Politics in Brick Lane

Monica Ali published her debut novel ‘Brick Lane’ in 2003 to much critical acclaim. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the novel tells the hardships faced by Nazneen, a young Bengali woman who is sent from her quiet rural village home to built-up, suburban London into an arranged marriage. The novel outwardly deals with political issues such as the rise of the Bengal Tigers in the neighbourhood who fight back at the anti-Islamic organization, as well as the political outcry in Bangladesh told by her sister, Hasina, through epistolary narrative. Amidst these, there is a political undercurrent throughout the novel dealing with issues such as corruption, the subjugation of women, crime, racism and inequality – making Brick Lane a political novel.

The uprising of the Lion Hearts on the Tower Hamlets estate sparks an outcry in the Bengali community. The anti-Islamic group distributes anti-immigrant propaganda around the community, slamming England for being able to introduce diversity into the education system: “and in Religious Instruction: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? No. Krishna, Abraham and Muhammad.” The name of the Lion Hearts is significant due to its’ direct derivation from the infamous Richard the Lionheart who, during the Crusades, invaded the East to eradicate Islam and enforce Christianity instead. This is ironic because the Lion Hearts are an anti-Islamic group, spewing hatred and ignorance towards religion, tolerance and extremism. At this time in the novel, it is 2001, which marks a significant event in the world’s history: the terrorist attacks orchestrated on September 11th by extremist group Al-Qaida. A lot of unease from the British public was brought to the surface at this time in fear of an attack happening in London, however, many people used Islam as the scapegoat for terrorist attacks, hurling abuse at Muslims – this Islamophobia is still prevalent in 2018.

The Muslim community on Brick Lane forms the Bengal Tigers who meet in the town hall. Nazneen is invited to the first meeting by her love interest Karim, who is elected as the leader of the militia. The politics of culture surrounds the discussion, the congregation mocking and stereotyping British culture: “Bingo and beer?” This is a generalization of the typical behavior of the English, perpetuating the notion that they are drunks and loutish. The comment on the “half-naked women” draws questions on the nation’s perceptions of gender, commenting on the objectification of young women in magazines and films. A feminist critique of this society would note that though they disapprove of the objectification, the women present at the meeting are given lack of individual identity: “the girls in burkha stood as one creature”, therefore the Bengal Tigers are being hypocritical as they do not allow the women to express themselves in public.

Hasina’s letters provide an ambiguous perception of what is happening in Bangladesh. Before the Bangladesh National Party got into power, the government was corrupt, with votes being fixed. The first year the Bangladesh National Party got into power; the country overcame what the last government stood for and changed the rules of an election. James, Hasina’s employer, is worried about the election: “if Begum Khaleda Zia come into power it is bad thing.” This is because his industry is the manufacture of plastic bags and the new government are very focused on the environment, so the business will crash. Zaid, the cook, is a very suspicious character, criticizing his employers for their talk of politics. He says that the middle-class complains about the government and legal system, yet they are the group who formed it: “Is not laborer. Is not beggar.” He claims that he supports whichever party “gives him pay” – this highlights the injustice of the system where the working class are not thought of and rely on the party who give them the most opportunities, despite what other horrible policies they may have.

On the Brick Lane estate, Mrs Islam is the matriarchal figure who everyone fears, taking advantage of immigrants by lending them money at such a high interest they can never be repaid. Her two sons help her to enforce her hierarchy in the community; her strategy is to use emotional blackmail in order to get what she wishes. Mrs Islam uses her age and frailty to get what she wishes, exaggerating her health problem: “[she] downs the Benylin Chesty Cough” – this hypochondriac nature is almost comedic. The irony of her name is striking as she is involved in a corrupt and anti-Islamic business. Yet, she uses her religion and ‘devotion’ to Allah to manipulate those around her, and after Nazneen confronts Mrs Islam about her high rates of interest, Ali writes: “Do you think, before God, that I would charge interest?” This is clearly a lie as Chanu has been forced to pay back a great amount more than he borrowed. Mrs Islam’s hypocrisy is what leads to her downfall and this blatantly stereotyped character’s corruption does not go unnoticed.

In fact, it was the stereotyping of Bengali immigrants in Ali’s novel that led to the protest in 2006 at Tower Hamlets. Some 120 members of the Bangladeshi community from London and beyond marched in protest against the forthcoming film adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel, ‘Brick Lane’. The local Bangladeshis claimed: “the novel insulted them specifically, by being named after the street in which they live and work.”[1] It was noted that there was a lack of women present at the rally and upon being questioned about this subject, a resident claimed: “Muslim women are very conservative and they don’t feel comfortable coming here. If there was a protest just for the women then they would come.” Dr Husain, the organizer of the protest, spoke of his “frustration” at “stereotyping” of the community.

The politics of gender is central in Ali’s novel as there is evidently a clash in ideals surrounding gender roles between the British and Bangladeshi. In Bangladesh, Hasina runs away from home at a young age with her lover but faces abuse, abuse and horror at every corner. As a woman, she is marginalized and she is victimized so frequently, she believes she is responsible for all the terrible things that have happened to her: “I am low woman”, which simply is not the case. In Westernized countries, people are marching and protesting for equal treatment in regards to gender; women are free to vocalize the inequality in society whereas, in Bangladesh, it is normal to blame a woman for being raped and abused when the perpetrator is a male. Similarly, in ‘Little Bangladesh’, women are subjugated and not given the same opportunities as the men do. Nazneen is isolated in her flat, not allowed to learn English and has “to be a mother” – she is given no choice in the matter and is expected to spend her life this way, serving her husband and having children. Raza, too, is restricted by her husband: “if I get a job he will kill me”, however, after his death, she no longer conforms to the traditional role of a woman and makes a career for herself.

To conclude, ‘Brick Lane’ by Monica Ali is a political novel, though it may not seem outwardly political, every single scenario is involved in politics, whether it is to do with racism, gender, crime and corruption. The notion of politics is the backbone to the narrative.

[1] Brick Lane protesters hurt over ‘lies’ by Mario Cacciottolo, July 31st 2006 (BBC News) URL: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/5229872.stm