, although she’s often in her front garden expertly entertaining her10-month-old grandchild, Khadija, who is already just about walking.

Despite the wooden stick in the corner of the room Sai’s travelled a long way. She was born in what was to become Bangladesh (in 1971) and went to the Girls’ High School in the town of Mymensingh.  “We were a big family, my sister and four brothers, but we all studied. England used to rule us, so education and the school certificates were the same as here.  My father died when I was six or seven, but he liked everything to be British, even the radio. We had a wooden Singer sewing machine that worked by turning the handle. Even the dinner set was British. It meant good quality.”

Sai was just 19 when she arrived in London, newly wed to her law student husband. “I hadn’t met my husband before we married,” she says smiling at my question, “but it was a long time ago. No one does it like that now. I came to this country in 1975 on November 16.”

1975: London was obsessed with TV’s Starsky & Hutch and Poldark; David Bowie was topping the charts and Monty Python and the Holy Grail was showing on the big screens.

Sai remembers quite different things about those first days. “We had no house. My husband was on a scholarship at King’s College, so we lived for two or three months with his friend, but the house was no good. It was very damp, everything was dirty. Then my husband’s English friend got us to move into Manor House. My son, Khalid, was born there in 1976.”

“I worked in a sewing factory in Hackney. It was a nice job. It was for Marks & Spencer. The boss was so nice. But I stopped making clothes when I got three children, two boys and a girl, because I was too busy.”

Suddenly there’s a loud sound of hens squawking. It’s a racket neither of us can ignore. Embarrassingly it’s from my chickens, which live nearby. Sai says it reminds her of, “My father’s house in Bangladesh. He had chickens, goats, cows, everything. I like it, I don’t like the city.”  We then both grumble about the noisy foxes that keep waking our households at night, possibly squabbling under the roses below Sai’s window about who is going to eat the hens. “I throw water down on to foxes,” she says laughing. This seems a very practical solution, typical of Sai. Most of the spare water in her home – washing up water for instance – she saves in a dustbin near her rubbish bins in order to water the plants in the front garden. While just recently she had a clear out and recycled the telegram that was sent from Bangladesh when her mother fell ill.

“I went to visit in 1979 and she wasn’t there. I just saw a dead body,” says Sai still sad, remembering.  That trip lasted six months, but the combination of high air fares to Dakka and juggling three children’s school schedules, plus her husband dying in 1999 meant she has made only, “four visits over the years.”

Green fingers
“I did so much in my garden a long time ago. My husband was so busy and so I grew lots of Indian vegetables,” she says, though her garden with its mix of geraniums and tomato plants still beats the rest of the street. It’s clear that her sore leg is a big problem – after all Sai is 58, not old at all. But she’s been so busy since she arrived in the UK that this enforced slowing-down is painful too.  She’s worked at so many crèches – touching the lives of more than 500 children over the years. Her longest spell was 25 years working in Camden at Elfrida Rathbone centres which helped families having problems, many of them with no English. “I worked in the crèche, setting up activities – children love to be outside in the sand and on the bikes. It was a very nice organisation and a long time ago had 20 branches, but there was no grant any more.”

Sai is finding new things to do – there’s yoga at Crouch End and at Hackney Road. She’s impressed by the James Library at Dalston Junction – all trips reachable by buses. As a non-driving Londoner– sometimes things we want to learn just get forgotten – Sai’s knowledge of bus routes is encyclopaedic. Her conversation is peppered with 236, 210 and 106 – all ways in and out of Islington.

As for the talk about her moving from the home she’s been in so long to Southgate, well Sai isn’t keen at all. “I don’t like to go. Everything is near in Islington,” she adds with a big smile, then sweeping her hair under a scarf she adopts the serious expression you can see in this photograph.


  • Singer sewing machines seem quintessentially British. But they were first made by Isaac Singer in Boston, US in 1851. As the company expanded the UK became the main manufacturer of Singer machines, its first UK factory opened in Glasgow in 1867. Singer’s main office was moved to London the same year. Singer is still a well-known brand, but in its heyday it was bigger than Nike or McDonalds. When the 1884 factory was opened at Clydebank it boasted that it was the largest sewing machine factory in the world. The factory employed 7,000 workers producing 13,000 machines a week. More info at

Over to you
What do you think of this wonderful woman? By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know. Thank you. And yes, this blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.