Brick Lane

by

Monica Ali

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Brick Lane: Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter is made up entirely of letters from Hasina to Nazneen. The letters begin in May 1988 with Hasina expressing sympathy over the death of Raqib.  For her grieving sister, Hasina offers the Prayer of Light, which asks God to surround the grieving with light so that they might come out of the darkness.
Hasina seems, at first glance, to be the less religious of the two sisters, but she, too, believes in the power of God to heal and comfort. Light versus dark is another of the novel’s many dualities.
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The second letter, dated September 1988, is full of news. Hasina has moved to a larger apartment in the Narayanganj district of Dhaka. Mr. Chowdhury helps her with the move, but it doesn’t go smoothly. When she arrives at the new building, a family is still occupying her room. The family is slovenly and behind on their rent. Mr. Chowdhury gets them to leave, and Hasina settles in. The apartment has smooth concrete floors, and the walls will be plastered soon. There is another family to the back of her and a group of jute pickers to one side. Everyone is clean and respectable, even the jute pickers who hop the train that runs by the apartment each day in order to get to the jute fields. Mr. Chowdhury, who is like a father to Hasina, tells her to alert him if the men ever threaten her, but so far they’ve acted like total gentlemen.
In Nazneen’s mind, Hasina is an independent woman, living a glamorous, albeit slightly dangerous, life on her own. The reality is that Hasina is still dependent on the patronage of a man to help her negotiate housing and employment, and the lack of plaster on the walls hints at her relative poverty. Her beauty, too, presents problems. Mr. Chowdhury is convinced the jute pickers will harass Hasina. Instead of trusting her to handle the situation on her own, Mr. Chowdhury feels the need to display his chivalry in an ostentatious manner. Perhaps all is not as it seems.
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The day Hasina is writing of is hartal, or an official day of striking. Mr. Chowdhury is against both the strikers and the country’s leaders. In his opinion, the former are lazy and the latter corrupt. In his line of work (in addition to working as a landlord, he is an electrical parts supplier and also manufactures toilets and sinks) he is constantly having to bribe civil servants and politicians. Even the president, Mr. Chowdhury says, is corrupt beyond belief. For her part, Hasina supports the striking university students who are rallying for the right to cheat equally. It’s not fair that some with money can afford to buy exam papers. Everyone should have access to such favors.
Hasina clearly has a mind of her own. That said, she allows those in positions of power to impress and influence her unduly. She looks up to Mr. Chowdhury and therefore gives his anti-labor feelings some credence. Still, she can’t help but wonder if the strikers might not be in the right after all. The corruption is its own problem. Hasina, like Nazneen, is having some of her innocence stripped from her as she becomes better acquainted with the real world outside Gouripur.
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Hasina ends her letter telling Nazneen that she is waiting for hers. She congratulates her on having such an ambitious and high-achieving husband and sends her wishes for more sons.
Having only Hasina’s end of this set of correspondence gives rise to rich irony. Chanu is obviously not high-achieving.
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In her next letter, dated November 1988, Hasina writes of Nazneen’s beautiful apartment. She supposes Nazneen has grown used to the lovely corner cabinet and glass showcase and wallpaper, but, to Hasina, these are all unimaginable treasures. She plans to put the picture of Hasina’s rooms next to her photograph of Raqib, and when she finally has glass she will frame them. Hasina does worry that Nazneen has grown thin, but Zainab says it is the fashion in London to be thin.
These are items that Nazneen had long ago grown tired of and had begun to despise. Again, irony factors in, as does the unsaid. What Nazneen does not tell Hasina is more revealing than what she does. For instance, Nazneen’s weight loss is a clear indication of the after effects of acute grief.
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Zainab is the mother of the family who lives in the apartment behind Hasina. An unpleasant woman, she is always complaining. She thinks that the apartment building will soon be torn down, as it is too close to the railway. Hasina writes to Nazneen of the garment factory where she works. It is a half hour walk from her apartment and Hasina thinks it a fine place. Workers must arrive a little before eight a.m. They open the gates at eight sharp and lock them shortly after. Workers who show up late are therefore locked out for the day.
Like Nazneen in London, Hasina has her own community, and it is made up of her neighbors and coworkers. Hasina writes of her happiness and job satisfaction, but the fact that garment workers who show up late are denied their chance at a paycheck suggests that her place of employment might not be entirely benevolent or fair. 
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The factory consists of three main areas: one contains the sewing machines (this is where Hasina works), one is for cutting and finishing (this is where the men work), and a third is for the administrative office. Hasina’s sewing machine is so new she is almost afraid to touch it. When she first started using it, it sensed she was a beginner and pricked her finger. Now it purrs like a cat. Aleya, one of Hasina’s friends at the factory, says if trees can have spirits, why can’t machines? Shahnaz, another factory friend, thinks Aleya is a country bumpkin for saying such things, but she does not mention this in front of Aleya because, according to Hasina, she is kind and gentle.
Hasina’s relationship with her sewing machine is not unlike Nazneen’s relationship to the beeping monitors in the hospital where Raqib stayed during his fever. Both sisters give the machines animal-like traits and personalities. Hasina’s work station reminds her of a contented cat. Nazneen, on the other hand, now understands that, unlike the animals back in Gouripur, machines do not have hearts, souls, or intentions. They are merely machines.
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Hasina began her work at the garment factory as a runner, carting thread and cloth around, but she is a sewing woman now, and she and her friends—Aleya, Shahnaz, and Renu—are as close as sisters. They work in the same row and eat lunch together, talking about their lives. Aleya is the mother of five children. Her husband did not want her to work, but he eventually gave in and bought her a burkha to wear to the factory. He escorts her to work in the morning and walks her home at night. Shahnaz is two years older than Hasina and loves learning. She has refused all the men her parents have chosen as husbands for her and she objects to the dowry system. Why should women be considered burdens? she wonders. Since she makes her own money, she says, she is the dowry.
Aleya and Shahnaz are foils for one another. Apart from the fact that she works outside of the home, Aleya is a typical Bengali wife, obeying her husband and respecting his authority, hence the burkha she wears to work each day. Shahnaz, on the other hand, is an example of a more liberated woman who openly challenges the status quo, refusing to model herself after society’s expectations of her. She objects particularly to the dowry system, which reinforces the idea that women are burdens on society rather than assets.
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Renu is the oldest of the group. Married off to an old man at 15 and widowed three months later, she has had to work ever since and believes she was born to suffer. Hasina feels for her, but sometimes Renu reminds her of Rupban and at those times Hasina can’t be near her. Hasina signs off by saying she is sorry that Chanu’s job has not turned out the way he thought it would, but that he is smart and skilled and is sure to get a better one in no time.
Renu has seen the downsides of both married and working life. Widowed when still a girl, she is stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty. Like Rupban, she blames God and fate for her troubles, but the real culprit is a system of societal and financial conventions that set women up for failure.
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Hasina writes again in January 1988, observing that Nazneen’s letters are so short they end almost before they begin. Hasina knows this is because she is depressed and suggests that Nazneen find work. Work is the cure, Hasina says. In a way, it is like a marriage. You go to it every day and over time it becomes a comfortable habit.
Hasina understands more than she lets on. Not only can she read between the lines of Nazneen’s letters to see that her sister’s marriage is old-hat but she also knows that Nazneen is in desperate need of employment, something to which Chanu isn’t likely to consent.
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There is trouble at the factory, though. Religious men have begun protesting outside, saying it is a sin for men and women to work together. To Hasina they are the true sinners, using God’s name to tell a lie. Aleya’s husband has grown anxious. He wants her to wear a burkha in the factory now, but Hasina writes that men and women don’t work together anyway—the men could never sit still at the machines. They have to get up and talk and smoke. Also, their jobs of cutting and pattern making are too intricate and dangerous for the women workers, who don’t understand the electricity involved. One of the male workers, Abdul, always refers to Hasina as “sister.” Every day he wears a clean shirt to work.
Hasina is liberated enough to understand that the protestors are wrong in blaming women for wanting to be on equal footing with men. At the same time, she has bought the lie that men are somehow more skilled and knowledgeable than women when it comes to delicate tasks. Women are obviously quite capable of understanding the concept of electricity and how it works, but if men were to admit that, their place at the top of the power structure would be threatened.
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Zainab, meanwhile, has been telling Hasina to watch out. Once the jute cutters find out there’s a garment girl in the house, there is bound to be trouble, but Hasina takes offense and assures her she is pure of body and pure of heart. She keeps purdah and no one can say she doesn’t.
Hasina should not have to defend herself for merely holding down a steady job, but the burden is on her to prove that she is without sin.
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The garment factory is offering the workers overtime so they can finish a large order from Japan. Renu, however, misses out. She’s out of favor for having put several collars on the wrong way. Also, someone told the factory owners that she was eating betel nut. Shahnaz swears it wasn’t her. Then she predicts Renu will end up breaking bricks. She’s not being metaphorical, she says. On her way to work, Hasina walks by a brickyard where poor women and children chip away at bricks with small hammers all day.
Renu’s already dire circumstances have worsened, not because God wants to punish her, but because one her coworkers chose to disparage her to the factory owners. Destitute women, deemed unfit to handle electricity, are given, instead, the job of breaking bricks. Nothing, it seems, could be more demeaning or pointless.
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In her next letter, dated March 1989, Hasina congratulates Nazneen on her pregnancy. She predicts that now, with so much at stake, Chanu will finally find a job and finish his studies as well. It is so hot in Narayanganj that the streets are melting. Mr. Chowdhury comes to collect Hasina’s rent, taking only what she can afford. He brags about his sons in America and wishes he had a daughter to rub his feet. Hasina takes off his shoes and obliges him, making him happy. Zainab comes over, complaining about Mr. Chowdhury filling the building with low-lifes. Hasina writes of a scandal involving the president, his girlfriend (on whom he bestowed political favors), and his wife who beat them both up when she found out about the affair. She says it’s funny, then, that everyone spreads rumors about the garment girls’ lack of virtue. 
Hasina’s washing of Mr. Chowdhury’s feet symbolizes her position of inferiority to him. While his sons pursue their own lives in America, Hasina, as his adopted daughter, is there to serve him. Hasina’s observations about the presidential scandal point out an essential hypocrisy of Bengali culture: Hasina and her fellow garment girls are shamed for working alongside men; meanwhile, rich women can engage in a variety of immoral behaviors and not be judged.
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It is now July, and the rains have come. Rain is pouring in Hasina’s apartment and it’s ruined her furniture. A jute cutter, Hussain, says he will fix her table and chair. He is a kind man, though unattractive. Hasina is only dry when she’s at the garment factory, where Shahnaz is worried that Abdul is paying Hasina too much attention. At one time, Abdul courted Shahnaz, but she rejected him. Shahnaz also worries that Hasina’s full lips are too pink. She says she should dust them with powder to keep the religious protestors from thinking she is impure. Hasina writes that the bonfire Chanu set for them in the backyard must have been fun for the neighborhood children, but she wonders why he burned several chairs. Was there not any other wood available?
Hasina does not complain, but she is living in near poverty. Her furniture, while modest, had represented a certain amount of independence and prosperity. Now, however, even that is gone, and Shahnaz, whom Hasina considers her closest friend at the garment factory, is intimating that some of the negative attention they’re receiving from the religious protestors is, indeed, Hasina’s fault. Shahnaz suggests that Hasina’s beauty is to blame for the protestors’ draconian beliefs. 
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Hasina writes again in August, telling Nazneen that she, too, thinks of Rupban sometimes but she does not dream of her like her sister does. She wonders why, in Nazneen’s dreams, Rupban is angry. Hasina then writes that Hamid was often unfaithful to Rupban. He even wanted to take another wife, but Rupban threatened suicide if he did. Hasina learned the truth from Malek. Apparently, everyone in Gouripur knew except for Hasina and Nazneen.
Nazneen grew up thinking her mother a model of perfection and wifely virtue. Gradually, that image is being tarnished. That said, Rupban did suffer a great deal. The only way she could talk her husband out of marrying a second time was by threatening to kill herself. The system of inequality drives women to extremes.
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Aleya is being beaten by her husband. The previous month she was named the best worker at the garment factory and was given a sari as a reward. Her husband, upset by the constant rumors swirling around garment girls, assumed the material came from another man and has been beating her ever since. Shahnaz says that the rumors are damaging all of their chances of making a good marriage. Hasina has not told her friends that she is married. When she first met them, she said she was an orphan and a widow, and now that they are all close she doesn’t know how to tell them the truth.
In this charged environment, a woman is always under suspicion. She is guilty before proven innocent and a new dress is often grounds for a beating. It is interesting, then, that Shahnaz is still preoccupied with the thought of making a good marriage. Evidently, being a wife often means taking a beating for something one did not do. 
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It is now September, and Hasina writes to ask Nazneen to burn her last letter. Rupban would never have threatened to kill herself—that would have been blasphemy. It is another hartal, or strike day, and Hasina is home, writing to Nazneen and listening to the jute cutters fight in the next room over the rules of chess. They have a new set and cannot agree on how the game should be played. Zainab and her family are away at a wedding, and Hasina is grateful. They make more noise and fight more than anyone. Mr. Chowdhury comes to collect the rent. Hasina finds out that he’s charging her much less than his other tenants. He vows again to hurt any of the jute cutters that come near her.
While clearly the less religious of the two sisters, Hasina still believes in God and the concept of sin, hence her request that Nazneen burn the letter. Nazneen does not burn it, however. Ali structures the novel to suggest that the reader is reading the letters along with Nazneen. Mr. Chowdhury’s decision to undercharge Hasina on rent puts her in a vulnerable position. She is now obligated to him, and his threat to beat up the jute cutters is more possessive than fatherly.
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It is January 1990, and Hasina congratulates Nazneen on her new daughter, wishing that the little girl might grow up to be as sweet as her mother. Hasina is being shunned by her friends at the garment factory. She doesn’t know what she’s done, but no one will speak to her except Abdul. Everyone whispers about her and treats her unkindly, but Hasina hopes this is only temporary. Work and sadness are making her tired.
Hasina’s shunning is mysterious and, as yet, unexplained. It directly follows Hasina’s discovery that Mr. Chowdhury is charging her discounted rent, however, and Ali is hinting that that could be the cause.
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Hasina speaks to Shahnaz about her shunning and Shahnaz tells her that everyone knows about Hasina and the landlord. They have heard that Hasina is paying discounted rent. Hasina swears to Shahnaz that Mr. Chowdhury is like a father to her. She is confident that Shahnaz will set everything right quickly. The garment workers all look up to her and follow her lead.
Ali is hinting that Shahnaz might not be the good friend that Hasina took her to be. If she is a leader at the garment factory, then chances are good she is the one who spread the rumors about Hasina and Mr. Chowdhury.
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Hasina’s next letter is dated April 1990. She writes of Abdul insisting on escorting her home. The protesters have left, so there’s no real danger, but he still prefers to make sure she gets back to her apartment safely. He is a neat and kind young man. Hasina feels lucky to have him for a friend, especially because the women at the garment factory continue to treat her poorly. Only Renu will speak to her. She tells Hasina not to worry—the girls think themselves ripe fruit, and they’re worried about the bad ruining them. Hasina knows she is the bad fruit in this analogy, but she doesn’t listen to Renu. She wants none of the older woman’s martyrdom.
Like Mr. Chowdhury, Abdul considers Hasina in need of protection. The same cultural norms that make slaves of women likewise infantilizes them. They are not trusted to walk home on their own, let alone pay their own rent or take charge of their lives. Renu’s comparison of Hasina to fruit further dehumanizes her. Women are expected to be pure and unspoiled. One mistake and they are tossed out like rotten food.
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It is now August, and Hasina tells Nazneen not to worry about her. It is quiet around her at the garment factory, but she is working hard (she rarely takes a lunch now) and she is saving her money. Also, she has Abdul, who she thinks may be in charge of the factory someday. He is smartly dressed and pays attention to detail. Also, he loves her. Hasina hopes they can marry someday, but there is the complication that she is still married to Malek. Maybe she can get a divorce, but she doesn’t know how to go about it.
In this novel, clothing is often an outward indicator of inner goodness. Hasina hopes that Abdul’s neat appearance means not only that he has a bright future but that his intentions toward her are honorable. Even if that is the case, her choices are limited. Divorce is outside her universe of options as a woman, and a previous marriage would taint her reputation irrevocably.
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At home, there is more drama. Hussain has bought a few goats and they have an appetite only for Zainab’s washing. Zainab is furious, but Hussain just laughs. Hasina is thinking about getting a few chickens herself.
Hasina’s living situation contrasts greatly with her sister’s. Whereas Nazneen lives in a large, brick building in a sprawling city, Hasina is surrounded by squalor. She isn’t unhappy, though.
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Hasina’s latest letter is dated January 1991. She writes of talking to Shahnaz, who says she is disappointed in her. Out of friendship she’d warned Hasina about Abdul, she says, but Hasina threw her friendship in her face. Hasina is distraught and says she would never do such a thing, but Shahnaz just walks away. Later, Hasina is called to the garment factory office. Hasina knows this does not bode well. One is only called to the office to be fired or to be notified of a death in the family. Khaleda, a fellow sewing woman, was called to the office recently to be told her entire family died in a house fire. They had to carry her out of the building.
It is clear that Shahnaz is not a good friend to Hasina. She is, instead, envious of Hasina’s beauty and her burgeoning relationship with Abdul. The reader can see this even if Hasina cannot. Some of Shahnaz’s pettiness is undoubtedly due to her sharp and unkind personality, but much can be blamed on a system of toxic inequality that forces women to compete with each other for male attention.
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The garment factory manager who calls Hasina to the office is famous for his scaly skin and fish smell. Abdul is in the office, too. The manager proceeds to yell at Hasina, to scold her for having no respect for the reputation of the factory. He tells her he knows all about her relationship with Abdul. Abdul has confessed everything. Then the manager orders her to leave and tells her she is finished in the garment business. On her way out, Hasina hears the manager tease Abdul about being like all the other village boys who, when faced with a pretty girl, cannot wait for marriage. Abdul does not laugh.
Hasina has not only been betrayed by Shahnaz; Abdul has thrown her under the bus as well, and he did so to save his job. He is not punished for their rumored affair. Instead, the boss jokes with him about not being able to resist a pretty girl. As a pretty girl, Hasina is fired and called a whore. The double standard is cruel and too glaring to ignore.
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It is now March, and Hasina tells Nazneen she is overjoyed to hear that her baby is walking. She asks her to send a picture of the little girl, but no money. She is fine, she says. She does not want Nazneen to start sending money to Hasina behind Chanu’s back. Mr. Chowdhury continues to take care of her. He visits often but does not insist she pay rent. Instead, she rubs his feet and combs his hair and listens while he complains about his work and personal life. He would like to bring Hasina into his home, but he knows people will talk since he is a widower, living alone. Hasina begins to wonder if he plans to take her for a wife. She considers the idea. He is rich and powerful and not an old man exactly. He is roughly Chanu’s age.
Hasina—a beautiful, young woman—is considering becoming the wife of the much older and less attractive Mr. Chowdhury. Her circumstances are suddenly very much like Nazneen’s: she is dependent on a man for shelter, and, in return, is asked to tend to that man’s personal needs while listening raptly to his lectures and stories. Men are taught to consider such treatment their birthright. Women, on the other hand, are never secure in their positions.
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Hasina’s chickens have begun to lay eggs. She cooks meals for the jute cutters and they pay her for her efforts and dish her out a portion as well. Zainab, upset because her son has failed his exams, is now friendlier to Hasina. Life is quiet but that is okay with Hasina, who often sits nearby while the jute cutters eat, thinking of Nazneen and about how, while they are separated by a great distance, at least they are living under the same moon.
Hasina, unemployed but resourceful, is scraping by. Her connection to her sister remains strong, and is, in fact, the one thing she can count on in her relatively untethered existence. In this way, her situation again mirrors Nazneen’s: they are strangers in a strange land, finding home in their love for each other.
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Hasina listens to the jute cutters’ tall tales, remembering a time when Hamid took her and Nazneen to watch the men dive for the fibrous plant. Hussain often talks to her on these nights. When she was first fired from the garment factory, Hasina told Hussain the whole story. He said that he supposed people often reacted in such a petty way to beautiful things—they had a strange need to make them ugly. He does not have that problem, he says. He’s ugly to begin with and when he sees beautiful things now, he laughs at the fact that they can never be his. He has no other choice.
In Gouripur, Nazneen thought Hasina’s beauty might mean that Hasina’s life would be easier than hers. Hussain is suggesting the opposite. Hasina’s beauty is a curse because it inspires envy in others. This would explain why Shahnaz was always suggesting Hasina hide her beauty. She claimed it was to calm the religious protestors, but really it was to make herself feel better.
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Hasina begins her next letter by confessing to Nazneen that she has brought shame on herself. She hopes her sister can forgive her. Then she tells her exactly what happened. Mr. Chowdhury came banging on her door, screaming about her being a whore, about her sleeping with everyone in the factory and giving him nothing. It was he, Mr. Chowdhury, who put a roof over her head, he said. How could she make herself so cheap? Then Mr. Chowdhury rapes her. Afterward, she rubs his feet and cries. He makes her say that he is the one who takes care of her, and she does. Now Hasina believes she is cursed. Got has put rocks under her feet and snakes over her head.
Hasina misjudged the seemingly benevolent Mr. Chowdhury. Rather than proving her protector, he shows himself to be the worst sort of villain. He undercharged her in rent in order to have power over her. Hasina does not blame him for the rape; she blames herself. This is what society has drilled into her head—that women are at fault when men treat them cruelly—and now she believes she is on the wrong side of God as well.
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At the same time, Hasina writes that everything that has happened to her up until this point is her fault. She married Malek. She left him. She took a job at the garment factory. She let Abdul walk her home. She lived in Mr. Chowdhury’s apartment without paying.
Hasina is only in this position because her job at the garment factory did not pay enough to cover her rent, and because she did not want to submit to her husband’s beatings.
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Three months pass, and Hasina does not know what to do. She ran away with her husband. Then she ran away from him. She is afraid to run anymore. She knows that Nazneen wants to bring her to London, but she begs her to save her money. She will need it for the new baby coming and for Chanu’s new tutoring business. Hasina often forgets her problems when she compares them to Zainab’s. Zainab’s husband was involved in an accident and, as a result, another man lost use of his limbs. Now that man’s wife is suing Zainab’s husband, but there is no money to give. Hasina suspects Zainab’s son of stealing eggs, but she hasn’t caught him yet. And Mr. Chowdhury comes to her once a week, sometimes twice.
It would seem, at first glance, that fate has it out for Hasina and for her friends as well. Misfortune surrounds her. In reality, though, fate is not dictating the circumstances of her life or those of Zainab and her husband. Rather, it is bad luck and the pitfalls of the capitalist system. Hasina lives in a poor neighborhood in Dhaka where everyone is just one mishap away from disaster.
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It is now February 1992, and Hasina writes happily about having another niece. She tells Nazneen she thinks of her new daughter, Bibi, and Shahana, Nazneen’s oldest, quite often. Meanwhile, Hasina has taken to trying to sell trinkets on the streets, but the police shoo her away. Hussain laughs at her efforts. Doesn’t she realize the street does not belong to her? he says. It’s for rent. Everything is. Hussain is kind to her, and he gives her goat’s milk. Sometimes, at night, he comes to her, and she does not send him away.
Hasina is now living in true poverty, and poverty is a slippery slope because, as Hussain reminds her, everything is for sale, even the street itself. That puts women like Hasina, whose money has run out, at a distinct disadvantage. Without capital, she will simply fall further and further behind.
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In October 1992, Hasina writes a short letter to Nazneen, telling her that Zainab and her family have disappeared. Otherwise, everything else is the same. Hussain and his friend, Ali, give her presents. There is nothing else to tell. She asks Nazneen to pray for her.
The last time Hasina mentioned prayer in her letters was on the occasion of Raqib’s death. It seems clear that Hasina is facing life-and-death circumstances as well.
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Almost a year has passed. It is September 1993, and Hasina apologizes for not writing sooner. She has begun to visit the garment factory, hoping to talk to her old friends. She catches glimpses of Shahnaz, who is now wearing an abundance of cosmetics. A shanty town has formed around the factory. One family lives in a water pipe. Hussain is still “taking care” of Hasina, but that now means that he’s acting as her pimp. He makes sure that she gets a fair price from her johns. He calls the prostitutes in his employ his “floating girls.” If men try to cheat Hasina out of money, he confronts them. His arms might flap but they are strong.
Hasina was called a whore for innocently working alongside men in the garment factory. Then she was called a whore when Shahnaz spread false rumors about her relationships with Mr. Chowdhury and Abdul. Destitute and desperate, she is now working as a prostitute. The inherent hypocrisy of the religious and cultural system she was living under created this future for her. It doomed her from the beginning.
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Hasina’s next letter is dated July 1994. She tells Nazneen she is happy to hear about Chanu’s new job at Leisure Center. She asks if it is a government job. It is the rainy season again and Hasina’s apartment is underwater. Hussain builds her a bed on high stilts so she can stay dry while she works. One of his goats was killed on the railroad tracks and they ate it. They also ate her chickens, which had stopped laying eggs. Hasina thinks often of Rupban and Mumtaz and life in Gouripur. She thinks of the second wife Hamid brought home and how quickly she left. That is the way with men, Hasina writes.
Her apartment flooded, Hasina has no choice but to continue to ply her trade. In that regard, Hussain’s attaching stilts to her bed might be seem like chivalry. It is the lowest form of the virtue, however, and gets at the truth of what Hasina observes about Hamid and his second wife: men are motivated primarily by sex. Once they have had a woman, as Hamid had his second wife, they are more than happy to discard her.
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It is March 1995, and Hasina has received an offer of marriage from Ahmed, an albino man who supervises the night shift at a shoe factory. Ahmed is a serious man. Sometimes he visits with her and he pays full fare, even though all they do is talk. Not that he talks much. He is tall and quiet, and his eyes disconcert Hasina. They remind her of cats’ eyes. She closes her letter hoping Chanu gets better soon and offering Nazneen her home remedy for ulcers.
Hasina should probably take care to heed her own warnings about men’s main motivation in life, but Ahmed seems too sweet and kind to be threatening, and the fact that he wants to marry her rather than just bed her sets him apart from her other clients, as does his disconcerting appearance.
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That same month, Hasina writes again, saying that Ahmed is pressing for marriage. Hussain thinks the match is a good idea. Both Ahmed and Hasina are damaged beyond repair, so they might as well marry. Also, Hussain’s liver is giving out, and he cannot take care of Hasina much longer. She tells Ahmed that she cannot marry him, that she is a low woman, but he does not seem to want to take no for an answer.
As an “impure” woman, Hasina has very few options left. She can marry the freakish Ahmed or try to make a living as a prostitute on her own. Hussain equates Ahmed’s ugliness with Hasina’s lack of virtue. He makes no mention, however, of the fact that Ahmed has been paying a woman for sex.
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Hasina’s next letter is dated April 1995. She gives thanks to God for her newfound happiness. She is married to Ahmed and living in the Ghulsan neighborhood of Dhaka, a definite upgrade from Narayanganj. It is one of the city’s best districts. It has been three weeks since their marriage and Hasina has not left the apartment. During the day, Ahmed follows Hasina’s every move. He is completely devoted to her, she says. When Ahmed is at work, she cleans. Ahmed demands that everything be in the proper order, especially his shoes and laces. Hasina knows how much Nazneen likes leaving her flat, but Hasina loves the new walls that hold her in.
Hasina is, in effect, Ahmed’s live-in maid. She cleans the apartment and straightens Ahmed’s belongings. This is what it means to be a wife. Again, her life mirrors Nazneen’s. Both women are prisoners in their own homes, although Hasina claims that she is a willing participant in her jailing. This is perhaps due to the dire circumstances of her life up to this point. Freedom meant poverty and disaster, while marriage, by comparison, proves much more comfortable.
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It is still April and Ahmed has gone to the bazaar. Hasina goes up on the roof with the other wives. They look down at the street where women are hard at work, tearing it up. The women are terribly thin and are paid only in wheat. Hasina wonders how they can survive that way. She hopes she never becomes one of them. She writes to Nazneen about how she plans to soon visit Ahmed’s home village to meet his father and unmarried brothers. His mother is dead. Hasina hopes Ahmed never finds out about her marriage to Malek. He is a kind and serious man and she enjoys their peaceful life together.
The road workers harken back to the brick breakers Hasina encountered on her way to the garment factory. They are a glimpse into life at the very bottom of Bengali society. Hasina and her fellow wives, from their vantage point on the roof, live in luxury compared to the workers below, but they are there only by the grace of their all-powerful husbands. Women’s position in this society could not be more fragile.
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Hasina asks after Shahana and hopes she is having a good time at school. She reassures Nazneen that it is perfectly normal to cry some as children grow up, but if Nazneen’s friend thinks she should see a doctor, then perhaps that is good advice.
Hasina’s letters provide a snapshot of Nazneen’s life in London. It is clear from this letter that Nazneen is suffering from depression, although neither woman calls it that.
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Hasina’s next letter is dated May 1995. She writes to Nazneen about Ahmed’s appearance, how he recently got a sunburn and he still has blisters on his cheeks and nose. She speculates that one reason he is so serious could be the fact that people stare at him all the time. It has made him quiet and kind. At night, Hasina stays awake and goes to the roof to talk to the wives who are all experts in some area or another. They’re always one-upping each other. One of the wives cannot bear children. Hasina thinks this is her case as well. She has told Ahmed and he has accepted it. Sometimes, Hasina thinks she sees her first husband. Other nights, she is convinced she spies one of her clients from her time as a prostitute. On these nights, she is filled with fear.
Hasina does not mind Ahmed’s ugliness, seeing it as proof of his virtue. Her life continues to parallel Nazneen’s in London. Like her sister, Hasina seems to be joining her building’s small community of women. Her position continues to be precarious, however. Her past haunts her, threatening to shatter her newfound peace.
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It is still May 1995. Hasina’s house is clean, and she wiles away the hours writing to Nazneen. Ahmed, she says, is pleased with her. He finds her cleaning satisfactory. He is happy with the way she keeps the shoe laces orderly. He tells her that when he comes home from work and sees her in his house it is the happiest moment of his life. But later, when he has her sit on the bed and do different things with her hair, he sometimes grows angry because he wants to create a perfect thing and her face has changed. He wants her to change it back. She soothes him, and he is quiet again.
What Ahmed most values in Hasina, it would seem, is her ability to keep a clean house. His need for order borders on a compulsion, and his reverence for her beauty likewise hints at an unsettled mind. In the same way that Chanu is always talking at Nazneen rather than to her, Ahmed is always looking at Hasina rather than seeing her.
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Hasina writes, too, that she isn’t sure what sort of pills Nazneen is taking to cure her sadness, but she hopes they work. She is sure that when Nazneen gets used to Shahana being away at school she will return to her old self.
Hasina is still avoiding the word “depression,” perhaps because neither she nor Hasina is familiar with the concept of clinical depression, and because both women have been taught to leave much about their lives unsaid.
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A month later, Hasina writes of attending Hussain’s funeral. It is a small ceremony with only a few jute cutters. Ahmed is working long hours at the factory. She doesn’t see him often and when she does, he complains about her face being different. She assures him it is the same, but he cannot stay still anymore and ends up going out. Hasina says this is a bad patch in their marriage.
Hasina is a beautiful woman, but Ahmed needs her instead to be perfect, just as he needs his home and collection of shoelaces to be in perfect order. The pressure is immense, and Hasina has no idea how to please him. Her face, she insists, is the same as it ever was.
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The bad patch gets worse. Ahmed is no longer satisfied with Hasina’s housework and he is now claiming that Hasina has put a curse on him. Why else would he have married her? He says he doesn’t know if or when he can introduce her to his family. She tries to tell him that they are only going through a rough spot, but he doesn’t listen.
After Mr. Chowdhury raped her, Hasina thought that she was cursed. Now she is being told that she has the power to curse others. The truth of the matter seems to be that Ahmed is terrified of introducing his prostitute-turned-wife to his family.
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The next letter is dated a year later. Hasina tells Nazneen not to worry. When she has a stable address and a good job, she will write again. Five years later, in January 2001, Hasina writes of those years as ones in which she often only had enough food for a day here and there. She is putting all of that out of her mind now, though, because she has a good job as a maid in a respectable house. The children she is looking after are beautiful. Her employers are good people. She asks Nazneen to write to her soon.
Much has obviously transpired since Hasina’s penultimate letter and this one. She is not married to Ahmed and she spent several years in near starvation. Her life seems to be playing out as a series of self-fulfilling prophecies. She was disparaged as a whore, then became one. Ahmed treated her like his servant, and now she is employed as a maid.
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