Gender and Diasporic Clashes in Monica Ali Brick Lane

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Gender Ideologies and Inter-generational Diasporic Clashes in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003)

By Rohit Chatrath

Ashvamegh : October 2015 : Issue IX : Research Papers : ISSN : 2454-4574


The novel opens with the introduction to the background of the protagonist Nazneen Ahmed, born and brought up in Mymensingh District in Bangladesh and married, at 18, to Chanu Ahmed and they migrated to London. Right from the beginning, Chanu Ahmed is not able to adjust and acclimatise to the British ways of life as the Asian couple is totally new to the cultural differences and social set up of the London of 1980’s. Thus, sandwiched between the original Bangladeshi identity and now a new identity in England, it is not surprising for Nazneen Ahmed and the like, to feel alienated and estranged both socially and culturally. In such a hard time of identity crisis, all a woman needs is the unstinted support and emotional anchorage from her husband. But, instead of himself understanding this unprecedented situation and helping Nazneen to understand and acclimatize to the neo-natal identity both as a diasporic Bangladeshi and as a woman, Chanu Ahmed rather continues to possess and profess the same conservative, parochial, obscurantist and typically Bangladeshi ideology of keeping the woman marginalized or under male hegemony.

Perhaps this is the reason why Nazneen resorts to an extramarital affair (for which critics have often condemned Nazneen’s character) with a young Bangladeshi boy Karim, who poles apart from Chanu Ahmed.

Bangladeshi women’s experiences of migration in the novel Brick Lane differ a great deal from those of the menfolk. Not only do these women have to adapt to new cultural surroundings or social context, but also have to face gender bias and discrimination from their husbands within their households and society as well. The stickler male Diasporas did not change the gender ideologies of the Bangladeshi community even in England. In reality these ideologies were still being practised within the household of these immigrants; also at Tower Hamlets. “The novel is particularly of interest as an examination of the double bind that female migrants face, treated as alien by their host nation and as commodities by the men in their own communities”. (2) UKEssays).

 Nazneen, for example, feels alienated in England and also like a caged bird of gender within her own flats. She is  not  allowed  by  Chanu  to go  out  and therefore  she sufferers  from isolation, alienation and monotony due to repetitive household chores. Whenever she throws up the idea of taking up an employment, she is thwarted by the male chauvinist, who forwards an absurd justification for denial:  “Why should you go out? said Chanu. If you go out, ten people will say, I saw her walking on the street. And I will look like a fool” (Ali 30). She remains confined to the domestic environment of the flat, as a form of purdah, which is a symbol of slavery in Islam.(3) (UKEssays).

The clash in gender ideologies manifests itself in the form of patriarchal dominance exercised by Chanu over Nazneen. Ali takes pains to highlight that Chanu’s disallowing Nazneen to work and earn for the family is nothing but a projection of the congenital patriarchal ideology in his very bones. Like Alfred Tennyson, the ‘Victorian-voice-in verse’, he too believes in the philosophy “Man for the field and woman for the hearth.” He therefore, maintaines that only man should work and provide the family, whereas the woman better remain in the domestic sphere. He opines that “Some of these uneducated ones, they say that if the wife is working it is only because the husband cannot feed them”(Ali 147).

Nazneen, even though migrates to England, still maintains her submissive and meek status within her marriage by keeping her head bowed down, covereing her hair and even walking a step behind her husband. Razia Iqbal, another woman like Nazneen, also a first-generation immigrant faces gender based discrimination when her husband too does not let her get employed even though her family needs it direly.

 “He works all day and night. He keeps me locked up inside” (Ali 96), complains Razia.

It is only after her husband’s death that she does get an opportunity of employment to support her family. In fact, Razia feels extricated from her domineering husband’s strangulating clutches after his death, further proving that majority of the immigrant Bangladeshi women suffer from oppression and suppression due to gender based discrimination. Razia showes her relief, “I can get that job now. No slaughter man to slaughter me now” (Ali 110).

When Nazneen is denied the right to learning; it again corroborates the clashing Ideologies of two genders. She informs Chanu about her desire to learn English as she can’t move out alone because she can’t speak English beyond two words “thank you” and “sorry”, but her narrow-minded husband rewards her by telling her that “you’re going to be a mother…will that keep you busy enough? And you can’t take a baby to college… it’s not as simple as that, just to go to college, like that” (Ali 57).Though unwillingly, Nazneen has to conform to Chanu’s harsh rebuttal which stinks with the malodor of patriarchy. She accepts this commandment and also her fate without any resistance because, firstly, he is her husband and her superior and secondly a woman must always give importance to her gender role than her inner desires. (5) ibid. Indeed, the subaltern can’t speak.

But towards the end of the novel, we see an unexpected metamorphosis in the persona of Nazneen. The sea-change from being a subaltern and submissive to a self-assertive and an independent Nazneen is absolutely cogent and convincing both psychologically and socially.

It is a well-established fact that Chanu, suffering from “Going Home Syndrome”, always wanted to return to Bangladesh, his homeland, and he does so at the end of the novel. But the mute submissive supressed and cow-like Nazneen surprises the reader by staying back in London instead of going with her husband. Rightly remarks Alistar Cormack, “Nazneen has con-fronted her oppression within the discourses of gender, race, and religion and won for herself an independent space”. (5) UKEssays. She does not let fate decide her life, as her deceased mother had preached by her story of “How You Were Left to Your Fate” (Ali 4). She is well and truly on the way of becoming a Free and mentally, physically, emotionally and socially independent woman, ready to break-off the shackles of the ‘patriarchal-cringe’ and establishing her own identity.

This situation somehow stimulates us to draw literary parallels of Nazneen Ahmed with Gauri, the protagonist of Indian Mulk Raj Anand’s feminist novel Gauri (7) and also with Nora Helmer, the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s well known play The Doll’s House (8). Gauri, of Anand, is a docile and subservient girl when, at the inception of the novel, she is married to Panchi, an illiterate credulous boy who can be easily misled by poisoning ears against Gauri. Having been poisoned against by an evil woman, Panchi beats and abuses the faultless Gauri many times, who bears the thrashings silently, but at the end of the novel, the scenario takes a U-turn when Gauri not only retaliates against this male hegemony but also leaves Panchi for good for staying with Dr Keshav Mahindra, the ace doctor and philanthropist, who accepts the pregnant Gauri as his daughter. Thus she is a changed woman, a liberated woman, a self-assertive woman at the end of the story. Let’s look at another parallel of Nora Helmer, in Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, as a fun and frolic loving woman, enjoying a self-satisfied conjugal life when the play begins.

As the plot unfolds, we see that due to a critical illness, her husband Torval Helmer, recently promoted to the rank of a Bank Manager, is advised to go to some hillside for few months. For this, Nora secures a loan without Helmer’s knowledge, from Nils Krogstad, a corrupt employee in Helmer’s Bank.

Towards the end of the play, Helmer comes to know of this secret and in place of appreciating Nora’s love, he condemns Nora in a bitter-worded tirade, even holding her parents’ upbringing responsible for her such immoral behaviour. Despite umpteen explanations and justifications by Nora, he doesn’t accept the truth that whatever she did, actually saved his life. Unable to convince Torval of her innocence and stand these false blames, humiliation and unjustified aspersions on her character, the unsung heroine Nora slams off the door and, like the two forementioned heroines Gauri and Nazneen, leaves her husband Helmer forever and the play ends on an astonishing yet a feminist note. Thus, both the men i.e, Anand and Ibsen, along with their respective works Gauri and The Doll’s House prove to be feminists.

Inter-generational Clashes in Brick Lane

                                        It goes to the credit of Monica Ali that she has delineated in a convincing manner the conflict or divergence in views of the two diasporic generations, diametrically opposite to each other. The first generation of the elderly has been portrayed to be in stark contrast to the second generation on two particular grounds: first, of going back to Bangladesh and second of clothing. The reason of this inter-generational clash is basically due to the divergence of opinions about going back home. The people of both the generations diverge from each other on this front. Chanu wants to go back because he couldn’t succeed in England. Let’s see why.  Actually, First generation immigrant Chanu looks upon England as a ‘Money-land’. He had come to England with a dream ­—- the dream of his success which the English land offers; he had great expectations that coming to England means thundering success and prosperity, which Bangladesh couldn’t offer him.                                      It reminds us of the ‘rags-to-riches’ formula of the myth of  ‘American-dream’ exploded by the American playwright Arthur Miller in his famous (1949) play entitled  Death of A Salesman (9) through the portrayal of a similar protagonist Willy Loman, the salesman, who sticks to the myth of American Dream but without understanding its true sense and essence. It is his own misinterpretation of the implications and implementations of the success-mantra called ‘American-dream’ that leads to an agonising frustration due to total failure and ultimately, his killing of himself. However, there is a major difference in both the cases of failures, Chanu had gone from Bangladesh to England whereas Willy, an American, lives in America only. So, Chanu is a Bangladeshi diaspora failed in England, while Willy Loman is an American failed in America. Chanu proves to be a cultural failure here; his dreams too dash to the ground, but unlike Willy Loman, he doesn’t kill himself, only gives up. In giving up (by returning to Bangladesh), Chanu here becomes a symbol of the victim of the ‘English-dream’, sticking to which, generally most Asians migrate to England seeking a PR (Permanent Residency), but in the end, they have to cut a sorry figure, as they prove to be misfits, like Chanu, in the British lifestyle and socio-cultural set up. Chanu gives full vent to his agonies that he has been in England for sixteen years and still could not afford a stable, well paid employment. His dreams of being successful were never accomplished. Chanu could not even save money to return to his homeland.(10)  His frustration and disenchantment with England comes to the fore, when he says,

“When I came I was a young man. I had ambitions. Big dreams. When I got off the plane, I had my degree certificate in my suit-case. I thought there would be a red carpet laid out for me. I was going to join the civil service and become Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. That was my plan. And I found things were a bit different” (Ali 21).

That’s why he wishes to return to Bangladesh after this discomfiture whereas the second generation, all born and raised in Britain, wants to stay there. Hence, the clash. The second-generation of diasporas  viz, Shahana Ahmed and Bibi Ahmed unlike their father Chanu don’t wish to go back to Bangladesh because they cannot relate themselves to a country which they have never been to once.

Born, brought and educated in England, the duo feel the sense of belongingness in England rather than Bangladesh. “I’m not going, said Shahana. I’ll runaway” (Ali 175).

                     They cannot appreciate the historical narratives about Bangladesh nor its literature. For example, Shahana rebelles against her father Chanu and doesn’t conform to gender ideologies, she wears jeans in place of kameez and she prefers to speak English to Bangla. As Ali puts it:

“Shahana did not want to listen to Bengali classical music. Her written Bengali was shocking. She wanted to wear jeans. She hates her Kameez and spoiled her entire wardrobe by pouring paint on them. If she could choose between baked beans and dal it was no contest. When Bangladesh was mentioned she pulled her face”. (Ali 144).

“As a result there are always conflicts and arguments between Shahana and her father. They have different view points of England. For Chanu, like many other first generation immigrants, England is a temporary place to earn, save and get back to homeland. Thus the first generation diasporic immigrants tend to reproduce “Bangladesh” in England. For example, the place surrounding the vicinity of Brick Lane has spice shops, sari and even sweet shops that sell jalebis and ladoos. “Bangladeshis have created an ethnic enclave, a cultural replica of small cafes and restaurants” in order to feel at home, in England where they have migrated. Whereas for Bibi and Shahana, England is where home is. Thus they represent cultural hybridity of both Bangladesh and England. “The overlapping of identities that characterizes the diasporic experience creates a cultural hybridity” (UKEssays).

Chanu tells his daughters very proudly about the Bangla history and compares the British and the Bangla education systems:

“In the sixteenth century, Bengal was called the Paradise of Nations. These are our roots. Do they teach these things in school here? Dose Shahana know about paradise of Nations? All she knows about is flood and famine. Whole bloody country is just a bloody basket case to her” (Ali, 2003:194).

Unequivocally, Chanu hates western school while Shahana and Bibi are supposed to go to Mosque school, he airs his indignation on it. It is obvious that he considers here western education is superior to the eastern education. (10)  (Gaikwad.)

                                         Clothing is a major motif used very deftly by Monica Ali into the texture of the novel. Clothes, which cover our body, here symbolise the divergent ways of living, a symbol of individual ideology, an objective correlative of revolt; an icon of dissenting voice and a clashing worldview of two generations. Chanu stresses wearing traditional Bangladeshi attire but his both daughters think otherwise. Ali portrays Bangladeshi girls who resemble British girls of their age by their interests, clothes, tastes, education, linguistic skills, and manners as they have been exposed to the hegemonic effects of the British society and culture since they were born. Shefali is absolutely different from her mother as she is totally absorbed in her exams to be accepted into university; however, she stuns her mother by expressing her desire to spend one year doing nothing before university like most teenagers do in Britain. In a similar manner to Shefali, Azad is totally assimilated in her outlook and manners because she has discoloured hair, wears short skirt, chews gum in front of elders and goes to pubs with her friends. As a proof of the statement that “the second generation will have had all of their schooling in the host country and will almost certainly speak the language fluently” (Algan) (11).

                                    “Azad, Shefali, Shahana and Bibi are fluent speakers of English and are having British education at school. Therefore, language offers Shahana an opportunity to show her difference and to become critical of her parents. Unlike her mother who can barely speak a few words in English, Shahana learned English as her second language. Although Chanu speaks English fluently he does not like his daughter’s speaking English at home but as soon as he is away, the girls switch to English as the medium of conversation. Chanu’s fury stems from his assumption that the girls fit Karim’s pejorative description of westernized girl who “wears what she likes, all the make-up going on, short skirts and that soon as she is out of her father’s sight. She’s into going out, getting good jobs, having a laugh” by speaking their language and by imitating their behaviour, manners and tastes” (Ali, 2003: 384). (12). A. Nejat TÖNGÜR. Shahana has been portrayed in a clear way that we come to know that she despises the very idea of going back to Bangladesh. In fact, anything about Bangladesh said to her is what a red rag is to a bull. Evidently Shahana and the girls like her do not wish to live like her parents and they are completely different from their parents. Indeed Shahana expresses her plight very clearly when she says “I didn’t ask to be born here” (Ali, 2003: 181). From the moment she was born she was exposed to the irrefutable impact of the British culture and gradually and inevitably she is becoming anglicized. The hegemonic British culture has evaporated the effect of the Bangladeshi culture which Chanu has desperately been trying to imbue. Therefore Shahana can not conform to the standards her father and the greater Bangladeshi community expect her to have. Her rebellion is resultant of her lifestyle which exposes her to the hegemonic impact of the British society and culture. As a typical second-generation teenager who was born and raised in Britain, she is totally receptive and responsive to the cultural impositions of the British culture. If it were not for her parents, her integration into the British culture would be smoother and quicker. Despite all the setbacks, Shahana, Shefali, Nishi and Azad daughter veer towards inevitable integration into the dominant culture. In addition to conflicts with parents, these young people start “to feel deeply their condition as second-class citizens, and they question their identity and status in society”. (13.) (Tongur).

                                  So, we finally arrive at the conclusion that Monica Ali has beautifully depicted various characters who are just caught up in two worlds: between their own origin and the acclimatisation into new cultural setup. Two genders and two generations as portrayed by Ali, are like what Rudyard Kipling calls “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. Ali seems to successfully prove the thesis that the clashing Ideologies and conflicting generations will always remain like the horizon, where the earth (conflicting generations) and the sky (clashing gender ideologies) shall never unite and coexist. The novel is a triumph of feminism as well insomuch that all the male characters fail in establishing their cultural and social identities and eventually give up admitting defeat, while all the female characters come off in flying colours in their endeavours of garnering their identities with sheer intelligence, grit and gumption. Truly, Nazneen Ahmed will always occupy a special and memorable place in our hearts and minds just as Jane Austen’s Emma or Hardy’s Tess do. Monica Ali is indeed a true champion of feminism and this novel has inarguably paved the way in establishing her identity in the top rungs of the long tally of post-colonial women writers of this Century. Unquestionably, both Brick Lane and Nazneen Ahmed will surely prove to be ‘sirens-of-awareness’ for all the 21st century diasporic women struggling to establish their identities and authentic selfhood amidst a testing social milieu of clashing gender ideologies and Inter-generational conflicts.

Works Cited:

1. Ali, Monica, Brick Lane, Scribner, 2003
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Anand, Mulk Raj : Gauri, Penguin Publications, 2011,
7. Ibsen Henrik: The Doll’s House,  Dover publications, 1992,
8. Miller, Arthur: Death of A Salesman, Spark Publications, 2013,
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.

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