Home & Identity in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane

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Redefining Home and Identity in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane

By – Sonia Bhardwaj, published in Vol.II, Issue.XXI, October 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Sonia Bhardwaj is a research scholar doing her Ph.D in Literature.


The evolving trends of immigration and the shrinking international borders have given a chance to the contemporary world inhabitants to explore world as the stage of their action. The modern diaspora are more equipped, emotionally strong and progressive to contrast the earlier conception of émigré as powerless, nostalgic, homeward looking individuals. The new nomads willingly move into the dynamics of empowerment by challenging the possibility of any superior race, culture or ethnicity. In the postmodern times cultures are constantly evolving to give way to a multiethnic, multicultural scenario. The phenomenon of diaspora in the postmodern century is affecting not only the life of diaspora who struggle to accommodate into the fabric of host society but also the broader notion of home. In the present analysis of Brick Lane (2003) the author pronounces the dynamic notion of home where the diaspora is no longer looking backward to the lost shores of mother nation but are making strides in the adopted nation. The co-existence of Home and Host countries in life of diaspora is giving rise to a fresh concept of ‘home’ which is not a geographical setting rather an idea where people evolve and form their unique self.

Key Words – Nostalgia, Homing Desire, Acculturation, Diaspora, Patriarchy, Cultural Assimilation, Hegemony, Globalization and Threshold.

Monica Ali in her seminal work Brick Lane (2003) has presented the point of view of its central protagonist –a Bangladeshi woman diaspora Nazneen. The novel is about Nazneen’s journey from the lush green grounds of her hometown Gouripur in Bangladesh to the concrete apartment in London’s Brick Lane. She immigrates to London as a companion to her husband Chanu Ahmed.

In an arranged marriage Nazneen is bonded to Chanu-a man much older to her in age and thereafter, she undertakes a metaphorical journey into an unknown land and later undertakes the to explore the hidden potential of her individual self. Away from her familiar home, she grows out of submission to assertion. The complex personality of Chanu and his inability of assimilating in the host society confound her. The upbringing of Nazneen and the dominant notion of patriarchy forbids her to express her discomfort on Chanu’s failure and accept the subordination within the confines of her concrete apartment by patriarchal standards.

Life of Nazneen is a maze where she crosses the barriers laid by her parenting, society, nation and individuality to cut a niche for herself and her daughters. Nazneen’s mother was dominated by father who never gave her the opportunity to speak up her mind and feelings. Nazneen’s mother tries to mould the personality of her daughters Nazneen and Hasina by teaching them the importance of fate and submissiveness in women’s life. Nazneen’s life and her birth itself stand as the testimony of her mother’s believe in fate.

As Nazneen grew she heard many tales of this story of How You Were Left To Your Fate… Fighting against one’s fate can weaken the blood. Sometimes, or perhaps most of times, it can be fatal.

The place where Nazneen is born signifies closed confines of cultural boundaries and conventional set up that treats women as subordinate.

The multicultural ambience of the West gives Nazneen the audacity to challenge the hegemonic practices of both East and west. She is uncomfortable with her cramped life in the concrete quarters of Brick Lane. Away from the open skies of Gouripur in the initial years of her advent in the foreign nation she feels stranger. There is a constant ghost of home following her. In her dreams she always finds herself hand in hand with her sister Hasina. The only solace in her mundane life is the company of ghetto which is a closed cultural group. In the party of Bangladeshi women, she gets a chance to speak in her own language, celebrate home festivals and discuss with nostalgia the memories of land left back.

Nazneen’s household revolves around Chanu. She keeps herself busy entire day by keeping the apartment clean, preparing meals and looking out of her apartment’s window either watching the by-passers or the ‘tatoo lady’. Nazneen is an embodiment of all those women who accompany their husbands into the foreign land not in pursuit of any personal endeavor but to fulfill the social responsibility of wife. Like a mute animal following its master, Nazneen follows Chanu to London. She is a complete outsider without any knowledge of foreign language, its people and the challenge of assimilation.

The scope of novel revolves around the metamorphosis of Nazneen along with her journey in the foreign land. She marries a man older to her due to social obligation. It is only in the open environment of west that she gets the confidence to exercise her agency as a potent individual who has the capacity to challenge the gendered divisions of work and society in her home. She gradually develops confidence to explore to world of earning finances, giving voice to her hidden sexual desires with Karim-a young Bangladeshi boy and to evolve emancipated from all barriers.

The augmentation of Nazneen’s persona undertakes with her the experiences of loss, happiness, motherhood, friendship and the final rejection of subordinate status. The novel is divided into two phases that signifies Nazneen’s individual growth. The first period ranges from her advent in London and ends with the death of her first child Raqib. The next phase of empowerment vary from the birth of her two daughters Shahana and Bibi, affair with Karim, Chanu’s difficult time at job and ends with Nazneen’s financial evolution in foreign land stand to fulfill her daughter’s dream of assimilation. The transmutation of Nazneen from subordinate to equal participant in society is fuelled by her friendship with Razia. All traditional Bangladeshi women characters of this novel flutter in the confines wreathing to have a slice of West. It is the contest of home confinement and inherent zeal to experience the whirlpool of progressive West that gives impetus to the Bangladeshi women diaspora of Brick Lane to challenge and claim emancipation from gendered roles.

The difference in the female status in West and East is a glaring reality for women diaspora. A critic Janet Momsen comments that, ‘for all societies, the common denominator of gender is female subordination. For women of contemporary Third world the patriarchal attitudes are exacerbated by economic crisis and legacy of imperialism.’ (Momsen 98). The limited exposure in the host nation and the restrictions that women have to face in the host society springs from the patriarchal idea which considers women as incapable subordinate who are, ‘ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition bound, domestic, family oriented, victimized.’ (Bahri 45). The impact of the social consideration acts as a binding chain for the women even in the host society where they are at liberty to exercise their will and potential. The traditional diaspora carries along with the memories of homeland the cultural germs that haunt them even in unrestricted ambience of host land.

The persona of Nazneen is surrounded by the walls of fate, culture, religion, racial discrimination and patriarchy. It is only when she challenges all these frontiers that she transforms form an insignificant housewife to a revenue generator. The initial life of Nazneen from her birth till the death of her son Raqib is dominated by the philosophy of fate, ‘What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything has to be borne. This principle ruled her life. It’s a mantra, fettle and challenge.’ (Ali 12).

This mantra of submission is dared by Nazneen when she comes in company of Razia. Razia is the mouthpiece for all those women diaspora who have the will to survive independently in the alien country. She instantly realizes the urgency of her circumstances that demands her to break free from the narrow ridges of her culture. After the death of her husband she doesn’t waste time in mourning rather challenges the dominant notions of Bangladeshi traditions of limiting women endeavors to home. She transgresses the boundaries of home to venture out into the flux of society and starts learning English language. She stops wearing saree, crops her hair short and initiates her undertaking foe empowerment. She sheds off her Asian markers and adopts the role of man in her family.

Razia has a positive influence on the identity formation of Nazneen. She encourages Nazneen to move out of her concrete apartment and the confines of culture. Razia awakens her about the futility of looking back to Bangladesh as home. The notion of home for Nazneen changes when she realizes the benefits of living in the West. It gives them financial security, pension, medical facilities and child care. The discomforts of living in Bangladesh and its fossilized image get a jolt for Nazneen. The strenuous circumstances of Razia life fail to break her determination. She resolves to take charge of her life and grow independent. She transforms her loss of husband into her strength and becomes a western woman metaphorically, ‘since gaining her British passport she had acquired a sweatshirt with a large Union Jack printed of the front, and in a favorite combination paired it with brown elastic-waisted trousers.’ (Ali 188). In the crunch of times, lack of finances after her husband’s death Razia confidently relies on her and makes the best use of her abilities to earn money for her children.

The notion of traditional Bangladeshi ghetto is reinforced by Mrs. Islam-an elderly and most powerful woman of Bangladeshi community in the Brick Lane. The respect she commands in the group arises from her persona of sophistication, wealth and as a preserver of tradition. Chanu considers her as a ‘respectable type’. The existential quest and greed for status and money in the foreign land turns her into a Usurer. Razia discloses this secret to Nazneen and bewares her from falling into the trap of taking loan from her. Mrs. Islam exploits the financial urgencies of people in the Brick Lane and lends the money at a high rate of interest.

Mrs. Islam has an influence in the Bangladeshi community. No one tries to disobey her. When Nazneen first son Raqib was born, Mrs. Islam tries to dominate her household by teaching her the norms of parenting. Nazneen dreads these lessons. The invisible tension between both comes to surface when one day Mrs. Islam forces Nazneen to lend her Raqib for some hours so that her niece may play with him. Nazneen boldly refuses this by confidently stating that, ‘No, he’s staying here. With me.’ (Ali 88).

This daring step of Nazneen is punished by Mrs. Islam years later when out of financial turbulence in family Chanu borrows money from her. Mrs. Islam is a cunning lady who keeps accounts not just for money but for grudges as well. When the news of Chanu leaving with his family to Bangladesh becomes talk of neighbour she threatens the family to return the debt. Mrs. Islam uses her two sons as her shield to scare Chanu and his family. The original amount is well paid back but Mrs. Islam is not ready to give away the interest. She hovers over Nazneen to return the entire amount one time, ‘Give it to me. How much is there? A thousand pounds still owning, and you are going to run away? Give me the rest.’ (Ali 253). The persistent pressure from Mrs. Islam infuriates Nazneen when she pays the last visit to demand the payment. She in rage thrashes Mrs. Islam and condemns her as a Usurer. In the fit of fury Nazneen challenges Mrs. Islam to swear in the Holy Qur’an about the truth of money left. Religious fear and sanctity of God forbids her to swear on The Holy Book. The trepidation of confrontation renders Mrs. Islam exposed, with this incident the episode of Mrs. Islam finishes off. This event proves to be a turning point in the self-actualization of Nazneen who crosses the social limitation and patriarchal image of docile and mute female and emerges empowered for her family and future.

The transition in Nazneen’s persona is a systematic progression of events. She keeps reeling back into insignificance but the quest to learn helps her bounce back in her personal endeavor of re-forming her awakened self. The relationship with Karim electrified her. She could give voice to all the hidden fantasies of her personality. The relationships break the binary of inside and outside for Nazneen. Her expression in physical intimacy astounded her. She is full of passion, aggression and feels a sense of completeness that has always been missing I her life with Chanu. Her relationship with Karim metaphorically represents a journey within the hidden zeal to live in Nazneen’s life. She learns to take charge of her decisions, her future and life ahead.

The bond of marriage with Chanu, however, remains the centre of her life. This duality of loyalties towards Karim and Chanu leads to her nervous breakdown. The tussle is not confined to her sexual relationships abut also to her allegiance for home values and western liberty. The involuntary comparison between Karim and Chanu aggravates her predicament. Karim’s presence in her life filled the void in her life where she wants to celebrate her womanhood and re-forms herself into an equal companion in sexual encounters with him. ‘Nazneen danced attendance. It was thrill..’(Ali 248).

The self-affirmation transforms her and she starts to take lead in her decisions. She starts spending more time with her daughters Shahana and Bibi and is thrilled to be a part of their intellect. The heart of mother jumps with joy to learn the expectations and dreams of her daughters, ‘She spent more time talking to her daughters, and they surprised her with their intelligence.’(Ali 248). The hunt for evolved identity awakens her to the needs of her daughters who are at home in London. They do not want to be the part of Chanu’s plans of shifting back to Bangladesh.

Nazneen’s final hurdle is to boldly take lead of her own life and the future of her daughters. She refuses to be the part of Chanu’s journey back to Bangladesh. She takes full responsibility of the future of her daughters in the foreign nation. When Karim proposes her for marriage she refuses to succumb in his offer and secure social status to explore the world on her own. Departure of Chanu and Karim from her life lands Nazneen into the flux of society where Razia emerges as her savior.

The task of needle work and sewing that represents the art of women in her home Bangladesh gives the platform to ensure existential survival in the adopted nation. Nazneen plans to educate her daughters and to secure the life of her sister Hasina who has been brutally treated by men in her own country- Bangladesh.

The secondary status of women and the objectification of women body are ridiculed by Ali in her novel. Hasina is a beautiful girl who dares to love in her own country. The act of eloping with the son of a villager lands her into the dynamism of the sexist world outside the secure embrace of her mother. She is beaten by her husband, mauled and made to run from her married life. The physical beauty of her body forbids her easy assimilation in the society. All men she encounters treat her as an object to satisfy their physical needs. She is raped, turned into prostitute, a maid, secondary individual and gradually becomes a mourner. In the final episode she is shown once again eloped with a fellow servant to fulfill her dream of belonging and home.

Hasina remains a diaspora in her own home and Nazneen on the other hand evolves self-dependent and empowered in the adopted nation. Ali through her stimulating work hints at the possibility of transforming the crunch of immigration into an agency of self-actualization. The role of women as the one fulfilling the ‘expectations from their family, society and community’(Mortada 53) gets altered into the metamorphosis of the main protagonist who evolves to form, ‘own definition of feminity’ (Hussain 52.)

In the final section Nazneen is seen taking charge of her life and boldly skating through the unexplored ice of her identity. The concept of home and homelessness changes for her. Now she is assimilated in the fabric of the once host nation and Bangladesh forms the part of her fond memories not of longing. The notion of home now represents Brick Lane where she independently lives with her daughters and friends.


Works Cited:

  1. Ali, Monica. Brick Lane. Great Britain: Black swan, 2004. Print.
  2. Bahri, Deepika. The Human Rights of Middle Eastern &Muslim Women: A Project For the 21st Century. Cambridge: United Kingdom UP, 2004. Print.
  3. Hussain, Yasmin. Writing Diaspora: South Asian Women, Culture and Ethnicity, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005. Print.
  4. Momsen, Janet Henshall. Women Development in the Third World. London: Routledge. Print.
  5. Mortada, Sayeda Samara. “ The Notion of Women as bearers of Culture in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane”.BRAC University Journal. Vol.vii No. 1&2. 2010. 53-59. Print.
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