Brick Lane and the furore in Brick Lane
The recent furore in London's Tower Hamlets over the filming of Monica Ali's Brick Lane is a great reminder to many of us of our ancestors. Many of our ancestors came to this part of the globe for the sheer reason of livelihood. I feel quite captivated by the fact that my great-great grandfather, an Afghan peasant, left his home for reasons of survival. It must have been quite a struggle for him. Still, after arriving in his new would-be home country, he couldn't endorse prosperity until his son, who, I am told, obtained a few acres of land and started tilling them. The first man who came to erstwhile British India was certainly a man educated only by nature and far from being what we are today.
Now that after a century later, our family has moved far away from peasantry, would a look-back at our roots, the history of our ancestors, embarrass us? I surely would have a very different opinion on that.
Having said that, it's imperative to add that London's Bangali community's reactions, first, to Ali's novel, and then, to the filming of the novel, were a bit too harsh and self-demeaning. They called her novel "vulgar and insulting" towards the community. Bangladeshis - Sylheti to be more precise - living in Brick Lane had launched a campaign to stop the production of the film. Community leaders said Ali had portrayed them as backward and uneducated. One representative in Brick Lane was quoted as saying: "Monica uses words like 'illiterate' that reflect us in a bad light. Not only that, the plot is based on infidelity and has shown a Muslim woman having an extra-marital affair.” He also expressed fears that the film will promote "anti-social stereotypes" about Bangladeshis in England. "We want everyone to join our battle as this film could damage our identity," he said.
These remarks and allegations certainly warrant serious thinking about the contribution and successes of the community in the UK. These remarks might also seem acceptable if you are looking at it from a very superficial mindscape. The story of Ali's Brick Lane is about a Bangalee girl, Nazneen, who, when she had first travelled to Britain with her husband knew only two words of English. While getting accustomed to a new kind of life she becomes more and more conscious of her identity. Stretching over the 17 years of the narrative, she gradually finds her way, bringing up two daughters, eventually starting an all-female tailoring business. During this period, she also goes through many changes. Changes that are not compatible with her educated elderly husband, Chanu. This is where the Bangali community finds the novel to contain derogatory elements. Her husband - an English graduate from Dhaka University and always thinking very high of himself - always criticises the Sylheti community in Brick Lane. Judging whether he is right or wrong would be irrational if you're looking at it from a novelist's point of view. This character is like that: talking ill all the time about his countrymen.
The depiction of the Sylheti community might have been too harsh, but to the readers it closely resembles the state of Sylhetis living in Britain. Ali, a non-Sylheti Bangladeshi herself, 'might have' gone to an extent of portraying the Sylheti community from a western point of view, but does that really change the real picture? Are some of the existing social trends in Brick Lane less humiliating than what Ali's character depicts them?
There are also a few historical facts that merit acceptance by the community members. Do the facts that their ancestors jumped from ships, were uneducated and didn't have enough to feed themselves bother them? Some would certainly say that the history doesn't embarrass them, but most would feel outraged at anyone trying to bring the fact to the fore. There's no denying the fact what the very first batch of London-ward Bangladeshis - abused by local influential elite such as the morols and jotedars as well as the British - were unemployed, poor and a harassed bunch.
Ali's work can be strongly criticised on many aspects, especially on how less informed she is about Bangladesh. She should have done more research on the community in the UK, exactly as Manzu Islam a professor of English at Gloucestershire University - did while writing his novels Burrow and The Mapmakers of Spitalfields. But there is no dispute on her capability of characterisation in the novel. Negative elements of the community come in the novel with the baggage. She didn't also portray the significant contribution the Sylheti community has made both in the Bangladeshi and British societies. Their contribution to British life has served to strengthen the cultural and personal links, which for many years have been the UK's link to the outside world.
Ali hasn't tarnished anyone's image, neither has she tried to humiliate anyone. If she was trying to tarnish the image of the community then no one within the community ever tried to improve or promote it, ever. Doesn't the Bangladeshi community still make headlines in London papers on fighting among themselves over visits of political elite from Bangladesh? Hasn't the community experienced divisions among themselves, endlessly forming factions of Awami League and BNP, not to mention the associations one after another? You must be saying that doesn't give Ali the right to portray the community negatively through one of her characters. Well, if Ali had not, someone would have, because if you're making an impact on that society, someone down the line would have surely come up to portray the lot.
A still from the movie Brick Lane
There were writers who tried to praise and upheld the struggle of the residents of Brick Lane; how the members of the community, being harassed and attacked day after day, made a place for themselves in the heart of London. There is a vivid description in Manzu Islam's Burrow about how the community withstood the racist attacks on the community, boldly facing all the complications of a new culture which, the second generation of British-Bangladeshis, tried their best to melt in. Manzu Islam's works, much more mature than any work written on the community, reminds us of making movies such as Bend it Like Beckham and East is East? No one within the community has ever tried to make a movie that artistically portrays the community. After more than a century in the UK, the community could not even produce a novelist of the stature of Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukharjee. Living in the heartland of English language, the community has only brought out a few Bangalee weeklies only to cater to the needs within the community. Hardly any move was made to orient the community to the outside world. We in Bangladesh may live in a cocoon of ignorance, but the community members in the UK have all the possibilities of reaching out to the skies. Manzu Islam tried in his own small way, but no one in Bangladesh or in the community in Brick Lane ever knew about his writings not to even promote his works. He also portrayed Brick Lane where powerful 'holy men' who dissuade immigrants from sending their daughters to school and drug addicts who give a bad name to the Bangladeshi immigrants in the UK.
Ali, on that end, has done a great job for the Sylheti community in the UK; it's only after her novel and of course the consequent furore in Brick Lane that the whole world has come to know about the community, its contribution to the British society as well as their successes. The community needs to open enough to accept the facts about their past and present weaknesses. Weakness and backwardness don't belittle anyone. And talking about past, the past of the Bangladeshi community is a saga where each and every person living in Brick Lane has a tale to tell.
As for myself, I would have considered myself lucky if I was a member of that community. At least for telling the tales of heroism to the world. I would have loved to tell the world that my great-great grandfather, who jumped on the English soil from a ship a hundred years ago, now owns many of the best restaurants there, changing the cuisine and taste of the people there!
Ekram Kabir is a Dhaka-based journalist.
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