It is morning and Nazneen hands Chanu his lunch, watches him head off to work, and, waving at the tattoo lady across the way, leaves her apartment. On this day, she sees the estate with clear eyes, noticing the peeling paint on the doors, the pigeons circling in the air like prisoners in an exercise yard, a woman with a screaming baby, men chaining furniture up on the sidewalk in order to sell it. On her way down the stairs, she trips on a ledge and sprains her ankle but keeps going, heading for Brick Lane, where garbage climbs the building walls and a poster shows a man and woman in a passionate embrace.
The pigeons and captive furniture represent her state of mind: she has begun to feel like a prisoner in her marriage and her own home, and that is one reason she has to get out, to escape, even if only for a little while. The poster of the lovers adds insult to injury: Nazneen—lonely, pregnant, and hobbling—has not known passion, and it seems likely she never will.
At the end of Brick Lane, Nazneen makes another turn, ending up in a jungle of skyscrapers and businesspeople rushing to work. She feels invisible among the towering buildings and scowling people, and she likes the feeling. She realizes that the white people in the city can no sooner see her than she can see God. Then, realizing she’s comparing herself to God, Nazneen begins to cry. She recites in her head her favorite verse from the Qur’an about God not forsaking his believers in their time of greatest need, but the pain in her ankle distracts her from the verse’s meaning. She heads for a park bench, realizing she is lost, which is fitting because Hasina is lost as well.
Nazneen is now in an alien world. Her days in a tiny, intimate village are over, and she realizes that no one around her cares about her. The thought is both upsetting and freeing: upsetting because it is almost as if she doesn’t exist; freeing because, if people can’t see her, she could do anything she wanted. The pain in her ankle is more real to her than an abstract God because what she must do is walk and God cannot help her with that.
Nazneen sits on the bench and recalls the contents of Hasina’s latest letter, the one that threw her into such despair. In the letter, Hasina writes of her decision to leave Malek and move on her own to Dhaka. Malek had begun beating Hasina. Against the advice of her landlady, Mrs. Kashem, who thought it better to be beaten by one’s husband than treated kindly by a stranger, Hasina fled her home for the city and a cheap apartment owned by Mrs. Kashem’s uncle’s brother-in-law. There, she goes up on the roof and watches a beggar woman whose body is bent in half. The woman sits on the street all day and propels herself back and forth with her hands. At night, a man with a cart comes to take the woman away. Sometimes, the woman protests. Hasina likes to watch her. She thinks she is courageous.
Hasina’s decision to leave her husband is met with disapproval and apprehension. Both Mrs. Kashem and Nazneen are anxious about Hasina’s future as a single woman. They worry about Hasina living alone and unprotected, but their anxiety is unjustified, considering that Malek’s brand of “protection” amounted to abuse. The old beggar woman is, like Hasina, on her own. She dares to defy the man who comes to claim her each night. The woman is an embodiment of female fortitude in the face of male cruelty.
Nazneen needs desperately to urinate. The baby has taken over her bladder, and Nazneen hasn’t peed all morning. But she is lost, and her choices are either to wet herself or pee in the park grass. She has gotten herself lost in order to feel something of Hasina’s pain, but she realizes, too late, that it is a pointless exercise. Neither she nor Hasina can go home. They are both in cities where no one knows them or cares about their suffering. Maybe she should go to a store. Razia has told her to stick to the English stores where no one will give her a second thought. If Nazneen patronizes a Bengali store, the men there will gossip about her. Hasina, of course, will now be a prime target of gossip.
Even given the distance between them, Nazneen feels intimately connected to Hasina. She imagines that the alienation and isolation she feels on the streets of London is similar to what Hasina is experiencing in Dhaka. Both women are potential targets of malicious gossip: Nazneen because she is a woman walking alone in a strange city and Hasina because she has fled her marriage.
Back on the street, Nazneen stares up at the skyscrapers, which seem to be ripping the clouds apart. She thinks of Chanu, wondering if he works in just such a building and if he talks as much at work as he does at home. She grows disoriented and distressed, and a dark-skinned man in thick glasses tries to talk to her, but, while she recognizes he is speaking Hindi, she doesn’t understand him. Then he tries Urdu. She still does not catch his words. Finally, he speaks to her in English, and she shakes her head and tells him “sorry.” The man nods and walks away, and while Nazneen is lost, hungry, and feels stupid, she can’t help but be happy that she spoke English to a stranger and had been understood and acknowledged.
Even the buildings in London seem capable of violence. They assault the sky, and Nazneen, used to the sleepy pace of life in Gouripur, feels more out of place than ever. When the man attempts to speak to her in Hindi, Nazneen experiences a moment of confusing duality: for a brief second, she is connected to her home—or something like it—and, at the same time, she feels proud of herself for fitting in with the English-speaking crowd around her. She is taking the first steps toward assimilation.
Back home, Nazneen makes a dinner of lentils and rice and soaks her rain-sodden sari in the bathtub. Curled there, it looks like a pink python. Chanu comes home and begins talking about Hasina’s predicament and how there’s really nothing that can be done for her now. He hums a nursery rhyme to Nazneen’s bulging stomach and Nazneen, holding a pot of boiling lentils above his head, pours it carefully into a bowl. She is suddenly filled with hatred and loathing, and she says that there is something they can do for Hasina—Chanu can go to Dhaka and try to find her. He laughs off the suggestion. Finding Hasina in the teeming city would be next to impossible, he says. Plus, he’s busy with work and getting ready for the birth of their son.
Ever obedient, Nazneen cooks the evening dinner for Chanu, but food preparation, like so much of what she does, is thankless. Unlike Hasina, Nazneen is, in the traditional sense, a very good wife, but it gets her nowhere with her husband because he is under no obligation to do what she wants or even listen to her. Snakes represent Nazneen’s unspoken anger. They coil up inside her, biding their time and threatening to strike if provoked.
Nazneen wants to shout at Chanu that anything is possible. She knows this now because she dared to go into an English pub to urinate on her way home from the city, and she found a Bangladeshi restaurant where she asked for directions back to Tower Hamlets. If she can perform such courageous tasks, he should be able to find her sister—but she keeps such thoughts to herself, and Chanu says it is best to wait, to let fate take its course. Nazneen is all too familiar with such a philosophy, but her heart begins to burn with the desire to rebel.
Nazneen is starting to suspect that waiting on God to solve her problems might not be her best strategy. She is also beginning to have more faith in her own powers. Her newfound confidence is a result of her acting independently and testing the limits of what she thought she was capable of. She knows now that she is braver than she believed she was, and braver by far than Chanu.
Nazneen’s rebellious spirit manifests itself in her new-found indifference to household chores. She secretly adds hot peppers to Chanu’s sandwiches. She puts his socks away in his drawer unwashed and makes sure to mess up his files whenever she can. One day, in the midst of her mutiny, Mrs. Islam takes her to Dr. Azad’s office. Mrs. Islam offers Nazneen one of the many handkerchiefs she keeps up her sleeve. Nazneen declines. Mrs. Islam then asks Nazneen how Chanu is doing, and Nazneen says that he is fine, but that his corns and stomach bother him at times. Mrs. Islam reads between the lines and offers to be Nazneen’s confidant. Nazneen does not respond, and so Mrs. Islam tells her a story about a poisoned well in her home village.
Since Nazneen’s sphere is the home, this is where she decides to mount her protests. Her primary weapons are food and laundry. As a woman, she is denied more effective weapons, and, anyway, her anger is nebulous, without real focus. She can’t answer Mrs. Islam truthfully about Chanu’s state of mind because she doesn’t know what it is. She tends to his hygiene and his stomach and, of course, she listens to his lectures, but her knowledge of her husband is almost as limited as his knowledge of her.
The well, according to Mrs. Islam, was not only poisoned. It was also a two-mile walk away. The women in her village had grown tired of complaining to their husbands about the quality of the water and the length of the journey, so they gathered together to figure out what to do. One woman suggested they go on strike. If the men were made to fetch the water themselves, they would be motivated to dig a new well. The rest of the women liked this plan, but found it flawed. Could they really count on their men to bring home enough water for their families? Another woman, a former prostitute, had a different idea. Men could bear the thought of having no food or water. They could not abide the thought of no sex. The woman suggested the women refuse their men sex until the new well was dug.
In Mrs. Islam’s story, the village women were not positive that their husbands, if forced to cart the water themselves, would actually do the work required to quench their family’s thirst. A sex strike is the answer. This fable has echoes of Lysistrata, a comedy by Aristophanes about a group of Greek women who, sick of war, refuse to have sex with their husbands until the men declare peace. Both the women in Mrs. Islam’s village and those in Aristophanes’ play were trying to save their children’s lives. The men were interested only in sex.
The plan worked. That was how the village got its new well. Mrs. Islam tells Nazneen that she, too, must act in order to get what she wants. If she feels powerless, then she is powerless. It is Nazneen’s job to manipulate Chanu into behaving as a husband should. Nazneen is then called into the doctor’s office by a receptionist whose large breasts are on full display. When Mrs. Islam gives the woman’s cleavage a disapproving glance, the receptionist withdraws them from view.
Mrs. Islam’s story might have seemed like an empowerment tale, but she is placing the burden of getting Chanu to be a better husband straight on Nazneen’s shoulders. The message is clear: if women want anything from men, they will have to contrive complicated schemes in order to get it.
Dr. Azad is as prim in his professional demeanor as he is in his personal. Nazneen takes note of his neat desk, which contains the usual assortment of pens and paper, but also a line of snow globes, which she thinks of as “snow storms.” Dr. Azad asks Nazneen if she is having any blood loss, pain, or swelling. She tells him she feels fine, even though urinating has become painful and when it doesn’t hurt, it itches. She has no idea how to tell him this. He predicts she will have an easy delivery and a healthy baby. Nazneen then asks if he would like to join her and Chanu for dinner again soon, and he says he would be happy to. Unbeknownst to Nazneen, Chanu has been to see the doctor several times since the first dinner, lending him books and asking him to sign a petition.
The sterile, white world of a snow globe would be a perfect home for the prudish and meticulous Dr. Azad. His prim manner makes it difficult for Nazneen to confide in him, and so, at risk to her own personal comfort and safety, she refrains from telling him her symptoms. She is embarrassed by her own body—a natural reaction to being told, over and over, that male bodies are more valuable. Dr. Azad’s flippant attitude toward birth only demonstrates his lack of perspective. Never suffered through it himself, it’s easy for him to treat it as a casual matter.
Back in the waiting room, Mrs. Islam appears to be asleep, although her eyes are open. Nazneen wonders if this is how she knows everyone’s deepest, darkest secrets, although she supposes it was Razia who told her about Nazneen’s troubles with Chanu and Hasina, and the thought amuses her.
The community Nazneen is living in is rife with gossip and back-biting. Nazneen, though, is not bothered by her marriage being a topic of conversation.
Nazneen is performing her midday prayer. It is difficult now that she is pregnant. She cannot get her head on the mat, and she is grateful for the special dispensation for pregnant women that allows them to abstain from genuflecting fully. She could even pray from her chair, but when she tried it, she felt lazy. Still, she is glad that Islam is kind to women. Then she wonders idly that if it were possible for an imam to get pregnant, if he would still require pregnant women to sit during prayer. She scolds herself inwardly for her irreverent thoughts. She wishes her mind would not drift into such jokey territory.
Nazneen is now not only starting to question the idea of leaving everything to fate, she’s beginning to find religion and its practice almost funny. Even though she is grateful that, as a pregnant woman, she does not have to put her head on the mat when she prays, she still has to be on her knees, which is taxing enough. She might dismiss her thoughts as silly, but they reveal how she is changing.
Razia knocks on the door, interrupting Nazneen at prayer. She has medicine she says will help with the burning Nazneen feels when she urinates. Nazneen shows Razia a letter she recently received from Hasina. Hasina is now in good spirits. She likes her apartment and her landlord, Mr. Chowdhury, who has promised to try to find her work in a garment factory. Nazneen still worries about Hasina, but Chanu seems relieved that she is no longer in any way his responsibility. Mr. Chowdhury, he says, will look out for her. A typical male response, according to Razia. Men are often unwilling to act to solve a problem, but they’re more than happy to take credit when things go right.
Chanu’s assumption that Hasina needs a man to take care of her is both knee-jerk (as Razia points out) and ingrained. It is also ironic, considering that Razia is the one who helps Nazneen with her pain. Women are capable of taking care of themselves and each other, but the societal expectation is that they will, instead, depend on men for safety and a livelihood.
Nazneen notices that, the larger she gets, the harder it is to navigate all the furniture in her apartment. She grows and so do the chairs and stools, it seems. Razia begins to gossip to Nazneen about other women on the estate, including one who recently gave birth and another, Amina, who is suing her husband for divorce. Nazneen assumes Amina is leaving her husband because he beats her, but Razia says it’s also because Amina just found out her husband has another wife he’s hidden from her for eleven years. Razia tells Nazneen she should be grateful that Chanu has not made her a co-wife.
When Nazneen first came to London, the furniture in her apartment was a source of pride, but it has now become an annoyance. Small pleasures have soured and morphed into very real grievances. All the same, Nazneen is not allowed to be unhappy in her marriage. Chanu doesn’t have another wife, and therefore, Razia reasons, Nazneen should count herself lucky.
Razia asks Nazneen about Chanu’s prospects for promotion, and Nazneen tells her that Chanu thinks he has not yet been promoted because the higher-ups at his job are racist, especially Mr. Dalloway. Razia seems skeptical of Chanu’s claims. She tells Nazneen about her son’s teacher, who is white and very kind to Tariq, and about one of her husband’s work colleagues who often gives them gifts. There are good white people and bad white people, Razia says, just like in Bangladesh, but the difference is, in England, you can be out of work and still get money. She then whips her hat off to show Nazneen her newly shorn hair.
Razia’s words, while wise, do not necessarily prove that Chanu is wrong about why he is being passed over for promotion. Nazneen has no way of knowing if Chanu is a victim of racism, though, because she is confined to the domestic sphere. Her ignorance and naiveté are in direct contrast to Razia’s fuller knowledge of the world.
Nazneen is shocked and asks Razia if her husband will be angry with her. To Nazneen, Razia’s husband, a large man who works at a doll factory, always seems furious. Razia says she doesn’t care. Then she announces that she has to go; she’s learning English at the college so that if her kids tell dirty jokes behind her back, she can spank them.
Razia’s husband’s job is significant in that Razia is the opposite of a doll. She is very much a fully-fledged human being, whose mannish looks and no-nonsense ways suggest she is not to be toyed with.
It is evening, and Nazneen and Chanu are getting ready for bed. Nazneen is continuing her housework strike, but Chanu doesn’t notice the dirty socks or poorly folded pants. He talks to her about his plan for a lending library for the estate. The library was the reason he took a petition to Dr. Azad’s office, but now the doctor is suggesting that Chanu misled him when he pitched the idea. Dr. Azad did not realize that Chanu planned to take charge of the project, but Chanu thinks he is the best man for the job, given his extensive knowledge of literature.
Nazneen’s housewifely rebellion was always doomed to fail. Housework is invisible. Chanu does not notice Nazneen’s pathetic attempts at insurrection because, for the most part, he does not notice her. He thinks only of his own superior qualifications and intellect. In this way, Ali points to the invisibility of the housewife even within the domestic sphere which is her domain.
Nazneen mentions to Chanu that Razia is learning English, and she asks him if she might be able to start taking classes as well. Chanu, more engaged with his copy of Sense and Sensibility than Nazneen’s question, explains to her that she is going to be too busy with their child to go to school. She says she supposes he is right and lets the subject drop.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen is a book about two very different sisters. In that way, it shares much in common with Brick Lane. It also lambasts pompous men and Chanu is nothing if not pompous. Austen’s famous work was likely an inspiration for Ali in her writing.
That night, Nazneen gets up and goes to the kitchen to eat. She rarely eats much in front of her husband, saving her appetite for her midnight snacks, which have become one of her main pleasures. While she eats yogurt and stares out the window at the moon, she thinks about life back in Gouripur and how inconvenient everything was there compared to life in London. Such thoughts remind her of Makku Pagla, a man in the village thought insane because he was always reading. Nazneen and Hasina used to follow him around, teasing him about books and his habit of carrying an umbrella everywhere he went.
Nazneen’s pleasures are stolen and best enjoyed alone, like her thoughts. Having talked to Chanu about possible English lessons and listened to his ramblings about the lending library, her thoughts turn to the tragedy of Makku Pagla, a voracious reader. Learning was not valued in Nazneen’s village, where scholarly aspirations opened one up to ridicule.
One day, Nazneen and Hasina see Makku Pagla’s umbrella bobbing in the well, and they suspect that he has killed himself. No one wants to drag the well, but the village has a meeting and finally, having accepted the offer of some money, soap, and perfume, a man volunteers to perform the grisly task of pulling Makku’s body out of the water. Nazneen and Hasina watch as the decomposed body is brought up and laid on the ground, missing flesh and one arm. Rupban spends the day crying and Hamid, having declared her a saint, leaves the village and is gone for three days. Nazneen asks her mother where Hamid goes when he disappears, watching as a flock of ducks obscures the sun. Rupban tells her that if God had wanted them to ask such questions, he would have made them men.
While they do not admit it aloud to one another, Nazneen and Hasina feel responsible for Makku Pagla’s death. They blame his suicide on their own relentless teasing, but it is, as Rupban reminds them, not their place to question the ways of the world or even think too hard about them. That is up to men like Hamid, who often leaves his family for days and weeks at a time. The ducks blocking out the sun represent Nazneen’s dark state of mind following Makku Pagla’s death and her confusion over Hamid’s seemingly random wanderings.