Nazneen is born two months early and is thought dead by her mother Rupban, her aunt Mumtaz, and the village mid-wife, Banesa. Then, when it is clear that she is actually alive, Banesa announces that she has been called back to earth by God. Banesa tells Rupban that she has two choices: she can take her daughter to the city hospital where she will be hooked up to machines and treated with pills, or she can leave her to her fate. Rupban settles on the latter, and Nazneen’s future as a submissive, gullible girl seems likewise sealed. But Ali shows that what characters often mistake for fate is more often than not a matter of luck or a consequence of class. Unhappiness, loss, and sorrow come to everyone, as do moments of grace and joy. That does not mean an all-knowing God is pulling the strings. Furthermore, the same system that holds women back from achieving their true potential likewise strips the poor of the opportunities they need to change their fortunes. Those born wealthy continue to prosper, while children conceived in poverty are always just one step away from disaster.
Believing in the all-powerful force of fate allows first Rupban and then Nazneen to avoid taking any action to determine the course of their lives. In Rupban’s case, such fatalism leads to the kind of black despair that can only be dispelled through suicide, and in Nazneen’s, an anxiety-inducing cycle of self-blame and recrimination that likewise nearly deprives her of her will to live.
Rupban’s justification for surrendering her newborn to the whims of fate is that to challenge such a powerful force is to try to play God, and to set oneself up for failure. Rupban believes it was her willingness to hand her child’s life over to God that made Nazneen strong enough to face the world. Nazneen grows up devout and unquestioning, trusting implicitly her mother’s versions of events. She, too, gives everything to God, assuming that she will then reap her destined portion of earthly joy and sadness.
Rupban, often referred to as a saint by her beleaguered and philandering husband, Hamid, spends Nazneen and Hasina’s childhood crying and telling everyone who will listen that she was born to suffer. She claims that her life is a veil of tears because God wants her to weep. Not once does she blame Hamid for her suffering or take any responsibility upon herself to act to change her situation. Instead, she remains impotently depressed, insisting sadness is simply her lot in life. When she does finally take action, it is destructive and nihilistic, an action that renders further action moot.
Nazneen defies her mother’s fate decree when her own son Raqib gets sick. She and Chanu rush Raqib to a London hospital, and Nazneen remains by his bedside day after day, night after night, praying for his recovery, fighting, if only in her mind, for his life. When he appears to recover, Nazneen is filled with contempt for her mother’s passivity. She wonders how Rupban could have possibly thrown her child to the vagaries of fate when she could have had access to modern medicine. But when Raqib dies, Nazneen is again plagued by uncertainty. Perhaps, she thinks, she should not have stood in the way of his fate. The ghost of Rupban appears to her and accuses her of causing her son’s death by interfering in God’s plan, and Nazneen’s guilt burden, already substantial thanks to her affair with Karim, is unnecessarily and unproductively redoubled.
Hasina, too, suffers under the delusion that God is punishing her for imaginary wrongs. In reality, she is a victim of circumstance and a hardened class system designed to reward the prosperous. At first glance, Hasina would seem to be her sister’s opposite, her foil. Born beautiful and stubborn, she is as strong-willed as her sister is timid. Rather than submit to an arranged marriage, she runs off at sixteen to marry Malek, the nephew of the village sawmill owner, and the love marriage is blissfully happy for a short time. Also unlike Nazneen, Hasina remains in the country of her birth, tied tightly to Bangladesh and its traditions. One of those traditions, unfortunately, is ensuring that the wealthy get richer on the backs of the poor.
Hasina is overjoyed when Mr. Chowdhury finds her a job as a sewing woman at the garment factory, but despite the grueling nature of the job, she rarely makes enough money to pay her rent. Mr. Chowdhury, whom Hasina looks up to as a second father, takes pity on her and rarely collects the full rent he is entitled to. This arrangement leaves Hasina, a young woman living on her own, in a vulnerable spot. Rumors begin circulating at the garment factory that she is sleeping with Mr. Chowdhury in return for cheap rent. Hasina, in poverty partially because she dared to leave an abusive husband, is fired from her job. Then Mr. Chowdhury rapes her, and Hasina is filled with shame. Her low wages are to blame for the dire circumstances she finds herself in, but Hasina doesn’t see this. She blames herself and assumes that God is punishing her for being weak and immoral.
After several bleak and desperate years of near starvation, Hasina finally finds work as a house maid for the wealthy couple Lovely and James, she settles in to the comfortable lifestyle their well-appointed home affords. She pampers the children in her charge and, having lived on the street suffering from hunger and illness, enjoys being clean and well-fed for once. All the luxury around her belongs to someone else, though.
Lovely, whom Hasina looks up to at first, turns out to be petty, shallow, and vindictive. Lovely sees the poor as unattractive and off-putting inconveniences, and she is not alone in this view. Her husband James, who is a powerful businessman specializing in plastics, and their circle of wealthy friends enjoy all the benefits of a power structure biased in their favor, blaming the less fortunate for their own plight. Hasina does not openly dispute their worldview. She needs the job, and so humors and flatters Lovely and bows and scrapes in the presence of James.
Renu, a friend of Hasina’s at the garment factory, is more proof of the insidiousness of poverty and the fixed nature of the Bengali class system. Like Monju, she is an extreme though not rare example of how one can be doomed from the start to a life of want through no fault of one’s own. Renu is born destitute and widowed at age fifteen. As a result, she has had to perform back-breaking work since she was a young girl. Now old and nearly toothless, Renu will never see her financial situation improve. She will always slave away for little to no money. Fate, though, has not determined this; humans, in their endless selfishness and greed, have.
Nazneen and Hasina are not victims of Fate or God’s holy wrath. Rather, they suffer the same random setbacks and successes as everyone else, finding, in the end, the strength to set aside the often-damaging mythology of their youth and finally live as free and independent women. For Nazneen, that means no longer trusting her life to mysterious forces beyond her control, and for Hasina, rejecting the notion that any suffering she experiences is the result of God’s punishing her for her so-called sins.
Luck, Class, and Fate ThemeTracker
Luck, Class, and Fate 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.”
“If you think you are powerless, then you are. Everything is within you, where God put it. If your husband does not do what is required, think what you yourself have left undone.”
Nazneen listened, breathing quietly and hoping that if they forgot about her they might reveal the source of their woes. It was something to do with being a woman, of that much she was sure. When she was a woman she would find out. She looked forward to that day. She longed to be enriched by this hardship, to cast off her childish baggy pants and long shirt and begin to wear this suffering that was as rich and layered and deeply colored as the saris that enfolded Amma's troubled bones.
This is what happen and afterward I cry. All the time I thinking my life cursed. God have given me life but he has curse it. He put rocks in my path thorns under feet snakes overhead. Which way I turn any way it is dark. He never light it. If I drink water it turn to mud eat food it poison me. I stretch out my hand it burn and by my side it wither. This is what he plan for me.
It was, Nazneen realized, more complicated than that. Even if Karim was her future, and could not be avoided, there were problems. Happiness, for instance. That would count against her. Because fate must be met with indifference. For the benefit of her angels, she said, “Whichever way, it does not matter.”
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.
“No,” she said, “we must not stand in the way of Fate. Whatever happens, I accept it. And my child must not waste any energy fighting against Fate. That way, she will be stronger.”
“A girl,” said Rupban.
“I know. Never mind,” said Hamid. “What can you do?” And he went away again.
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.
“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?”