As Bangladeshis living in London, Nazneen, Chanu, and their Tower Hamlets neighbors share in common the seemingly impossible task of faithfully upholding the cultural and religious traditions of their homeland while trying to make lives for themselves and their families in a country that either does not see them or views their Islamic values as a threat to their Christian ones. Chanu refers to this fraught and tension-filled situation as “the tragedy of the immigrant.” There is, of course, the language barrier to overcome in the struggles to feel truly at home in England, but even more insurmountable obstacles loom as well. One such impediment is the racist attitudes of many of London’s “native” inhabitants. Another is the Bangladeshis’ strong attachment to, and sometimes romanticized views of, home, which divides the older generation from the new. A third is humanity’s tendency toward in-fighting and the prioritizing of petty cares over larger issues of social justice and effecting real and lasting change.
With a degree in English literature from Dhaka University, it would seem that Chanu would be able to find a prestigious job without much trouble. Having arrived in England dreaming of being a civil servant or even an under-secretary to the Prime Minister, he instead works as a low-level functionary in a local council office and is always being passed over for promotion. His white male co-workers, on the other hand, climb the ladder quickly. It’s men like Wilkie, Chanu’s white workplace nemesis, who are always in the boss’s favor. Later, Chanu works as a cab driver. While a great number of Chanu’s professional failures can be chalked up to his own haplessness, his status as an immigrant is very much at play in his struggles to advance.
Chanu is obsessed with Bangladesh’s history as a British colony. Because he is always pontificating about something, it would be easy to write off his ramblings, but in fact the history and socio-economic lessons he imparts to Nazneen and his daughters contain some very real and illuminating truths. For a period of roughly 200 years, the British subjected native Bengalis to systemic and arbitrary cruelty, plundering the country’s natural and industrial resources in order to enrich themselves. The result, Chanu theorizes, is that white Englishmen and women grew up thinking themselves both entitled to what rightfully belonged to the Bengalis and automatically superior to them. In Chanu’s words, “It is the white underclass, like Wilkie, who are most afraid of people like me. To him, and people like him, we are the only thing standing in the way of them sliding totally to the bottom of the pile. As long as we are below them, then they are above something. If they see us rise then they are resentful because we have left our proper place.”
Chanu finds even more evidence for his theory in the anti-Islamic hate spewed regularly by an area white gang, the Lion Hearts. When the Lion Hearts begin distributing anti-Muslim flyers in and around Tower Hamlets estate, Chanu feels vindicated in his sense of history and racial warfare. The pamphlets suggest that, far from being a religion of peace, Islam advocates violence and flies in the face of everything British culture stands for. Of course, in Chanu’s mind, England has no culture beyond beer and cricket (and colonialism).
Chanu wants very much to give his daughters the gift of national pride. He tries to introduce them to Bangladesh’s cultural and artistic leaders as well as its illustrious past as a textile giant. Bibi, his youngest daughter, listens to him with the rapt attention of a born people-pleaser, but it’s Shahana, his oldest, who he hopes to influence, and who is stubbornly pro-West. She doesn’t want to learn about Bengali poets and singers; she listens to American pop; she prefers baked beans and ketchup to Bengali cuisine; and she hates the idea, floated often by Chanu when he is at his most discouraged with work and England’s racial politics, of going home to Dhaka.
Other Tower Hamlets parents struggle to bridge the gap between what they expect from their children as Bengalis, and what their children, as English citizens, want from the world. Razia, short of money after the death of her husband, doesn’t know how she is going to keep her children in the five-pound notes they are always begging for. They lust after computers and textbooks and pretty clothes. Later, like many other young people on the housing estate, Razia’s son, Tariq, succumbs to heroin addiction. Razia is then in the unenviable position of trying to cure her son of his dependency. It’s a problem many immigrant parents never thought they would face, but, as immigrant children embrace more and more the appetites of the West, they are bound to fall prey to Western vices as well.
As difficult as it is for her as a mother to watch her children growing away from her, Razia is in a unique position to know just how delusional some of Chanu’s perceptions of Bangladesh’s endless promise really are. Prior to his death, Razia’s husband beat her and sent all of his money home to an Imam, whose belief system Razia found largely repugnant. She is a pragmatist and a realist. When the factory she’s been sewing for shuts down and her son pawns all her furniture to pay for his heroin habit, she starts her own seamstress business and locks Tariq in his room until his addiction subsides. She understands, as Chanu cannot, that Bangladesh can offer her and her children a flawed future at best. The future they need is the one she can provide for them through hard work and perseverance.
To save their children from the horror of drug addiction and the pitfalls of a possible love marriage, many Tower Hamlets parents, including Jorina, send their children home to Bangladesh, only to find in short order that the children have gotten into more trouble at home than they might have in England under the watchful eye of their mother and father. The folly, Ali suggests, lies not necessarily with Western culture and naïve ideas about romance, but in thinking one can shelter one’s children from pain.
In the early days of Nazneen’s affair with Karim, he founds the Bengal Tigers. It would seem that, in their passion and commitment to equal rights, the Tigers could be at least one answer to the loneliness and anger many immigrant youth and even their parents feel when faced with life in a country that often rejects them out-of-hand. Over time, though, the Tigers unravel, giving in to petty bureaucracy, feuds, and even senseless violence. The group’s meetings almost always descend into mildly humorous chaos, with various camps vying for the floor, and, after Shahana runs away to escape the possibility of being dragged home to Dhaka, Nazneen becomes an unwitting witness to a fire fight that has erupted on Brick Lane between warring factions of the Bengal Tigers. Rather than turning their attentions to the plight of Muslims dying in U.S. occupations and bombing campaigns, they are shooting at, and fighting among, themselves. Karim is disgusted and Nazneen disappointed, but neither is terribly surprised. A group that began in idealism ends in overturned cars and pointless displays of might.
Chanu arrived in London with unrealistic and outsized hopes. Those hopes are then chipped away, day by day, year by tedious year, usually courtesy of the relentless and soul-crushing forces of systemic racism. Chanu, introspective and full of regret, tells Shahana that his life in England is analogous to waiting forever for a bus to arrive, only to realize it’s already full and going in the wrong direction. For her part, Nazneen, like many of her fellow Tower Hamlets parents, is torn. She wishes Shahana would show her father the respect and love he so desperately craves, but she’d also like her daughters to be given chances she never had. Chanu only wants to escape into the past because his present and future seem to him so bleak. The Bengal Tigers, meanwhile, instead of presenting a solution to the problems of immigrant fury and displacement, are a cautionary tale of what happens when tribalism and tunnel vision trump cause. Razia is, as usual, the voice of reason in this debate, revealing in her own practical approach to her very real problems that immigrant life need not be a tragedy. It is, instead, a marathon juggling act involving patience, compromise, grit, and a willingness to reinvent oneself over and over, for as long as it takes.
Assimilation and Immigrant Life ThemeTracker
Assimilation and Immigrant Life Quotes in Brick Lane
“You see,” he said, a frequent opener although often she did not see, “it is the white underclass, like Wilkie, who are most afraid of people like me. To him, and people like him, we are the only thing standing in the way of them sliding totally to the bottom of the pile. As long as we are below them, then they are above something. If they see us rise then they are resentful because we have left our proper place.”
Nazneen, hobbling and halting, began to be aware of herself. Without a coat, without a suit, without a white face, without a destination. A leafshake of fear—or was it excitement?—passed through her legs. But they were not aware of her. In the next instant she knew it. They could not see her any more than she could see God. They knew that she existed (just as she knew that He existed) but unless she did something, waved a gun, halted the traffic, they would not see her. She enjoyed this thought.
You can spread your soul over a paddy field, you can whisper to a mango tree, you can feel the earth beneath your toes and know that this is the place, the place where it begins and ends. But what can you tell to a pile of bricks? The bricks will not be moved.
“I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family. I’m talking—”
Sinking, sinking, drinking water. When everyone in the village was fasting a long month, when not a grain, not a drop of water passed between the parched lips of any able-bodied man, woman, or child over ten, when the sun was hotter than the cooking pot and dusk was just a febrile wish, the hypocrite went down to the pond to duck his head, to dive and sink, to drink and sink a little lower.
“I don't know, Shahana. Sometimes I look back and I am shocked. Every day of my life I have prepared for success, worked for it, waited for it, and you don't notice how the days pass until nearly a lifetime has finished. Then it hits you—the thing you have been waiting for has already gone by. And it was going in the other direction. It's like I've been waiting on the wrong side of the road for a bus that was already full.”
Fly way and find some water I tell him. But he do not fly just sit there never stretch the wing and call like as if all his brothers better join there on roof where he find some secret like paradise.
How had she made him? She did not know. She had patched him together, working in the dark. She had made a quilt out of pieces of silk, scraps of velvet, and now that she held it up to the light the stitches showed up large and crude, and they cut across everything.
Jorina said, “But that is our problem—making lives for our children. They want to make them for themselves.”
“Yes,” said Razia. “They will do that. Even if it kills them.”
Silent. Nazneen fell asleep on the sofa. She looked out across jade green
rice fields and swam in the cool dark lake. She walked arm-in-arm to school with Hasina and skipped part of the way and fell and they dusted their knees with their hands. And the mynah birds called from the trees, and the goats fretted by, and the big, sad water buffaloes passed like a funeral. And heaven, which was above, was wide and empty and the land stretched out ahead and she could see to the very end of it, where the earth smudged the sky in a dark blue line.
“What’s more, she is a good worker. Cleaning and cooking and all that. The only complaint I could make is she can’t put my files in order, because she has no English. I don't complain, though. As I say, a girl from the village: totally unspoilt.”
“And when they jump ship and scuttle over here, then in a sense they are home again. And you see, to a white person, we are all the same: dirty little monkeys all in the same monkey clan. But these people are peasants. Uneducated. Illiterate. Close-minded. Without ambition.” He sat back and
stroked his belly. “I don’t look down on them, but what can you do? If a man has only ever driven a rickshaw and never in his life held a book in his hand, then what can you expect from him?”
“Mixing with all sorts: Turkish, English, Jewish. All sorts. I am not old-fashioned,” said Mrs. Islam. “I don't wear burkha. I keep purdah in my mind, which is the most important thing. Plus, I have cardigans and anoraks and a scarf for my head. But if you mix with all these people, even if they are good people, you have to give up your culture to accept theirs. That’s how it is.”