Brick Lane

by

Monica Ali

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Brick Lane: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Dinnertime has arrived, and Dr. Azad and Chanu are at the table where Nazneen waits to serve them. Dr. Azad tells them both a story about two young men from their community who have made themselves sick by overindulging in alcohol. Chanu says he plans to take any children he and Nazneen have home before they can pick up such bad habits. Dr. Azad disagrees with such a strategy. He calls it “Going Home Syndrome” and asks Nazneen if she has heard of it. Embarrassed, she is unable to reply. Dr. Azad and Chanu continue to talk of the pull of home, with Chanu claiming that the peasants are drawn more to the land than to their own blood. Dr. Azad admits he’s thought about returning, but that something always gets in the way.
Nazneen does not have “Going Home Syndrome” per se because she is not free to leave London or her husband, but she often goes home in her mind and is drawn always to the thought of her sister, with whom she shares a blood connection. That Dr. Azad addressed Nazneen suggests that he is more open-minded and progressive in his views of gender dynamics than Chanu, who speaks as if his wife were not there. Nazneen’s confused silence shows that she is used to being ignored.
Themes
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Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
Chanu changes the subject to his many qualifications for promotion. He mentions his degrees and the fact that he has missed very few days of work, even when he was sick with an ulcer. Dr. Azad casually reassures him that a promotion is probably in his future, and Chanu presses the point, asking Dr. Azad if he came to such information from Mr. Dalloway himself. Dr. Azad says he knows no such man. Watching her husband pathetically attempt to curry favor, Nazneen is torn between disgust and pity.
Prior to this dinner, Nazneen had no way of observing the effect of her husband’s bluster on a third party. Now she sees that Dr. Azad views Chanu’s aspirations as slightly ridiculous, and Chanu—along with his pronouncements on respectability—is diminished in her eyes.
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Chanu goes on to tell Dr. Azad about when he first arrived in London. Unlike the peasants who traveled to the country in boats, stowed away like rats, he came in a plane with his degree certificate in his suitcase, hoping to become a private secretary to the Prime Minister. Instead, he was treated like any other immigrant and he had to work hard to get where he is.  He burned all the letters from home in which family, friends, and servants begged for him to send them money, and he made two promises to himself: one, he would become a success, and two, he would return home, but only after he had achieved that success.
Chanu buries himself even deeper by bragging about his qualifications and his superiority to the other immigrants living in and around Tower Hamlets. His attitude is not unlike the racist opinions of British whites who automatically write off immigrants as ignorant and unskilled. It is ironic that he is complaining about his family and servants asking for favors since that’s exactly why he invited Dr. Azad to dinner in the first place.
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While Chanu goes on about his family’s greed and seemingly endless appeals for money, Dr. Azad and Nazneen exchange looks. Nazneen is keenly aware that it is a look she, as a loyal wife, should not exchange with a stranger. When Chanu is finally finished speaking, Dr. Azad declines a second helping and dessert, saying he must go home. He then advises Chanu to eat more slowly and cut down on his meat consumption or he is sure to see him in his office again with another ulcer.
This is Nazneen’s first act of wifely rebellion, and it is a minor one at that. Still, the look she shares with Dr. Azad suggests that any reverence she might have felt for her husband is slipping away and that both she and the doctor see through Chanu’s boasting to the insecure braggart underneath.
Themes
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Later, Nazneen is drawn to the television screen while she is cleaning up. She watches while a man in very tight clothing and a woman in a dress that barely conceals her bottom spin around an arena to thunderous applause. When she asks Chanu what she is watching, he tells her “ice skating.” Then she tries to say it, but has difficulty with two consonants in a row—a common problem among Bengalis, Chanu says dismissively. And besides, she won’t be called on to speak much English anyway, he says. Nazneen, though, is eager to learn, and picks up on bits and pieces of English as Chanu talks to her about work, where he sometimes feels undervalued.
Chanu’s condescending reaction to Nazneen’s attempt at English is characteristic of how he treats many of her quiet attempts to engage with western culture. It is difficult to know if his dismissal of the idea that Nazneen might learn English is prompted merely by his underestimation of her intelligence or his desire that she remain dependent on him as translator. Either way, he is always more concerned with his problems than hers.
Themes
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Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
Chanu is particularly annoyed by a coworker named Wilkie who, Chanu argues, is always trying to get on the right side of Mr. Dalloway by going to the pub with him. It’s really Chanu who should be the favorite, he says, because he has a degree in English from Dhaka University and can quote Chaucer and Dickens and Hardy. Nazneen focuses again on cleaning, hoping Chanu won’t launch into a long quotation whose meaning she is sure will elude her.
Chanu’s delusions of grandeur are particularly striking here. They are also misplaced; he is a mid-level civil servant, making his knowledge of British literature tangential at best, and his tendency to quote long passages to Nazneen shows that he wants to impress her rather than get to know her as a thinking, feeling human being.
Themes
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Chanu then goes on to explain to Nazneen that it is the white underclass that is most threatened by men like him. Members of the white underclass, he says, need someone below them in the pecking order. When immigrants begin to out-perform underclass whites, they are motivated to form right-wing populist groups like the National Front. Nazneen wants only to be able to put the dishes away, but Chanu is blocking the cabinets. Eventually, she gives up and leaves them for the morning.
As long-winded and misinformed as Chanu often is, this theory has the ring of truth. Still, he is talking at Nazneen rather than to her. As a young woman groomed for marriage, she has never heard of the National Front and, instead, is focused on household chores. Her role is to serve others, not think for herself.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Nazneen cuts the corns on Chanu’s feet while he talks about the evening’s dinner, which he decides was a success, even though Dr. Azad does not know Mr. Dalloway. At one point, Nazneen cuts him too closely and he thinks she has drawn blood. They get into bed, and Chanu is soon snoring. While he sleeps, Nazneen studies his face. It is not a handsome face by any means, but it is kind. Eventually, she gets up and eats leftovers from the dinner she prepared for him and Dr. Azad. She eats at the window, looking out and thinking about the woman who, according to Mrs. Islam, jumped to her death. Nazneen grows convinced it was suicide, and that the woman died smiling, happy for once to defy convention and her family’s expectations. Meanwhile, the tattoo lady is still in her kitchen, drinking.
Chanu and Nazneen’s marriage is only six months old, but all passion has gone from the relationship, if it was ever there to begin with. Nazneen serves her husband, performing the unappealing task of cutting his corns without complaint and experiencing pleasure only when left alone. Trapped in a loveless marriage, she finds comfort in food and in the idea that the young wife who killed herself might have done so happily because, unlike Nazneen, that woman had the courage to defy tradition. It is a dark consolation and one that reveals Nazneen’s depressed state of mind.
Themes
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Nazneen’s days begin to blend into each other, the next almost identical to the last. She cooks and cleans, cleans and cooks. Sometimes, if she’s lucky, she catches ice skating on TV, and on those days, she feels her old self replaced by a new one full of glory and light. The problem comes when she turns off the television and must return to her old self. For a brief time, she is angry and discontented, unhappy with her lot as a housewife.
Nazneen, caught up in the drudgery of housework, finds relief in ice skating’s freedom and pageantry, but the fantasies prove painful because the escape—the transformation from dull and overworked housewife to graceful and admired athlete—is temporary and all in her mind.
Themes
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Nazneen is grateful when ice skating is no longer on the television. Soon she begins praying five times a day, a habit that Chanu approves of, even though she never sees him pray or read the Qur’an. His reverence seems reserved for his certificates on the wall. Some are genuine diplomas. The majority, though, are worthless. Chanu grows worried his promotion is in jeopardy, thanks in part to austerity measures put in place by Margaret Thatcher. Nazneen begins praying that he’ll get his promotion, but the prayer comes after her plea for another letter from Hasina.
Nazneen’s prayers, like her ice skating fantasies, are an attempt to escape her life of meaningless household chores. Chanu wants a religious wife because he thinks that a woman devoted to God is equally devoted to her husband, but he doesn’t want to go through the trouble of being devout himself. In this way, his religious practice is a lot like his work ethic: slapdash and perfunctory.
Themes
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One day, Nazneen and Chanu visit the shops on Bethnal Green Road. Nazneen is looking for material for a new sari. She asks Chanu if he thinks a pink and yellow material is nice. Rather than answer her directly, he launches into a theory of David Hume’s, about Relations of Ideas versus Matters of Fact. He illustrates his point by arguing that saying the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible than the idea that it will. When his mind is occupied with such weighty matters, he says, how can Nazneen expect him to have an opinion on a particular sari fabric? Still, he goes into the shop and buys it for her.
Chanu is again talking down to Nazneen, whose education almost certainly did not include the works of David Hume. He is splitting hairs and mocking her interest in clothes, but she simply wants a new sari. The fact that he buys the fabric for her proves that he is, as Nazneen has said, kind-hearted. He might lecture her and condescend to her in a maddening way, but he feels affection for her.
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That night in bed, Nazneen wonders what Chanu does all day at work. Does he spend his time discussing whether or not the sun will rise with his colleagues? She drifts off to sleep and soon she is dreaming of her home in Gouripur where she and Hasina are girls again, playing together and being doted on and scolded by their parents. She knows now what she would wish for if she could, and it’s not to be in a different place but to live in a different time, and so she knows, too, that her wish will never come true.
Nazneen is again dreaming of home. In this case, though, home is not a spot on the map but a moment in time. She wants to be young again, a girl living alongside her sister and being taken care of by her parents. Marriage has made Nazneen lonely and nostalgic. The company of a kindhearted man does nothing to alleviate her suffering.
Themes
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Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
Nazneen rarely ventures out of her apartment. This is mostly because Chanu does not want her to. He prides himself on providing well for her, and besides, he says, the people they live among are ignorant and would judge them both harshly if she were seen too often on the street. Nazneen does not protest her near confinement. She accepts her fate and waits for time to pass. Like Rupban, she adopts an air of saintly patience, and while she waits, she thinks of how her mother died. She fell on a spear in a store back in Gouripur. The spear pierced her through the heart. Hamid soon brought home a new wife, but the woman only stayed a month. Mumtaz rarely acknowledged Hamid after that. She saved all her love for his daughters and for Rupban, who died while wearing her best sari.
It is significant that when Nazneen tells herself to accept her fate as a desperately lonely housewife, her thoughts turn to her mother’s death. This suggests that what Nazneen is going through is, in a way, a living death. Hamid’s reaction to Rupban’s death is nearly as unfeeling as his response to Nazneen’s birth and the loss of Hasina, and it harkens back to a value system that prioritizes the pleasures of men over a woman’s right to happiness. Nazneen is suffering from the side effects of that system. She trusted her fate to her father and Chanu, and she is now miserable as a result.
Themes
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Luck, Class, and Fate Theme Icon
When Razia moves to a different block of the Tower Hamlets, Nazneen has more reason to leave her apartment. She stays on the estate, though, venturing only far enough to visit Razia, whose company is a welcome distraction from Nazneen’s concern for Hasina. Six months have passed since Hasina’s last letter, and that letter was short and hurried. In it, Hasina wrote only that she hoped Nazneen and her husband were happy and that, while she, Hasina, was not necessarily a good wife, she was trying her best to please her husband.
Razia is not a substitute sister for Nazneen, but her friendship fills a void that was left when Nazneen stopped hearing from Hasina. Hasina’s last letter is ominous and cryptic. It is difficult to know exactly what Hasina means when she writes that she isn’t necessarily a good wife, but Nazneen knows well what the punishment is for such a “crime:” a beating.
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Razia’s irreverent sense of humor and talent for mimicry takes Nazneen’s mind off her sister. Together, they gossip about their neighbors, including a young man who’d recently taken a beating from his father for being spotted in a pub with a white woman, Jorina’s son, who struggles with a debilitating drinking problem, and Jorina’s daughter, who, at sixteen, was sent home to Bangladesh to be married. Jorina and her husband sent the girl away partially to save her from entering into a love marriage. Razia says such stories make her fear for her son, Tariq, and daughter, Shefali.
The main concern of immigrant parents living in a foreign land is how exposure to a different set of values will impact their children and their children’s future. It is worth noting that Jorina sends her sixteen-year-old daughter home to avoid a love marriage, while, at the same time, marrying her off. The situation brings to mind Nazneen and Hasina’s separate realities.
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Nazneen looks around Razia’s apartment, taking note of the clutter but seeing that Razia has arranged things so that there is still room to grow, should she and her husband decide to have more children or invite family members move in with them. According to Chanu, such efficiency has become a joke among the British, and they’ve even come up with a statistic they say applies to Tower Hamlets: 3.5 Bangladeshis to one room.
The fact that Bengalis have become a joke to “native” Londoners adds credence to Chanu’s claims of systemic racism among the city’s white population. That said, Nazneen can’t help but admire Razia’s savvy handling of space. Having lived on very little, she knows how to make do.
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Nazneen tells Razia that her sister made a love marriage. Nazneen then recounts her sister’s story, beginning with Hasina’s incredible beauty, which everyone in the village considered a curse. But the marriage had turned out well, Nazneen tells Razia, who then asks if Hasina has any children. Nazneen admits she doesn’t know. Maybe a baby would explain Hasina’s hasty letter. Razia then does an impression of Mrs. Islam, in which she says the love marriages were not a problem in her day. Razia and Hasina laugh, but Razia says seriously that Shefali will marry for love over her dead body.
Hasina’s beauty is considered by her friends and family not an asset but a handicap because they know where such powers of attraction lead: to love affairs with inferior men and a life of a desertion and disappointment. Razia, who often rejects the more conservative and knee-jerk attitudes of her fellow Bengalis, agrees. She wants a more practical and less romantic future for her daughter.
Themes
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Nazneen depends on regular prayer, housework, and visits with Razia to remain content in her marriage and life in London. She tells her heart not to beat with fear or desire. If she wants something, she asks Chanu, but she always defers to his opinion. She asks him if he finds the bed too soft. He says no and asks if the bed makes her back hurt. Rather than answering him honestly, she tells him it doesn’t matter; she can sleep on the floor. She points out that, when she becomes a mother, she will sleep on a bedroll with her child. Chanu asks if she’s pregnant, and she tells him she is. Mrs. Islam took her to Dr. Azad and had it confirmed.
Nazneen is so afraid to express her own desires that she will not admit even to wanting a harder bed. That would be a step too far. To acknowledge that she has desires and needs would likewise be to admit that she is a thinking, feeling human being, and she is under the impression that it is not her place to inhabit that role. Now that she is to become a mother, her child, like her husband, must take precedence.
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Chanu has been hard at work drawing the house he hopes to build them in Dhaka when they return home. He adds a pond and a guest house to the drawing, saying he can’t possibly miss out on a promotion now. One week later, Nazneen gets a letter from Hasina. At first, it thrills her. Then it crushes her spirits, and this time she doesn’t make herself be calm.
Nazneen and Chanu are inhabiting two homes at once: the Tower Hamlets apartment and the dream house in Dhaka. Whether the second will ever materialize is the question. Nazneen’s fantasies often involve Hasina. Her heart truly resides with her sister.
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