| Ground beneath her feet
Brick Lane By Monica Ali, Doubleday, £ 6.25
Monica Ali’s tentative, impressionistic, if sometimes jejune, first novel chronicles a young woman’s momentous journey across continents from a remote village in 1967 East Pakistan to the heart of London’s thriving Bengali community in the city’s frenetic Brick Lane. This is a paean to that colourful enclave where street signs are in English and Bengali, saris are hung out to dry from 20 storey blocks, and bearded men in salwar kameez walk the streets alongside teenage girls in mini-skirts.
The personal experience of the unassuming heroine, Nazneen, is set against the backdrop of forty years’ history of two nations. The account spreads itself wide, at times too thinly, to examine issues of cultural identity, social deprivation, women’s empowerment, racial prejudice and religious extremism.
Elegiac evocations of a simple agrarian livelihood are made with quiet lyricism and nostalgia, summoning a scene set amid the paddyfields of pastoral Gouripur in passages that detail a lost childhood innocence. The shock of local tragedy in rural Bengal — suicide, death, natural disaster — is calmly, unapologetically recounted, be it a tornado strike that reduces a nearby village to rubble, or the miraculous recovery of a stillborn baby which, episodic and seen as the hand of god, becomes a defining theme of the novel. The family folklore that recounts how her mother refused medical help for her daughter after birth, trusting fortune instead, is seen to instil in Nazneen a tragic resignation to events that are allowed to take their course. Passivity is the woman’s prerogative.
Nazneen’s sudden marriage at eighteen to a “frog-featured” man of forty moves her account overnight from a storm-devastated village in Bangladesh to a deprived London neighbourhood. The culture shock, her claustrophobia and isolation, bring new misery to a melancholy personality, coupled with a terrible homesickness. Deeply unhappy, Nazneen resigns herself to living as a recluse while the world blares on outside.
A rare foray into the city’s dark streets, past grey forbidding towers, leaves Nazneen in awe of the sprawling metropolis. The vivid descriptions of Brick Lane, bustling with street life, come as welcome relief from the monotony of domestic confinement. Cultural hybridity endows the street with a rare eclecticism, as fish n’ chip shops jostle for space alongside samosa stalls, sweetshops selling ladoos and shondesh, Jewish bagel stores, pizzerias, Jamaican patty stands — all come as visible evidence of the possibilities afforded by London’s disparate communities coexisting in harmony.
Yet the Bengali community is portrayed as close-knit and restrictive, isolated from the city’s population —“Turkish, English, Jewish, all sorts”— clinging suspiciously to its culture and frowning on cosmopolitanism. The characters making up Nazneen’s world are limited to her friend Razia, burly and brash in her Union Jack T-shirt, proud of her new British passport; the cruel and terse money-lender Mrs Islam, addicted to a bottle a day of stupor-inducing cough medicine; and the assiduous Dr Azad, paying courtesy calls out of curiosity even in her misery.
Unhappily married to an indifferent husband, the dutiful, godfearing Nazneen lies awake each night beside her snoring partner, repulsed at the sight of his sagging, bulbous physique. A man of modest erudition, schooled in literature at Dhaka, familiar with the bookstalls around Calcutta University, Chanu is denied promotion at work in favour of a less diligent Englishmen. This racial prejudice is placed in the context of Thatcher’s Britain, where the rise of the racist National Front is recounted amid a decade of rising unemployment and urban deprivation.
The British working class culture, summed up as “TV, pubs, darts and football”, is set uncomfortably alongside images of Nazneen, head covered, following her husband in the street. The author’s depiction of the contrast between rural India and urban London, the setting up of dream and memory against daily practicality are extended to contrast Nazneen’s inertia with her sister’s passionate engagement with the world. The parallel lives of the sisters living a world apart are dramatised through the epistolary format. The sister’s stream of letters arriving from Dhaka yield glimpses of an impoverished society wracked with corruption, violence and political instability.
Meanwhile, a new love interest is introduced, with Nazneen, now a mother of two, experiencing a strange attraction to a boy 15 years her junior who works at one of the many Bengali-staffed sweetshops. Unfortunately, Ali’s sentimentality while depicting the affair lets down her prose. Nazneen falls for the boy as he performs namaz. Her eyes dwell on his heavy thighs. The intimacy between the two is portrayed in excruciating detail, as for instance when Nazneen feels “an electric current run from her nipples to her big toes”.
Nazneen’s new beau brings her radical newsletters full of intifada and Hamas, inculcating in her a degree of political awareness about Islamic extremism. The pronouncements on Chechnya, Bosnia, Palestine, and Iraq, including a glance on “the deaths in New York”, show that Ali is attempting some kind of a passing study of the crisis in Islam. But the argument remains facile and simplistic.
In portraying a character’s journey towards self-discovery, Ali’s rambling narrative is seldom original, her thinking often weak and woolly. Yet her sensitive account offers a close look at the daily life of London’s Bengali community. Ali’s ability to shock lends her narrative the qualities of the burlesque — Razia’s husband is killed under an avalanche of frozen cows inside a refrigerated vehicle.
Attempting to engage with the long-term after effects of British rule in India, Ali wrestles with questions of cultural assimilation. Chanu’s pride in the illustrious history of Bengal, his railing against its perception as a flood and famine ravaged “basket case”, his attempt to teach his daughters to recite Tagore, contrasts with the Westernization of Nazneen’s petulant eldest daughter who prefers jeans to salwar, baked beans to dal.
Nazneen’s decision to leave both her Dhaka-bound husband and her new lover is portrayed as a woman’s decision to empower herself. Brick Lane offers a semi-Westernised feminist ideal to Islamic immigrants. Nazneen thus joins her friend Razia’s small tailoring business. The sewing machine offers her a freedom of sorts, holding out hope of a better life for her children.
Perhaps the most moving moment in the story comes when, during a long distance call between Nazneen and her heart-broken husband, she responds to Chanu’s plea that she bring their children to visit Dhaka with “yes, we would like that”. Ali fittingly captures the unspoken yet heart-rending anguish expressed in such banal words.