Brick Lane by Monica Ali is the story of Nazneen, a young Bangladeshi woman who moves to London following her arranged marriage to a much older man, and her sister, Hasina, whose life in Bangladesh, chronicled in letters to Nazneen, is one of instability, hard work, and heartbreak. In London, Nazneen struggles not only with bouts of crippling homesickness and a longing for her sister but a palpable loss of self. Cut off from family and everything dear and familiar, she lives like a displaced person, unseen and unseeing.
Having grown up in the small rural village of Gouripur where water buffalo and mynah birds were a regular part of daily life, Nazneen’s new reality in London in the low-income Tower Hamlets housing project is, at first, one of urban ugliness, isolation, and alienation. Even more than her home village’s natural beauty, Nazneen misses her deceased mother, Rupban, a saintly, long-suffering woman whom Nazneen idolized as a girl for her piety and patience. It was Rupban who taught Nazneen to trust everything to God and fate and to never act out of her own desires, all contributing factors to Nazneen’s decision to accept the marriage her father arranged for her to Chanu, an amateur academic Nazneen considers to be old, unattractive, and bumbling.
In the early days of her marriage, Nazneen spends much of her time watching a neighbor she refers to simply as “the tattoo woman” drink beer. Nazneen invents a friendship with the woman, fantasizing about sitting down to tea with her and talking about their days. White, fat, and later institutionalized when she is found wallowing in her own filth, the tattoo woman symbolizes the depth of Nazneen’s disconnection from her home and culture. When Nazneen begins to venture out of her apartment, she finds the city streets a maze of unfriendliness and teeming traffic. She watches the white faces of businessmen and the white legs of business women flash by her, and, sensing their judgement of her for being a confused woman in a sari, clearly lost and out of place, she “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.” Her self-awareness is short-lived. White disregard erases her, and Nazneen exists mostly as an extension of her husband and, later, as a mother to her children.
The self she constructs as a wife is on shaky ground from the start. Her marriage to Chanu is, in its initial stages, characterized by indifference and mild disgust. Their connection is almost nonexistent. He talks at her rather than to her, preferring to pontificate about Bangladesh’s bloody and tragic history under British colonial rule than hear what his wife has to say. Nazneen hints that, like her friend, Razia, she would like to learn English, but Chanu sees no reason for her to do so, thereby limiting her ability to set down roots in her new home.
When Nazneen becomes a mother to Raqib, an alert and beautiful little boy, she sets aside her own discontentment and anxieties and vows to devote herself to him. When, at one year old, he dies of a fever, Nazneen is again set adrift from herself. She had put all of her energy into nurturing her son. Her future is now a blank. The blank is filled for a time by her daughters, Shahana and Bibi, but as much as Nazneen cares for them, she worries she doesn’t love them as much as she did Raqib, and her energy is drained by futile and exhausting efforts to keep the peace in the house, where fights are always erupting.
When Nazneen falls in love with Kamir, she admires how the young activist appears to her to be completely secure in his place in the world, and she finds his political passion and seemingly endless energy for pursuing social justice irresistible. She starts attending the meetings of his pro-Islamic youth group, the Bengal Tigers, and it would appear that she might find herself in the love and education Karim offers her. It is, of course, not that simple, and with so many people pulling her in different directions, Nazneen suffers a nervous breakdown. She has given herself away to her husband, her children, and her lover. There is nothing left over for herself.
It is only when Hasina writes to tell Nazneen that their mother did not die accidentally as they’d always been led to believe but, instead, committed suicide—the ultimate sin against the God Rupban always claimed to hold above all else—that Nazneen truly begins to inhabit herself fully. The news releases Nazneen from the burden of trusting in God and fate to determine her future, since Rupban obviously defied her own belief system and took decisive action, rather than waiting for Fate to determine when and how she would die. Rupban’s action was self-annihilating. Nazneen’s, in contrast, is self-affirming. She finds the courage to trust herself, telling Karim she will not marry him and Chanu that, when he goes back to Bangladesh, he will have to go alone.
Nazneen’s identity in Gouripur is determined by the beauty and wildness of the landscape, her close bond with Hasina, and her mother’s morbid religiosity. When she relocates to London, she loses that self and must build another. This proves a difficult task because, in London, she is made invisible by her own outsider status. She wears the wrong clothes, doesn’t know the language, and suffers from acute homesickness. Also, her identities as wife, mother, and lover all fail her at different times. Nazneen’s transformation from submissive wife to independent woman is made that much harder by the fact that she is living in an unfamiliar place where both the customs and the very terrain is foreign and disorienting.
Displacement and Dissociation ThemeTracker
Displacement and Dissociation 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—”
“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.”
For years she had felt she must not relax. If she relaxed, things would fall apart. Only the constant vigilance and planning, the low-level, unremarked and unrewarded activity of a woman, kept the household from crumbling.
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.
What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life. It was mantra, fettle, and challenge. So that, at the age of thirty-four, after she had been given three children and had one taken away, when she had a futile husband and had been fated a young and demanding lover, when for the first time she could not wait for the future to be revealed but had to make it for herself, she was as startled by her own agency as an infant who waves a clenched fist and strikes itself upon the eye.
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.”
“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.”