<%-- Page Title--%> Perspective <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 138 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 16, 2004

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Brick Lane And Sylhetis in Brick Lane

Jackie Kabir

The name "Monica" is again in the limelight. It's not Monica Seles or Monica Lewinsky but our very own Monica Ali - a Bangladeshi by birth residing in the UK with her British husband. She was in the news some time ago, for the Bangladesh government didn't grant her the visa for visiting the country. The authority concerned would be able to tell us why she was denied permission to come to her birthplace.

Ever since her first book Brick Lane was nominated for the Booker Award, London was abuzz with her name. She had also been nominated for the Guardian's First Book Award. Now her book has become subject to controversy, as the Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development Council in London has last month announced that Monica Ali has shamefully portrayed the Bangladeshi community in the United Kingdom.

Well, no achievement comes easy; one must have chaos to give birth to a rising star. Monica Ali, the lone Bangladeshi star of international repute in the literary field is also possibly going through a phase of chaos. She has written a book which has brought recognition for Bangladeshis -- both at home and abroad. The novel had -- and has -- the chance of winning awards of international fame that any Bangladeshi is yet to achieve. Instead of being proud of her work, Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development Council is being critical even though the book is a fictional story about a rural Bangladeshi girl who wants to come out of a traumatic, passion-less marriage.

In truth, Ali's Brick Lane paints a picture of Bangladeshi women as a whole. Most of the time it is the story of the woman next-door who never complains about her forced way of life, nor does she have the audacity to say that she wants to come out of the pointless marriage. Brick Lane's protagonist Nazneen is an exception as she is reticent till the very end of the story when on being asked to return home with her husband she revolts and chooses her young, radical lover who gives her hope of real happiness.

The Bangladeshi community in the UK, especially those from Sylhet, have said that the novel is "despicable "and "shameful" in showing their community reaching England by jumping ships and saying that they had lice and lived like rats in holes. These sentences, no doubt, are hurtful to anyone who had lived in the East End of London. But does is not portray reality of the early Bangladeshi settlers? Ask anyone who has been to the East End of London and seen how this part of London city has been transformed into a mini Bangladesh; even the tea cups (the ones used by the employees) in some of the shops are like our very own street side mamu'r dokan. Ali has just been brave enough to put it in her book, which has made the expats so upset.

Ali's portrayal of women is true like the sun rises in the East. It goes without saying that there are thousands of housewives like Nazneen -- both in the Bangladeshi community abroad and across Bangladesh -- whose dreams are being demolished by household drudgery.

The Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development Council has sent an 18-page letter to the author and also to judges of the Booker Awards. They also threatened to send more letters to any organisation who might decide to put Ali's book on an award-winning list. They even went to the length of comparing the book to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses which, they say, insults the name of the prophet. This has stirred up hostility in the literary world but those who have read the book should certainly realise that these allegations don't do justice to the book.

The community's leading personnel may mean a lot to the expats who live in the UK, but in terms of doing something for the country, their words mean nothing. Of course, they may have invested huge amounts of money in Sylhet and in other districts to build shopping malls in the middle of nowhere. There are about 500,000 Sylheti people living in the UK who have about 2 or 3 factions of either Bangladesh Nationalist Party or Bangladesh Awami League. Why can't there be just one community who will represent the whole country?

Monica Ali has also depicted the plight of a character in Brick Lane called Hasina (Nazneen's sister). Hasina, who is very beautiful, becomes a victim to the social injustices has to choose a life that is degrading to both herself and her surroundings. The Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development community Council -- for the matter the entire Bangladeshi community in the UK -- is living in a fool's paradise by saying that the author has been critical of only the Sylheti community in the UK. Monica is just showing her expertise in writing about the anomalies of the Bangladeshi society through literature.

It should be kept in mind moreover, that anyone who is gaining international praise must have real talent. It mustn't be the game of pulling someone backwards when one is striving to win the battle. Can any Sylheti or Bangladeshi deny any one of the elements that Ali has portrayed in her book? There is enough negative publicity regarding Bangladeshis. Let this not be another story of failure but let's make sure that while Monica Ali is chosen for another award all our best wishes are with her.

Jackie Kabir teaches English at the Tairunnessa Medical College



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