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A Gilded Cage on Brick Lane

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May 2004
A Gilded Cage on Brick Lane

A Gilded Cage on Brick Lane

BRICK LANE by Monica Ali. Scribner. Hardcover 384 Pages.

Reviewed by POORNIMA APTE

"How can I write about a community to which I truly do not belong?" asked the phenomenally successful and talented Monica Ali, in an essay for The Guardian, "Perhaps, the answer is I can write about it because I do not truly belong. Growing up with an English mother and a Bengali father means never being an insider. Standing neither behind a closed door, nor in the thick of things, but rather in the shadow of the doorway, is a good place from which to observe. Good training, I feel, for life as a writer."

Ali, of course, referred here to her debut novel Brick Lane, a literary sensation both in the UK and in the United States, just a few pages of which was enough to have her included in Granta's once-a-decade prestigious "ten most promising young British authors" list.

Ali's meteoric rise to success has not been entirely free of controversy. When Doubleday, the publishers of Brick Lane in UK, declined to give noted journalist Maya Jaggi an interview with Ali, Jaggi went public accusing the publishing industry of double standards. In a series of he-said, she-said's Jaggi asserted that her editor had been told by Doubleday that Ali wanted to be "seen as a writer first and a woman and a ?coloured person' second," implying that an interview with Jaggi would "pigeonhole" her by her race alone. Ali has said that this has all been a terrible misunderstanding. Nobody consulted her about the interview and the publicity department had made a mistake.

Brick Lane was on the Man Booker short list for 2003. This June, the novel is being released in paperback in the United States, and if you have missed reading it so far, now is the time to pick up the book.

Brick Lane is centered on Nazneen, a woman who, right from her childhood in Bangladesh, accepts the role of fate in her life. She is forced to marry forty-year old Chanu, a professor in London, when she is just sixteen. When Nazneen finally arrives in London to be with her husband, she is armed with a two-phrase English vocabulary: sorry and thank you. Despite her move to Tower Hamlets, a predominantly Bangladeshi community in London, her isolation is complete. Ali is particularly adept at capturing Nazneen's jarring life change especially in detailing the minutiae of everyday life: "Her constant companions in the small flat are the muffled sounds of private lives sealed away above, below, and around her: the television on. Coughing. Sometimes the lavatory flushing. Someone upstairs scraping a chair."

Husband Chanu is another brilliant character sketch. He is not a terrible guy but it is gradually evident that the relationship that would have worked in Bangladesh serves only to stifle Nazneen here. Nazneen's two daughters Bibi and Shahana are only too aware of the silent mediocrity of the marriage. The girls are second-generation immigrants at odds with their father who always wants to return "home" to Bangladesh. Ali admits that there might be a bit of her in Shahana. "My father used to tell me stories about village life and I'd roll my eyes and pretend not to listen," she says. The clash between first and second-generation immigrants, in fact, was one of the driving factors in the writing of Brick Lane.

One wonders even, if there is a bit of Ali's own father in Chanu. Ali has written that her father escaped from Bangladesh and finally arrived in the UK, amidst severe political upheaval. "It was a temporary situation," she writes, "when things got sorted out, we would go back. His children settled into school, we stopped speaking to him in Bengali and then we stopped understanding. The new status quo was accepted. There was no plan, after that, to "go home." Sounding philosophical, my father would say: "I just got stuck here, that's all." And home, because it could never be reached, became mythical: Tagore's golden Bengal, a teasing counterpoint to our drab northern milltown lives."

Brick Lane addresses a myriad other issues: those of home, independence, and above all, selfdom. Both Nazneen and Karim, with whom she carries on a smoldering affair, are, in their own way, trying to figure out their place in the world.

As Ali puts it, "it's an immigrant story with all the themes about identity, about loss and longing, nostalgia and the struggle to succeed. I think it will speak to people whatever their background and nationality."

She is right. Brick Lane does, and it does so with �lan.


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