Brick Lane

by

Monica Ali

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Brick Lane can help.

Brick Lane: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bibi tells Nazneen of Shahana’s plan. She and her friend, Nishi, were going to meet at the Shalimar Café and flee to a town called Paignant, where there were no Bangladeshis and they could do whatever they wanted.  There are two Shalimar Cafes. Which one did Shahana plan to go to, she asks Bibi. Bibi can’t remember, but she says she thinks it’s the one on Cannon Street. Nazneen heads for the restaurant, but the cook there claims to not have seen the girls. She runs down several more streets and through two run-down estates, and when she gets to Brick Lane, she is stopped by a police barricade. A disturbance is taking place in the Shalimar Café, the policeman told her, and she can go no further.
Nazneen has always known that Shahana was always against Chanu’s plan to move the family home to Bangladesh—but, preoccupied with her own cares, she did not realize just how strong her daughter’s desire to remain in London really was, or the lengths to which she would go to avoid the move. The naïve runaways see Bangladeshis as holding them back. Even in the post 9-11 atmosphere, they equate living among white people with freedom.
Themes
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
Nazneen takes advantage of the policeman’s momentary inattention to jump across the police tape and sneak her way on to Brick Lane, where she sees the anxious faces of shop owners and restaurant workers. It is as if the street’s veins had been drained of blood. She sees a group of boys rocking a police car back and forth. They are Bengal Tigers. Then she comes across the prone figure of the Multi-Cultural Officer. He is praying. She drags him to his feet and tells him to run.  She sees that the “disturbance” is a war of in-fighting. The Bengal Tigers are fighting each other.
The imagery of bloodless veins in this passage represents the Bengal Tigers’ lack of mission. They have been playing all this time at being courageous and influential men, when really what they’re doing is endangering their neighbors, many of whom are Muslims like them. The bloodless veins also hint at Karim’s insincere activism. His efforts, while passionate, have been empty.
Themes
Displacement and Dissociation Theme Icon
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
Nazneen sees the Questioner in the middle of the street with a bullhorn. He is trying to talk some sense into the rioting men. Then Karim drags her out of the street and into a safe corner, where he tells her the reason for the fighting. The boy who’d been stabbed earlier got out of the hospital, and the riot is an act of revenge. Everything has gotten out of control, Karim says, and he tells Nazneen to go home. But, finally, she sees Shahana and Nishi. They are huddling with the waiters of the Shalimar Café. Nazneen pounds on the door, telling her daughter that her mother is here.
The Bengal Tigers are a failed experiment, and all the petty bureaucracy and in-fighting is now ending in senseless violence. Nazneen no longer cares. What matters to her is her daughter, and, unlike Rupban, Nazneen is not leaving Shahana to fate. She is, instead, fighting for her daughter’s safe return.
Themes
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
Back at home, Shahana takes a bath while Bibi watches her, and Chanu hurries around the apartment, using endless talk as a way to delay the inevitable. Nazneen can sense that he knows she is not going with him. He talks of the cabbie coming to pick them up, the house they will build, the possibility of bringing Hasina to live with them. Then he grows a little quieter, and confesses that all this time, he’d wanted to be a big man, a success, and now he knows that all that matters is his wife and daughters. Nazneen tells him then that she is staying in London, and they hold each other, their sadness beyond words.
Bibi has now become Shahana’s keeper. She does not want to let her out of her sight, lest she try to run away again. Chanu’s running monologue is no longer an attempt to promote himself or brag about his qualifications. He is trying his best to keep his family together, but his efforts are in vain. Husband and wife finally seem to understand each other fully, just as they are committing to living apart.
Themes
Displacement and Dissociation Theme Icon
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
Get the entire Brick Lane LitChart as a printable PDF.
Brick Lane PDF
Chanu tells the girls that there’s been a change of plans: he will go to Dhaka and they and Nazneen will come later. The girls are confused. They ask him who will cook for him, and who will cut his corns. He tells them everything will be fine. Later, Nazneen cooks and Bibi and Shahana come in and eat. They are still confused about the future. Nazneen tells them it is up to the three of them now.
Despite embracing a more modern and inclusive conception of gender roles, both girls worry about their father living without a wife to see to his needs. Interestingly, they do not seem concerned about Nazneen’s ability to live without Chanu.
Themes
Cultural and Religious Sexism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
It is March 2002 now, and Razia has built a small sewing business for herself and Nazneen. Razia approached the Brick Lane sari shop, Fashion Fusion, and suggested she and Nazneen begin making clothing for them. Then she traveled around the city, suggesting the same to other stores. They now have a substantial client list. A group of Tower Hamlets women are gathered together in Razia’s apartment. They gossip about Mrs. Islam, who finally seems to be on the verge of death. No doctors can figure out what is wrong with her. There is talk of bringing in a specialist from Switzerland. Tariq is back in school. The women agree that they live for their children, but their children want to live for themselves.
Fashion Fusion brings together the East and the West into one garment. Razia and Nazneen are now charged with making the kind of saris embraced by the English. On one hand, their work is forcing them to compromise, to relinquish their Bengali values to please spoiled young women who enjoy trying on Bengali clothing as a form of cultural appropriation. On the other, Razia and Nazneen are making enough money to support themselves and their families without the help of men.
Themes
Cultural and Religious Sexism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Nazneen is doing some shopping before going home. She thinks about how grateful she is for Razia. Karim has disappeared, and she has work only thanks to her friend. She sees men moving furniture into what used to be the Bengal Tiger meeting room. Since the riot, officials have begun to take notice of the estate and make improvements. Task forces have been formed to address youth violence. She sees a thin young man on the sidewalk and asks him if he knows what happened to Karim. He says that Karim has gone home to Bangladesh. Either that, or he joined a caravan.
At one time, Karim and thoughts of him comprised the bulk of Nazneen’s waking life. Now he is nothing but a rumor, a whisper of love gone by. His journey mimics Nazneen’s, only in reverse. The child who was left to her fate no longer trusts everything to God. She trusts herself more. Meanwhile, the Westernized young man in jeans and tee shirts has traded it all in for communion with Allah.
Themes
Displacement and Dissociation Theme Icon
Cultural and Religious Sexism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
Nazneen is back home. She thinks about what she will do with the money Razia pays her the next day. She will put it in the bank and then she will send some to Hasina. She hasn’t had a letter from her sister in two months. Chanu, on the other hand, writes often. He writes of his meals and his plans and his new workout regime. And he calls once a month. The connection is usually bad, and it is hard to talk. In one call, Chanu tells Nazneen that he has seen Hasina and that she is living with and working for a respectable family. They should continue to send money, though, he says. It would be better if Hasina had her own apartment.
Nazneen—wife, mother, rule-follower—could not have envisioned what life would be like as an independent woman, but now she is living as she might have if Hamid had not arranged a marriage for her at nineteen. She has a job and friends, and one of those friends is, oddly enough, Chanu, who very much wants to help Hasina but still doesn’t know exactly how to go about it.
Themes
Displacement and Dissociation Theme Icon
Cultural and Religious Sexism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
Nazneen hangs up the phone. She is trying to write something but it’s not working. The radio is on, tuned to one of Shahana’s stations. A woman is singing about how someone’s love makes her want to shout. Nazneen feels the music enter her. She starts to dance, to wiggle her hips and kick. She abandons herself to the music.
Nazneen is now comfortable enough in London and in her own skin to enjoy Western music and celebrate her body moving to it. No one is there to judge her—not Karim or Chanu or even Razia. She is able, for once, to be completely herself.
Themes
Displacement and Dissociation Theme Icon
Cultural and Religious Sexism Theme Icon
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon
In another call, Chanu tells Nazneen that Hasina has vanished. She has run off with the cook, and her employers are furious. He asks Nazneen why her sister does such things. Because, Nazneen says, she will not give up. After a moment, Chanu says he would like it if Nazneen and the girls would come to visit him soon, on a holiday perhaps. Nazneen says they would like that. She can almost hear him beaming through the phone.
Hasina has spent her adult life running from one commitment to another, from marriage to work and back again. But this time she is leaving an untenable situation and doing so in the company of Zaid, who has plans to challenge the status quo. Nazneen has learned the hard way not to take Chanu for granted.
Themes
Luck, Class, and Fate Theme Icon
Razia and the girls are taking Nazneen somewhere as a surprise. On the bus, Nazneen tries to guess where they’re going, but Razia and the girls refuse to say. They blindfold her and guide her off the bus to a place that smells of fried food, furniture polish, and limes. When they pull the blindfold off, Nazneen sees that they are at an ice skating rink. A woman sails by them, not in a short skirt, but in jeans. Nazneen says to the girls that she can’t get out on the ice—she can’t skate in a sari. Razia says that this is London, and they can do whatever they want.
Nazneen’s London life has come full circle. Her ice skating fantasies, the daydreams in which she lost herself, have become reality. Reality, is, of course, more complicated than fantasy. She is wearing a sari, not a short skirt, and she is with her good friend and daughters, not a handsome man who smells of limes. Still, her future is wide open. She is free. Everything is up to her.
Themes
Displacement and Dissociation Theme Icon
Cultural and Religious Sexism Theme Icon
Luck, Class, and Fate Theme Icon
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Theme Icon