Come hungry, leave edgy
- Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Doubleday, 413 pp, £12.99, June 2003, ISBN 0 385 60484 X
Brick Lane used to be the home of the dead. For centuries it was part of a Roman burial ground, an unclean extremity lying beyond the walls of the City of London. In 1603, a quarter of a century after bricks began to be manufactured here, John Stow described its buildings as ‘filthy cottages’. Since then, the area, whether one calls it Spitalfields, Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets, Banglatown, has been a byword for poverty and violence. ‘A land of blood and beer,’ a rector of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church once called it.
It has also been a home for those who have been pushed out of their homes. As early as 1736 there were anti-Irish riots, fuelled by the resentment of local workmen who believed that Irish builders were undercutting them. Huguenot refugees, many of them silk weavers, had been arriving there since the start of the 18th century to escape French persecution. And in 1882, following the pogroms in Russia, East European Jews began to settle in the area and to make what was already a ghetto their own. Some saw East London as a mere interlude, a brief stopping-off point on the way to North London or even their intended New Jerusalem: Manhattan. Like immigrants before and after them, they were not at all sentimental about the area, or at least not until decades after they had abandoned it. Politicians and commentators saw them as hostile strangers. ‘They never assimilate our habits or become Englishmen,’ the Reverend G.S. Reaney claimed in 1893. ‘As they come, so they remain – aliens, children of another race, amongst us, yet not of us. And the East End produces no type of man or woman so unfit, un-English, and morally and personally so alien as the pauper immigrant.’
Bengali immigrants are thought of as the most impoverished and the most recent arrivals in the East End. In fact, they have been coming here for over two hundred years. Throughout the 19th century a steady trickle of lascars – sailors from Africa, China and the Malay archipelago who manned British trading vessels – had been jumping ship as soon as they docked in London. Many were Bengali. Ragged and penniless, they congregated in Shadwell, ‘Tiger Bay’ or ‘The Black Hole of East London’ to the Victorian press, and were the subject of exposés by urban missionaries who described how they slept, on occasion as many as fifty of them at a time, on the floors of damp and freezing tar-boiling sheds in the middle of winter.
By 1940 lascars made up more than a quarter of the Merchant Navy. A large proportion of them came from the Sylhet area of what is now Bangladesh. They had the lowliest jobs. They were engine-room hands: bunkermen who stuffed coal into the boilers; donkeywallahs who tended the donkey engines; they greased the machinery and riddled the furnaces. During World War Two, when ships carrying tea and jute to the UK were torpedoed, they were the seamen least likely to survive. Thousands burned to death, trapped below deck.
Yet their lives at sea were by no means awful. They went to many countries, in East Asia, the Middle East, even South America, and they got to know some of the women who lived in those countries. Boredom bred a desire for a bacchanal, and the Sylhetis were just as motley and secular as their fellow mariners, not just Hindus and Sikhs, but those from other nations. They learned to be knowing, resourceful, a bit rough round the edges, characteristics which would go on to define the kinds of Bengali they were when they later moved to the East End.
Those who were bewildered by the teeming life in Whitechapel devised methods of finding their way around. They placed bricks along the pavements to mark their routes through the maze of alleys and back streets around Brick Lane. They created codes for identifying the buses to the West End: the No. 8 was ‘two eggs’, the No. 22 ‘two hooks’. Solidarity was crucial: these Bengalis had all ducked the watchmen at Tilbury and made their way to Aldgate in breach of their contracts with the shipping companies. When one of them, as early as 1925, asked a policeman where all the Indians lived, he was told: ‘I don’t know, you’d better go on till you smell curry.’[*]
Some worked as assistants to Jewish tailors or in the boiler-rooms of hotels. Others made use of the cooking skills they had been forced to acquire while at sea and found work as cooks and kitchen porters in the Indian restaurants that were starting to open up not just in the East End, but around Soho and Tottenham Court Road in Central London. Bengalis who weren’t lucky enough to get such stable jobs led itinerant lives. They became fortune-tellers, toffee-sellers, purveyors of almost fragrant ‘Oriental’ perfumes, black marketeers flogging knock-off nylons and ration coupons they’d bought from lascar contacts, pedlars who moved around the country selling fabrics. They also became street-sharp, familiar with the backs of lorries, skilful at charming strangers, housewives – anybody with whom they thought they could come to an arrangement. Many married white girls, even though they might already have young brides back home in Mirpur. They drank, ate meat that wasn’t halal, and only rarely went to the East London Mosque on Commercial Road, which had been established in 1941. They were living in that tough but liberating prelude to mass immigration from the Subcontinent, which would codify who or what was an Asian. These Bengalis were more East End wideboy or chancer than they were ‘Muslim’ or ‘first-generation Briton’.
As often as not, they lived below Whitechapel Road, around Cable Street. Before 1963 when the Graces’ Alley Compulsory Purchase Order brought about the demolition of its run-down, bomb-scarred housing, this was the seamen’s district. Arab, Ghanaian, Nigerian and Maltese racketeers ran most of the cafés in the strip from Leman Street to Cannon Street Road, all-night clubs with noisy jukeboxes, packed with Irish or Welsh prostitutes, many of whom died young as a result of illegal abortions or drug-related illnesses. These pimps and bullies, some of them Bengali like their customers, anticipated the criminal behaviour that community spokesmen claim is only a recent phenomenon, a response to deprivation or racism.
Following the demolition, there was a gradual migration north to the Commercial Road area and, by the middle of the 1960s, many Bengalis were settling around Brick Lane. They flew from Dhaka, the ‘Manchester of India’, and arrived in Spitalfields only to find that the tailoring and dress trade had collapsed. Unionised factories had closed. Had they settled in Oldham or Birmingham they would have found working mills and foundries. They would have been able to hunker down, graft, get a mortgage for a two-bedroom terraced house, all the constitutive elements of what used to pass for the Asian good life.
Instead, they worked in tiny sweatshops in the basements and attics on Brick Lane and the streets that ran off it. Here, sometimes in the same buildings where centuries earlier Huguenot immigrants had woven silk on their looms, they sat for long hours in badly heated, poorly lit workshops, many of them run by Pakistani middlemen who acted as buffers between the high street stores and the garment workers who stitched their seasonal lines. Cutting, trimming, finishing, pressing: it was taxing work, though not for the bosses who upped and relocated their operations to other sites nearby in order to escape the clutches of the VAT man.
With recession, even these jobs became scarce. Garment manufacturing was outsourced to home-workers, many of them women, who were invisible to trade-union officials seeking to root out exploitation. Bengali men toiled away as cooks, waiters and mechanics. They were poorly educated and spoke little English, making them easy prey for those unscrupulous compatriots who seized control of some of the squats that proliferated in Whitechapel in the 1970s, did them up, and sold them to their fellow Sylhetis even though they had no legal claim to the properties.
By 1970 Brick Lane, and many of the streets around it, had become predominantly Bengali. Jewish bakeries had been turned into curry houses, jewellery shops into sari stores, synagogues into dress factories; in 1976 the synagogue on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane (formerly a Huguenot church, then a Methodist chapel) became the Jamme Masjid Mosque. But it was still a bleak, rundown area, so blighted that it formed the basis for many of the dire, apocalyptic landscapes that crop up in Dirty Words Pictures, local residents Gilbert and George’s show from 1977. The Neo-Geo revival that saw middle-class professionals move into Princelet Street and Elder Street had still to kick off. The cafés weren’t yet geared to City workers.
In 1970 there was also a huge rise in the number of attacks on Bangladeshis. Seventy years earlier, Arnold White, in whose book Reaney’s anti-semitic comments appeared, had teamed up with Major Evans Gordon, the MP for Stepney and founder of the British Brothers’ League, in a campaign to restrict Jewish immigration. Successfully so: in 1905 the Government passed the first Aliens Act. Forty years after Mosley’s efforts to stir up racial tension in the area, skinhead gangs began to stalk Brick Lane, smashing windows, spitting at children, carving up the faces and backs of bystanders. At the north end, near the traditionally less tolerant area of Bethnal Green, National Front members sold their papers on market days and congregated at a pub in Cheshire Street. Soon Bengali schoolchildren were being allowed out of school early, their mothers walking to work in numbers for fear of being ambushed or pelted, and parents imposing curfews on their kids. Tower Hamlets fitted council tenants with fire-proof letterboxes.
Local residents raged hard, forming action committees and youth fronts, but conditions, if anything, became even worse in the course of the decade. In September 1978, just a few months after Margaret Thatcher claimed to understand why English men and women might feel their country was being ‘swamped’ by Commonwealth immigrants, the National Front moved its central offices from Teddington in West London to Great Eastern Street, a few minutes’ walk from Brick Lane. Their intention was to provoke more trouble following an incident four months earlier in which Altab Ali, a young clothing worker from Wapping, had been set upon and murdered by three men in nearby Adler Street. A photograph from the period shows a swastika scrawled on a wall above the message ‘We’re back.’
Today a park on Whitechapel Road is named after Altab Ali. It’s a prime site for a rally. Earlier this year it was packed with teenage Muslim girls who had skived off school to shout obscenities about Blair’s decision to go to war. In May 1978 it was the assembly point for the seven thousand Bangladeshis who marched behind Ali’s coffin to Downing Street. Young people in the area were beginning to distance themselves from their parents, whom they had come to see as passive. Their mothers were even said to suffer from a medical condition – Begum Syndrome – which caused them to visit the doctor complaining of ‘burning in my head’, ‘wind in my heart’, ‘heat in my head’, ‘life pressure’. Researchers concluded that all the talk of beesh – ‘pain’ – was a form of somatisation, an internalisation of the women’s depleted resources and cramped dwellings.
Younger Bangladeshis’ response to those conditions was to spend more time outside their council flats. They joined gangs and hung around on estates, developing a sense of territory. The hostility and social deprivation they faced – two more young men, Quddus Ali and Muktar Ahmed, were violently attacked in the early 1990s, and in 1993 a BNP councillor was elected in the Isle of Dogs – meant they didn’t feel as if they were ‘British Asians’, an identity they associated with Hindus and Sikhs, who were beginning to be seen as success stories, model minorities. Instead, some, though by no means as many as press coverage suggested, turned to religion. Fanned by local mullahs and maulvis, their anger (over The Satanic Verses, the 1991 Gulf War), mirroring the rise of fundamentalism in Bangladesh itself, turned them into more ardent Muslims than their parents had ever been, a point made very well by Hanif Kureishi in The Black Album.
Crisis and conflict are never far from the surface of life in Whitechapel. It’s a cruel place, today no less than it was two hundred years ago. With the narrowness of the streets, the crowded estates and the thinness of residents’ walls, it is hard to insulate yourself from the dramas and catastrophes of the people who live near you. New sounds don’t just leak out. Some amped-up desi beats CD that a carload of teenagers are nodding their heads to, the cries of a dosser who has been set on by a gang on an idle summer’s day, a heated argument at an intersection between a Turkish and a Somali driver, a police helicopter roaring overhead in the middle of the night – everything rears up and assaults your ears, forcing you to learn about the neighbourhood and deal with newness in a way that is utterly unfamiliar to Asians who grow up in more sedate, affluent areas. In Whitechapel, social knowledge is not picked up in slow accretions: it is as hectic and swarming as Brick Lane Market on a Sunday morning. (The last time I was there, I saw an elderly man, his face seemingly half-gnawed away by rats, sitting by a wall desultorily encouraging passers-by to bid for the one item he had for sale – a single, dirty sock. ‘Go on, name your price.’)
This is meant to be a gilded age for Brick Lane. Young Bangladeshis have driven away the packs of racists who even in the middle of the 1990s would head there to provoke and maraud. Now all of its four parts are safe for non-whites: the patch nearest to Whitechapel Road which begins at the Archers (pub slogan: ‘No strangers here, only friends we’ve yet to meet’); the stretch of curry houses, all of them ropey, that cater to tourists and outsiders; the Truman Brewery buildings, now home to the Vibe Bar and 93 Feet East, clubs rammed full of purposefully-distressed-looking twentysomethings with asymmetrical haircuts toying with the idea of dancing; and what used to be the no-go area by Bethnal Green Road. The prostitutes that plied for business in the Seven Stars pub and on the street itself have moved to the side-roads, where they offer bargain-basement rates to feed their crack habits.
Once a remote, tubercular outpost, Brick Lane is one of the few notionally central places in the capital still home to a sizeable non-white population. Maybe that’s why it has become a heritage trail stop-off for inquisitive tourists whose outsize coaches jam the narrow road, to the dismay of local restaurateurs who shout abuse at the people coming to peer at them. At street corners young architects lecture their students about new urbanisms. Curry festivals and street parties abound, patronised by Mayor Livingstone and progressive politicians, who have their photos taken beneath bunting sponsored by Kingfisher, an ‘Indian’ lager brewed under licence by Shepherd Neame at Faversham. In April 2002 the ward was officially designated Spitalfields/Banglatown; lamp-posts have been painted red and green for the national flag; street names are also written in Bengali, though that’s of no use to those locals who speak only Sylheti. Brick Lane has even given its name to a restaurant in the ‘Little India’ stretch of Manhattan’s East Village, as well as a road in Dhaka.
Ethnicity here has become a come-on, an opportunity for real-estate speculators to follow the mullets and make a killing catering to the area’s latest flotsam and jetsam: students, designers, new media artists, sojourners from Hoxton and Shoreditch seeking the messiness that existing residents would love to escape (‘Arrive Hungry, Leave Edgy’ reads a sign in the window of one hipster café). For them it’s a place to be seen in as much as to live in. They’re looking for ‘spaces’ rather than homes. They pay for 12p bagels with £20 notes and are nowhere to be found at bank holidays or Christmas.
Now even they are being priced out. The Canary Wharf-servicing East London Line has a stop on Brick Lane itself: another incentive for open-minded financiers and analysts to buy second homes in the area, often in gated communities, and to attend the Bloomberg private functions and corporate parties held at the Brewery. The street, book-ended with a huge arch as if it were a play set, makes a perfect backdrop for films: period pieces – all gaslight and starchy crinolines – along that mausoleum to ancient Spitalfields, Princelet Street; well-meaning documentaries about the search for faded Jewry; a thousand gangland dramas, the disastrous spawn of Guy Ritchie. Thanks to all this, would-be prayer-goers are held up while a spivved-up Nick Moran yells ‘slag’ at some monkey-faced tough before revving off towards the gleaming corporations and erotic gherkins nearer Bishopsgate.
Brick Lane has always been a holding area, a temporary interzone for immigrants who have not yet fully settled in England; whose lives are defined by the past – their own or that of their parents – but who wish to seize the future; who wish to become consumers rather than hunch-backed toilers. It’s a slow and incomplete journey as far as many Bangladeshis are concerned. The canny ones, those with contacts or who strike lucky with property or businesses, move away, following the Central Line artery out to upscale areas such as Woodford and Loughton. The others aren’t going anywhere fast, no matter how gentrified the area.
Tower Hamlets, according to its MP, Oona King, is the nation’s heroin capital. More long-term unemployed people live here than in any other borough, and many of them are young Bangladeshi men. These guys are Cockneys by geography and in self-image too. Walls and bus shelters are daubed with gang names – the Brick Lane Massive, Cannon Street Posse, Stepney Green Posse and the Shadwell Crew – that recall how, long before the Krays and the Richardsons, long before Jewish boxers like Jackie Berg and Battling Levinsky duked it out against all comers, knowing how to handle yourself has always been a prized asset in the East End.
These Bangladeshi teenagers aren’t afraid to show out. Pencil-thin, their hair whippet-cropped or drenched in product – facial hair immaculately coiffeured too – they cut a swathe through the area, chatting into mobiles, sporting the loudest, proudest labels (Moschino, Ted Baker, Versace) and munching fries from the Halal chip shop. The tightness of their tapered trousers and their designer rollnecks make them look like 1960s mods, and distinguish them not only from the flapping flares their fathers wore twenty years earlier, but from the baggy slackness of those Asian media professionals who are gradually moving into the area with their white partners. They pimp-roll down Brick Lane, past the stencilled graffiti, the guerrilla ads for big-label rock groups, the torn political posters (‘Is Rap Music Calling Violence?’ ‘Is Another World Possible?’). They jeer at strangers (‘I cut you with my samurai, fuckin’ muthafucka’), cry ‘woah’ at the sight of girls in short skirts, and snigger as they pass more pious youngsters going in to pray at the mosque. Meanwhile, local store-owners and stick-wielding elders mutter lyrical about the good old days when they could leave the doors of their council houses open; now, the area is awash with petty gangsters robbing their own people for a few quid.
These kid-warriors may not have much, but they have always had their estates. Nowadays, as they roam around, treating Brick Lane and its surrounding streets as military zones to be occupied and fortified, territories worth annexing, anxiety and resentment are in the air. Nobody is exactly trying to winch them out of these estates. But denied the resources that might allow them to work their way out, watching the area become a playground for a leisure-rich salariat, and seeing their own status as the newest immigrants supplanted by Somalis and the new wave of white settlers from Russia, Kosovo and Lithuania, these Bangladeshis are finding themselves slowly, subtly estranged from the ghetto they called home. Walk around and you will notice that the sari stores have become designer furniture shops, the dress factories art galleries. Bangladeshis may be wilting into history.
Monica Ali isn’t the first person to write about the Bangladeshi communities who live in Brick Lane. Syed Manzurul Islam’s The Mapmakers of Spitalfields (1997) was an antsy collection of short stories, full of wit and fantasy, about Brothero-Man, one of the pioneering ship-jumpers and now an ‘invisible surveyor of the city’. Twenty years earlier Farrukh Dhondy, later to become commissioning editor of ethnic programmes for Channel 4, wrote a series of sardonic books – East End at Your Feet (1976) and Come to Mecca (1978) – aimed at young adults. Brick Lane is the first novel to focus almost exclusively on the lives of Bangladeshi women in Tower Hamlets. It tries to take us beyond the yellowing net curtains of their cramped tower-block flats, and into their living-rooms and bedrooms. It aims, for the most part successfully, to articulate their fears and desires, and offers a rich and finely textured corrective to those accounts which portray them as elective mutes, unthinking purveyors of Third World tradition.
Beginning in 1967 in the Mymensingh district of East Pakistan, which four years later would become Bangladesh, it tells the rags-to-rag-trade story of Nazneen, a poorly educated young girl who is married off to Chanu, an overweight windbag twenty years older than her whom she accompanies back to the East End, where he has been living for some time. The transition from the slow rhythms of village life to the accelerated London of 1985 proves difficult. Chanu’s dreams are more than he can achieve. Husband and wife struggle to provide for their two daughters and their only son dies in infancy. Nazneen stays at home during the day, has few friends other than Razia, who goes around wearing a Union Jack sweatshirt, and is locked into a chafingly dull existence until, in 2001, she falls in love with a sweatshop-owner’s nephew, Karim. Their clandestine affair takes place against a background of increasing Islamisation, which Karim himself tries to stoke.
In setting and theme a remarkably old-fashioned tale, Brick Lane brings to mind the opening page of Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto (1892): ‘This London Ghetto of ours is a region where, amid uncleanness and squalor, the rose of romance blows yet a little longer in the raw air of English reality; a world which hides beneath its stony and unlovely surface an inner world of dreams, fantastic and poetic as the mirage of the Orient where they were woven.’ To that 19th-century model, it adds the more contemporary theme of a floundering woman’s coming-to-(feminist)-consciousness. It tracks the process by which she moves, fitfully and self-laceratingly, from shame to tentative self-possession, from a willing submission to a belief in her own agency, from a silence both voluntary and culturally conditioned to a yell of liberation.
Ali goes to great lengths – too great – to ensure we understand the immensity of this transformation. At the outset Nazneen’s mother tells relatives: ‘My child must not waste any energy fighting against Fate. That way, she will be stronger.’ After a few years in London, Nazneen still can’t find the words for ‘this shapeless, nameless thing that crawled across her shoulders and nested in her hair and poisoned her lungs, that made her both restless and listless’. It’s only after she meets Karim that she hears a new vocabulary, some of which she relates to her own problems – ‘Radical was a new word for Nazneen’ – and by the end of the book she’s bopping up and down to Lulu’s ‘Shout’.
Nazneen’s journey is mirrored by that of her sister Hasina back in Bangladesh. She’s beautiful and feisty, rather than plain and passive, and she elopes at an early age with the nephew of a sawmill owner. But the following years bring misfortune more grievous than any in London. She runs away from a violent husband, is raped, works in a factory, turns to prostitution and becomes a maid. These vicissitudes, along with those of her friend Monju (disfigured after having acid thrown in her face), are recounted to her sister in long – excessively long – letters written in pidgin English. It’s an odd decision, given that Nazneen speaks Bengali at home and that, on the page, the tragic correspondence looks banal and comic. It also aspires to a scope, both in chronology and in cartography, that the book doesn’t manage. The letters do, however, go a long way to dispel the idea that Bangladesh is still rural, paradisal; it is urban, violent and locked into the global capitalist system – Britney Spears’s face is familiar to the people of Dhaka, and Pantene Head and Shoulders hair contests are held at the capital’s Sheraton Winter Garden.
Hasina’s letters also highlight what is perhaps the major weakness of Brick Lane: its language. It opts for pauciloquence. We see the world through Nazneen’s eyes, and hear it as if from her lips. But she seems to define herself against the talkativeness of her husband, who has a BA in English literature and who loves the sound of his own orotund voice; her observations seem disingenuous (‘He says that racism is built into the “system”. I don’t know what “system” he means exactly’); her manner is flatly compendious (she reels off at length the contents of Razia’s flat, lists the ingredients of the picnic she takes to St James’s Park) or pointlessly accretive (‘A young man, tall as a stilt-walker and with the same stiff-legged gait, came and sat on the opposite bench. He put his motorcycle helmet on the ground. He ate a sandwich in four large bites. Something in his jacket crackled like a radio’).
It seems unlikely that shy Nazneen would look at a man for long enough to build him up detail by detail. And as a way of indicating the process by which she acquired a working knowledge of the city around her, it rings untrue. Whitechapel jumps its residents; it forces newcomers to assimilate extremely fast. ‘Absence of decoration’, a phrase Ali uses to describe some of the restaurants along Brick Lane, makes her neighbourhood seem tamer than it is, and drags her to the edge of melodrama when she wants to register suffering: Nazneen is ‘trapped inside this body, inside this room, inside this flat, inside this concrete slab of entombed humanity’; with Karim ‘her life had become bloated with meaning and each small movement electrified.’
Some of the figures used to evoke rural Bangladeshi life are plaintively telling: she sees a couple of schoolchildren who look ‘as pale as rice and loud as peacocks’; a fridge hums ‘like a giant mosquito’; wearing a Parka coat, Chanu resembles ‘a Kachuga turtle’. We are told that Nazneen has forgotten most of the details of her birthplace, yet the exotic imagery racks up with increasing excess: she talks to the machines keeping her son alive in hospital ‘like a mahout calms an angry elephant’; a surprised Chanu ‘looked ambushed, raided by dacoits’; making love to Karim, ‘like a Sufi in a trance, a whirling dervish, she lost the thread of one existence and found another.’ It’s as if Sir Richard Burton had set out to write a Mills and Boon romance.
Brick Lane truly comes alive only when its male characters, particularly the older ones, enter the fray. This isn’t just because they are more gabby and engaged, less likely to be sitting at home doing piece-work and trying to quell any remotely insurgent thoughts by telling themselves they are worthless; they’re simply more fully fleshed out, blessed with contradictions, sketched with tenderness and humour rather than pathos.
Most endearing is Chanu, a girthy, frog-faced wordsmith, an ulcerous, self-designated intellectual who parades around his congested living-room delivering snatches of the transcendental philosophy he picked up while studying at the local Centre for Meditation and Healing. The walls of his house are lined with plaudits – a certificate from the Writers’ Bureau correspondence course, for example – but his daughters snigger at him. His wife, too, tires of having to attend to his corns, his snoring, his complaints about how hard it is to get ignorant locals to sign his petition for a mobile library, and his inexorable social descent – from council worker to struggling minicab driver. When he wants to impose his authority he undermines himself further; he tries to hit his insolent daughter but all he has to hand is a banana skin: ‘He flogged enthusiastically but without talent. His energy went into the niyyah – the making of his intention – and here he was advanced and skilful, but the delivery let him down.’
Chanu is a stock character, as many Asian men and women whose personalities have been determined by the stamp of caste and fixed religious and gender roles tend to be; it’s impossible not to think of the yearnings of Mr Biswas or Karim’s frustrated magus of a father in The Buddha of Suburbia. But Chanu often surprises us, and Nazneen even more so, in small ways – he has a driving licence, he can cook – which hint at the possibility that he once had a life before marriage, and that living in a high-rise in Tower Hamlets takes its toll on men as much as women.
Chanu rarely loses heart, however, as we see most memorably in an account of a day trip to Buckingham Palace. He wants his family to learn about the real London, to catch a moment of happiness in the face of immigrant adversity, to experience the pleasure of peering at England rather than being interrogated by English people. To this end, he buys a compass, binoculars, a pair of khaki shorts: ‘The girls would enjoy themselves. They were forewarned of this requirement.’ The whole day, for Nazneen above all, is an eye-opener, both lovely and tense: she’s not used to lolling in the grass, and can’t avoid thinking about her secret boyfriend. They get a tourist to take a photo of them all together, the first and only one, but after it’s developed ‘nothing could be made out except for the feet.’
The character of Karim is somewhat less convincing, and to damaging effect. He is, before the careful symmetries of the novel are finally unfurled, the anti-Chanu: young, not greying and corpulent; religious rather than waftingly multi-faithed; someone who prefers to do things rather than read about them; financially secure, not doling out half his meagre salary in loan repayments. For Nazneen, he offers permission to dream about another world beyond the sink estate, even though as a sweatshop middleman he’s very much an agent of exploitation: just one of the awkward issues – like the irony of a tradition-espousing fundamentalist never having visited Bangladesh – she chooses to overlook. He is good-looking, ‘walked a straight line while others turned and stumbled’, and is very much the Millat character in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
Karim is supposed to embody the dissonance and non-conformity of second-generation Bangladeshi youths. The focus of moral panic about Asian gangs, they should instead be listened to. Given half a chance, they will talk about their feeling that they have been written out of history. They were the ones, together with their brothers and uncles, who took the full brunt of the assault from the 1970s to the 1990s; whose education suffered as a result of bullying classmates and unsympathetic teachers; who attended the vigils outside the Royal London Hospital waiting in vain for Quddus Ali to regain consciousness. Even the nail-bomb planted in Brick Lane by David Copeland in April 1999 didn’t check their will to reclaim the streets of Whitechapel.
How strange then that this novel, part of it set in 1985, has so little to say about the campaign of violence and intimidation which marked the lives of almost every Bangladeshi, young and old, male or female, who lived in and around Brick Lane before the current era of gentrification. To write about this area today or make sense of its cuspy, transitional status, one has to write about what went on before. Even the desire of Nazneen’s daughters to get a better education, to find a love match, is more than a generational tussle, or a struggle between tradition and modernity: it represents a passionate attempt to become less quiescent, less liable to be treated as a social punchbag. ‘Never again’ is the tacit credo by which today’s Bangladeshis live. Yet we don’t get any sense of this in Ali’s novel – only a desultory account of watching on the TV news young Muslims in Oldham rioting in 2001. It comes as no surprise to learn that Brick Lane was originally called ‘Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers’, a title that alludes more generally to the distance between Sylhet and England; the decision to give it a snappier, more happening, less accurate title is the publisher’s.
White people are largely invisible in Ali’s book, as is any real engagement with those local youths who turn to Islam. Her preferred mode, like Zadie Smith’s, is satirical. Smith created a radical faction called K.E.V.I.N. Karim’s group imports an elderly Spiritual Leader who, Nazneen observes, ‘is wearing open-toed sandals with a white plastic flower on the heel strap: women’s shoes’. He’s dim, and always hungry: ‘The little conference on sharia did not interfere with his consumption of a very large, lavishly glazed pastry.’ Later we see Karim getting het up about a March Against The March Against The Mullahs. The factionalism and hypocrisy of religious groups is a worthy target, and is in part the subject of The Satanic Verses, which is set in ‘Brickhall’ in East London; that book, however, excoriated equally the racism and social exclusion that blighted the area, and the self-serving community leaders who purported to be challenging it. Ali abjures such problems, all of them less easy to alleviate than the self-flagellating tendencies of one woman, and her novel ends on a note so high that it’s difficult to make out if it’s meant to be ironic or not. After a local riot, Dogwood Estate, on which Nazneen lives, establishes a youth club; a Tower Hamlets Task Force is set to deliver a report on Youth Deprivation and Social Cohesion; Nazneen and Razia will shortly be starting a sari shop. Beyond the apocalypse – a sort of harmony.
Brick Lane is a patchy but promising first novel, strongly indebted to its black and Asian literary antecedents, more interested in character than it is in language or even in the area from which it derives its name, a series of set-pieces waiting to be dramatised into a feel-good Sunday-night serial on BBC1. The perplexity one feels on finishing it is not the author’s fault: it derives from the ecstatic response to the book and the expectations this has aroused. It is claimed to have mapped out a new, invisible London. It is treated as a direct portal into the minds of Bangladeshi East Londoners. One Sunday newspaper ran two reviews, the shorter by a Muslim comedienne who was asked to confirm the novel’s authenticity: she liked the book and thought it true.
It’s hard to imagine Notting Hill residents being asked if they consider themselves to have been fairly represented in London Fields, or the inhabitants of Chelsea Marina being questioned about their portrayal by J.G. Ballard as psychosexually troubled paranoiacs. Is the public recognition of ethnic communities across the United Kingdom dependent on their valorisation by literary fiction? If so, I hope there are a few writers among the Iraqi Kurds – the new Bangladeshis – currently being coshed up and down the country.
[*] This story appears in Caroline Adams’s Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers (1987), one of the very few histories of Bengalis who settled in East London before the 1970s.