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“Brick Lane” by Monica Ali is a novel about various experiences of immigrants, mainly focusing women from Bangladesh to Britain. The novel particularly focuses on the main character Nazneen, and how she adapts herself in the foreign land (England) far away from her homeland, Dhaka Bangladesh. She belongs to the first-generation of immigrants in England. The first-generation immigrants were also represented by Chanu, Mrs. Islam and Razia who in their own ways tried to conform to the way of life far away from Bangladesh . The second -generation of immigrants in this novel would be Sahana, Bibi, Karim Tariq and Shefali. According to Oxford dictionaries online diaspora means “the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland” (oxforddictionaries.com) . Diaspora occurs in a scattered manner around the world and one of the desired destinations of the post colonial society like Bangladesh would be England( former colonial masters). The Bangladeshi men in this novel opt for diaspora to find well payed jobs to send money back to their homelands and even save up to return back to Bangladesh. Their wives were brought along with them as well.
” Britain was seen as as the ‘promised land’ in terms of economic opportunity and material advancement , allowing the Bangladeshis to save money which was sent to relatives to help their strategy of investment in land, and to escape from indebtedness” (Yasmin Hussain 98).
Experiences of each person within the novel as an immigrant specifically at Tower Hamlets England vary according to their class, race, gender and generation gap. Thus, it is true that, “Brick Lane” by Monica Ali offers contrasting experiences of diaspora across generation, gender and class locations.
Monica Ali in her novel had depicted that there is definitely difference of experience due to diaspora according to gender. Men are deemed as the breadwinner of the family according to gender ideology, and it is their duty to provide for their family. “The ideological underpinnings of the household division of labor remained unchallenged as men continue to be seen as main breadwinners”(Witz 278). Most Bangladeshi men in the novel, faced difficulties finding well paid jobs in England. Whether a man was highly educated or not, he was confronted with the employment pressures. For example forty year old Chanu, has a degree from Dhaka university, yet constantly changes jobs (due to low payment) to provide for his family. Chanu had to earn for his family which was dependent on him. Sadly he could only afford a cheap flat at the Tower Hamlets for his wife Nazneen and his children Sahana and Bibi. He has been in England for sixteen years and still could not afford a stable, well paid employment. His dreams of being successful were never accomplished. Chanu could not even save money to return to his homeland.
“When I came I was a young man. I had ambitions. Big dreams. When I got off the plane, I had my degree certificate in my suit-case. I thought there would be a red carpet laid out for me. I was going to join the civil service and become Private secretary to the Prime Minister. That was my plan. And I found things were a bit different” (Ali 21).
Razia’s husband, first generation immigrant like Chanu ,face the same situation as well. He works for long hours as halal meat delivery man around Tower Hamlet area. However sends back majority the money back to Bangladesh and provide little for his family due to his low income. Thus Razia and her children were left in poverty buying second hand stuff all the time;even tooth brushes. ” But we don’t see a single penny. He sends it all back. If the children need tooth brushes , I have to beg. I have to get everything second hand” (Ali 73). Dr. Azad, represent the minority of immigrants from Bangladesh who seem to have acquired a decent job escaped poverty in the immigrant land.
Bangladeshi women’s experiences of migration within the novel of “Brick Lane” differs a great deal from the men folk. They not only have to adapt in a new surrounding or context, but also face gender based discrimination from their husbands within their households and society as well. Diaspora, did not alter the gender ideologies of the Bangladeshi community in England. In reality these ideologies were still being practiced within the household of these immigrants; at Tower Hamlets. Women face more difficulties compared to men because they experience both alienation and gender based discrimination. “The novel is particularly of interest as an examination of the double bind that female migrants face, treated as alien by their host nation and as commodities by the men in their own communities” (Cormack 700). Nazneen for example felt alienated in England and also a prisoner of gender within her own flats. She was not allowed by Chanu to go out often and therefore suffered from isolation, boredom and repetitive household chores. “Why should you go out?said Chanu. If you go out, ten people will say , I saw her walking on the street. And I will look like a fool” (Ali 30). Her house work comprises of washing ,cooking, cutting out corns from her husband feet, looking after the children and cleaning. “She remains contained within the domestic environment of the flat, as a form of purdah” (Yasmin Hussain 105). She is expected to fulfill her gender role as a subservient, dutiful wife and mother;nothing more than that. “Doing things for herself is deemed selfish” (Yasmin Hussain 105). For example when Nazneen’s desire to learn English like her friend Razia was not approved by her husband Chanu. All he said to her was “you’re going to be a mother…will that keep you busy enough? And you can’t take a baby to college… it’s not so simple as that, just to go college, like that” (Ali 57). Nazneen had to conform to Chanu because firstly, he is her husband and her superior and secondly a woman must always give importance to her gender roles than her inner desire. Next, in the beginning of the novel, Chanu did not allow Nazneen to work and earn for the family. He blamed that the uneducated Bangladeshis will think low of them, but in reality he was brought up by the patriarchal ideology that only man should work and provide the family and woman remained with the domestic sphere. “Some of these uneducated ones , they say that if the wife is working it is only because the husband cannot feed them”(Ali 147). Nazneen, even though have migrated to England, she still maintains her subordinate status within her marriage by keeping her head bowed down, covered her hair and even walks a step behind her husband out home. Razia like Nazneen also a first-generation immigrant faced gender based discrimination where her husband would not let her get employed even though her family suffered economically. “He works all day and night. He keeps me locked up inside”( Ali 96). It is after her husbands death, did Razia got an employment to support her family. In fact Razia felt liberated from her domineering husband after his death further proving that majority of the immigrant Bangladeshi women suffer from oppression and suppression due gender base discrimination. “Razia groaned, “I can get that job now. No slaughter man to slaughter me now” (Ali 110). There was only one female character that seem posses power not only on her family but on other people lives as well. Mrs.Islam the matriarch lends money to poor immigrant families and earn her wealth through charging them high rates of interest. She claims to be Islamic but the money she earns from the poor is non-halal. “The woman is a usurer. The woman practices usury and she will be the companion of fire” (Ali 101).
As the plot within the novel progresses, we as readers come to realize that these immigrant women who at the beginning conform to their gender roles began to change. Nazneen for example, was brave enough to venture outside of her comfortable home to explore Brick Lane all alone for the first time. She even asked for directions and got back home twenty minutes before Chanu did.
” I walked mile upon mile , probably around the whole of London, although I did not see the edge of it, And to get home again I went to the restaurant. I found a Bangladeshi restaurant and asked directions. See What I can do!” (Ali 45).
Furthermore, Nazneen got a home based sewing job, had an affair with a young man called Karim and ended it, confronted the villainous Mrs. Islam and finally chose to stay with her daughters in England instead of following her husband back to Bangladesh. “Nazneen has con-fronted her oppression within the discourses of gender, race, and religion and won for herself an independent space” (Cormack 706).She did not let fate decide her life, as her deceased mother preached by her story of “How You Were Left to Your Fate” ( Ali 4). Razia on the other hand was depicted as having a job, cut her hair short, wearing salwar pants, wearing Union Jack top and smoking. She too like Nazneen had confronted her source of oppression and was shown happy, liberated ice-skating at the end of the novel. ” This is England, she said. You can do whatever you like”( Ali 415). Thus, Nazneen and Razia built their own identities, and found contentment in England as their home which they lacked back at their homeland, Bangladesh. Whereas men in ” Brick Lane” like Karim and Chanu unlike the women , could not settle or feel at home in England and return back to Bangladesh.
“Brick Lane” also offers conflict between first-generation and second-generation and their contrasting experiences of diaspora. Shahana and Bini unlike their father Chanu wish not to go back to Bangladesh. They could not relate themselves to a country which they have never set their eyes upon. Both of the girls who were born and educated in England, felt the sense of belonging in England rather than Bangladesh. ” I’m not going, said Shahana. I’ll runaway” (Ali 175). They could not appreciate the histories of Bangladesh nor it’s literature. For example, Shahana rebelled against her father Chanu and did not conform to gender ideologies, she liked jeans over Kameez and prefers talking in English than Bengali.
“Shahana did not want to listen to Bengali classical music. Her written Bengali was shocking. She wanted to wear jeans. She hated her Kameez and spoiled her entire wardrobe by pouring paint on them. If she could choose between baked beans and dal it was no contest. When Bangladesh was mentioned she pulled her face”( Ali 144).
As a result there were always conflicts and arguments between Shahana and her father. They have different view points of England. For Chanu like many other first generation immigrants, England is a temporary place to earn, save and get back to homeland. Thus the first generation diasporic immigrants tend to reproduce “Bangladesh” in England. For example, the place surrounding Brick Lane have spice shops, sari and even sweet shops that sell jelabees and ladoos. ” Bangladeshis have created an ethnic enclave of small cafes, restaurants” (Yasmin Hussain 102) in order to feel at home, in the lands that they have migrated. Whereas for Bibi, and Shahana England is where home is. Thus they represent cultural hybridity of both Bangladesh and England. “The overlapping of identities that characterizes the diasporic experience creates a cultural hybridity” (Yamsin Hussain 11). Karim is another character within the novel who is a second-generation immigrant from Bangladesh as well. According to Nazneen Karim, at the beginning of the novel had sense of belonging in England which she admired ” He knew about the world and his place in the world. That is how she liked to remember him”( Ali 377). She loved him for he listens to her opinions and cared about her feelings as well, which she never felt with Chanu.
For example, “He also represents an alternative, per-haps more Western way for the genders to interact. While Chanu never listens to her, Karim often “made her feel as if she had said a weighty piece, as if she had stated a new truth” (Cormack 216 ).
However as the plot progresses she came to an understanding that ” Karim did not have his place in the world. That was why he defended it” ( Ali 377). Karim unlike Shahana and Bibi could not build his own identity in England. He began wearing skull cap, joining revolution marches against working class Whites known as the Lion Hearts who discriminate the Muslim community( Bengal Tigers who were predominantly working class Muslims as well). In addition, Karim regarded her as this “real thing” and marrying him for Nazneen might rob the new acquired freedom of hers. In the end, Karim went to Bangladesh Whereas Nazneen rejected his proposal. “Karim? He went back to Bangladesh” (Ali 499).
Experiences of Diaspora and conflict did not occur between first-generation and second-generation only, but also between first-generation and first-generation immigrants as well. Some first generation immigrants like Razia and Dr.Azad preferred integration within society in England. Whereas some first-generation immigrants opt for full assimilation, which Monica Ali herself in my opinion discouraged in ” Brick Lane”. For example Mrs. Azad who assimilated entirely within the western culture and forgo her roots as a Bangladeshi was shown in a negative light by Monica Ali.
“A woman in a short purple skirt leaned against the doorpost. Her thighs tested the fabric and beneath the hemline was a pair if dimpled knees. A cigarette burned between purple lacquered nails. Her hair was cropped close like a man, and it was streaked with some kind of rust-colored paint” (Ali 83).
Mrs. Azad called her own people racist and according to her, unable to assimilate according to context “is the targedy”(Ali 89) for the Bangladeshis. Furthermore, Mrs. Azad did not conform to the gender based rules set for Bangladeshis women, which clearly can be seen through her attire and attitude. ” Her physical attributes are defined as feminine, however her behavior equals that of the men” ( Yasmin Hussain 105).
Another significant point that Monica Ali brought to light within her novel would be contrasting diaspora experience of class locations for characters of the novel who migrated from Bangladesh to Britain. In England there is a class system where people are divided according to their heritage and wealth. Thus there is clear division among the British for example,most whites depicted in ” Brick Lane” are working class who also live within the Tower Hamlet area with the immigrants. Whereas immigrants in England are all considered as working class without considering their education or background. Because these immigrants were considered as the “other” and non-white , therefore no class system.
“Class resentments that aresimmering beneath the surface of an affair that has been seen in religious terms alone” . Locating these class tensions not only serves to defuse the simplistic opposition between secularism and fundamentalism but also uncovers the fissured state of class relations within a community that both the British government and well-meaning liberals seek to portray in homogenizing terms” (Shailaja Sharma 598).
Chanu for example had a degree and migrated to England to find well paid employment. However he is still considered as a working class in England which he in my opinion did not face back in Bangladesh. “These people here didn’t know the difference between me , who stepped of the plane, and the peasants who jumped of the boat possessing only lice on their heads. What can I do?” (Ali 21).
So people like Chanu though educated, find it very hard to get employments and promotions due to the categorization that all immigrants and non whites are the other who are all from the same background and uneducated.
In conclusion it is true that the novel “Brick Lane” offers contrasting experiences of diaspora across generation, gender and class locations. Immigrants who are able to adapt the differences or climb up the social ladder continued to stay England and made it home. Whereas those who can’t return back to Bangladesh due to bad experiences they faced in England as immigrants. Overall women, folk within this novel seem to integrate well and build a new life England compared to their men who eventually failed and return back to their homelands.
Ali, Monica. Brick Lane. Great Britain: SCRIBNER, 2003. 1-415. Print.
Cormack, Alistar. “Migration and the Politics of Narrative Form: Realism and the Postcolonial Subject in BrickLane.”Contemporary Literature 47.4 (2006): 695-721. Web. 1 Apr. 2011.
“Diaspora.” Oxford Dictionaries. 2001. Web. 3 Apr. 2011.
Hussain, Yasmin. Writing Diaspora South Asian Women, Culture and Ethnicity. England: ASHGATE, 2005. 1-143. Print.
Sharma, Shailaja. “Salman Rushdie: The Ambivalence of Migrancy.” Twentieth Century Literature 47.4 (2001): 596-618. Web. 3 Apr. 2011.
Witz, Anne. “Women at Work.” In Introducing Wome’s Studies (1993): 273-302. Print.
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