“I always said I will not marry and be sent far away. I will go no farther than these paddy fields. But our mother told us we must not run from our fate. What cannot be changed must be borne. The test of life is to endure.”
Through such representation of gender and focus on history and dislocation, Monica Ali has extended the migrant voice in British fiction. In her stunningly accomplished debut novel Brick Lane (2003) which also got adapted in a film four years later, Ali tries to reconstitute the traditional Bangladeshi culture in a London East End setting. She uses her characters to explore the positioning of Bangladeshi women within Britain, as the novel focuses on their social relations inside and outside the home.
This paper aims to explore whether Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane (2003) and Sarah Gavron’s controversial screen adaptation of the same name (2007) can open up avenues to discuss a new, if problematic, inclusion of Bangladeshi women in the transnational world; and also to gauze the similarities and dissimilarities within the two.
Both the novel and the film created a controversy among the Bangladeshi community living in London because they found problems with Monica Ali’s negative portrayal of their community members as being illiterate and backward, which they considered insulting. They claimed that the novel encouraged “pro-racist, anti-social stereotypes”.
Brick Lane is the story of the Bangladeshi Muslim community living in the East End of London and in particular, that of Nazneen, her husband Chanu and Hasina, Nazneen’s good looking sister, who resides in Bangladesh and who was disowned by her family for flouting the traditional arranged marriage system which she did by eloping with her lover and marrying him at the age of sixteen. Hasina’s chaotic day to day life in Dhaka is revealed to us through a series of regular, candid and sometimes terribly despondent letters sent to her sister in London in pidgin English.
Nazneen often reminisces about her happy, innocent and carefree childhood in her little village in the countryside of Bangladesh with her younger sister Hasina, which now contrasts with her despairing life in her dingy flat in a tall block in the Tower Hamlets. After an arranged marriage with Chanu, who is already established in London and who is unattractive and twice her age, Nazneen arrives in London at the age of seventeen. The women moving to London and Tower Hamlets in particular had to adapt coming from a rural peasant society to a hostile urban culture. What Brick Lane does is show this transition and the impact migration has on women’s lives. Monica Ali’s novel shows how, after migration, the position of women in families and in the wider community undergoes a considerable transformation. What Nazneen refuses to do is to see herself and her culture as inferior or alien. Here ethnicity becomes a source of positivity rather than stigmatised identity.
The high rates of poverty characteristic of Bangladeshi households are shown in the novel, coupled with the overwhelming sense of isolation faced by the female characters and their reliance on their male counterparts. Consequently, the overall context of the novel presents a picture of deprivation and hardships for Bangladeshis in Britain. Nazneen who can’t speak English has to adapt to her new life in a foreign country with a husband who, although basically kind-hearted, is disheartened for not being able to fulfil his dreams and carry his plans to completion. He believes himself to be above most of the Bangladeshi community members who are uneducated and lacking a great deal of elegance.
Chanu scorns the attitude of his superiors who fail to recognise his talent and genius. He keeps a high opinion of himself which makes him a conceited, funny character...