Brick Lane
eBook - ePub

Brick Lane

A Novel

Monica Ali

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  1. 384 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Brick Lane

A Novel

Monica Ali

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"A book you won't be able to put down. A Bangladeshi immigrant in London is torn between the kind, tedious older husband with whom she has an arranged marriage (and children) and the fiery political activist she lusts after. A novel that's multi-continental, richly detailed and elegantly crafted." —Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Sisterland After an arranged marriage to Chanu, a man twenty years older, Nazneen is taken to London, leaving her home and heart in the Bangladeshi village where she was born. Her new world is full of mysteries. How can she cross the road without being hit by a car (an operation akin to dodging raindrops in the monsoon)? What is the secret of her bullying neighbor Mrs. Islam? What is a Hell's Angel? And how must she comfort the naïve and disillusioned Chanu?As a good Muslim girl, Nazneen struggles to not question why things happen. She submits, as she must, to Fate and devotes herself to her husband and daughters. Yet to her amazement, she begins an affair with a handsome young radical, and her erotic awakening throws her old certainties into chaos.Monica Ali's splendid novel is about journeys both external and internal, where the marvelous and the terrifying spiral together.

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Informazioni

Editore
Scribner
Anno
2003
ISBN
9780743249713

Chapter One

MYMENSINGH DISTRICT, EAST PAKISTAN, 1967
An hour and forty-five minutes before Nazneen’s life began—began as it would proceed for quite some time, that is to say uncertainly—her mother, Rupban, felt an iron fist squeeze her belly. Rupban squatted on a low three-legged stool outside the kitchen hut. She was plucking a chicken because Hamid’s cousins had arrived from Jessore and there would be a feast. “Cheepy-cheepy, you are old and stringy,” she said, calling the bird by name as she always did, “but I would like to eat you, indigestion or no indigestion. And tomorrow I will have only boiled rice, no parathas.”
She pulled some more feathers and watched them float around her toes. “Aaah,” she said. “Aaaah. Aaaah.” Things occurred to her. For seven months she had been ripening, like a mango on a tree. Only seven months. She put aside those things that had occurred to her. For a while, an hour and a half, though she did not know it, until the men came in from the fields trailing dust and slapping their stomachs, Rupban clutched Cheepy-cheepy’s limp and bony neck and said only “Coming, coming” to all inquiries about the bird. The shadows of the children playing marbles and thumping each other grew long and spiky. The scent of fried cumin and cardamom drifted over the compound. The goats bleated high and thin. Rupban screamed white heat, red blood.
Hamid ran from the latrine, although his business was unfinished. He ran across the vegetable plot, past the towers of rice stalk taller than the tallest building, over the dirt track that bounded the village, back to the compound, and grabbed a club to kill the man who was killing his wife. He knew it was her. Who else could break glass with one screech? Rupban was in the sleeping quarters. The bed was unrolled, though she was still standing. With one hand she held Mumtaz’s shoulder, with the other a half-plucked chicken.
Mumtaz waved Hamid away. “Go. Get Banesa. Are you waiting for a rickshaw? Go on, use your legs.”
* * *
Banesa picked up Nazneen by an ankle and blew disparagingly through her gums over the tiny blue body. “She will not take even one breath. Some people, who think too much about how to save a few takas, do not call a midwife.” She shook her hairless, wrinkled head. Banesa claimed to be one hundred and twenty years old, and had made this claim consistently for the past decade or so. Since no one in the village remembered her birth, and since Banesa was more desiccated than an old coconut, no one cared to dispute it. She claimed, too, one thousand babies, of which only three were cripples, two were mutants (a hermaphrodite and a humpback), one a stillbirth, and another a monkey-lizard-hybrid-sin-against-God-that-was-buried-alive-in-the-faraway-forest-and-the-mother-sent-hence-to-who-cares-where. Nazneen, though dead, could not be counted among these failures, having been born shortly before Banesa creaked inside the hut.
“See your daughter,” Banesa said to Rupban. “Perfect everywhere. All she lacked was someone to ease her path to this world.” She looked at Cheepy-cheepy lying next to the bereaved mother and hollowed her cheeks; a hungry look widened her eyes slightly although they were practically buried in crinkles. It was many months since she had tasted meat, now that two young girls (she should have strangled them at birth) had set up in competition.
“Let me wash and dress her for the burial,” said Banesa. “Of course I offer my service free. Maybe just that chicken there for my trouble. I see it is old and stringy.”
“Let me hold her,” said Nazneen’s aunt Mumtaz, who was crying.
“I thought it was indigestion,” said Rupban, also beginning to cry.
Mumtaz took hold of Nazneen, who was still dangling by the ankle, and felt the small, slick torso slide through her fingers to plop with a yowl onto the bloodstained mattress. A yowl! A cry! Rupban scooped her up and named her before she could die nameless again.
Banesa made little explosions with her lips. She used the corner of her yellowing sari to wipe some spittle from her chin. “This is called a death rattle,” she explained. The three women put their faces close to the child. Nazneen flailed her arms and yelled, as if she could see this terrifying sight. She began to lose the blueness and turned slowly to brown and purple. “God has called her back to earth,” said Banesa, with a look of disgust.
Mumtaz, who was beginning to doubt Banesa’s original diagnosis, said, “Well, didn’t He just send her to us a few minutes ago? Do you think He changes His mind every second?”
Banesa mumbled beneath her breath. She put her hand over Nazneen’s chest, her twisted fingers like the roots of an old tree that had worked their way aboveground. “The baby lives but she is weak. There are two routes you can follow,” she said, addressing herself solely to Rupban. “Take her to the city, to a hospital. They will put wires on her and give medicines. This is very expensive. You will have to sell your jewelry. Or you can just see what Fate will do.” She turned a little to Mumtaz to include her now, and then back to Rupban. “Of course, Fate will decide everything in the end, whatever route you follow.”
“We will take her to the city,” said Mumtaz, red patches of defiance rising on her cheeks. But Rupban, who could not stop crying, held her daughter to her breast and shook her head. “No,” she said, “we must not stand in the way of Fate. Whatever happens, I accept it. And my child must not waste any energy fighting against Fate. That way, she will be stronger.”
“Good, then it is settled,” said Banesa. She hovered for a moment or two because she was hungry enough, almost, to eat the baby, but after a look from Mumtaz she shuffled away back to her hovel.
* * *
Hamid came to look at Nazneen. She was wrapped in cheesecloth and laid on an old jute sack on top of the bedroll. Her eyes were closed and puffed as though she had taken two hard punches.
“A girl,” said Rupban.
“I know. Never mind,” said Hamid. “What can you do?” And he went away again.
Mumtaz came in with a tin plate of rice, dal, and chicken curry. “She doesn’t feed,” Rupban told her. “She doesn’t know what to do. Probably it is her Fate to starve to death.”
Mumtaz rolled her eyes. “She’ll feed in the morning. Now you eat. Or you are destined to die of hunger too.” She smiled at her sister-in-law’s small sad face, all her features lined up, as ever, to mourn for everything that had passed and all that would come to pass.
But Nazneen did not feed in the morning. Nor the next day. The day after, she turned her face away from the nipple and made gagging noises. Rupban, who was famous for crying, couldn’t keep up with the demand for tears. People came: aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, nephews, nieces, in-laws, village women, and Banesa. The midwife dragged her bent feet across the hard mud floor of the hut and peered at the infant. “I have heard of one child who would not feed from the mother but was suckled by a goat.” She smiled and showed her black gums. “Of course, that was not one of my babies.”
Hamid came once or twice, but at night he slept outside on a choki. On the fifth day, when Rupban in spite of herself was beginning to wish that Fate would hurry and make up its mind, Nazneen clamped her mouth around the nipple so that a thousand red-hot needles ran through Rupban’s breast and made her cry out for pain and for the relief of a good and patient woman.
* * *
As Nazneen grew she heard many times this story of How You Were Left to Your Fate. It was because of her mother’s wise decision that Nazneen lived to become the wide-faced, watchful girl that she was. Fighting against one’s Fate can weaken the blood. Sometimes, or perhaps most times, it can be fatal. Not once did Nazneen question the logic of the story of How You Were Left to Your Fate. Indeed, she was grateful for her mother’s quiet courage, her tearful stoicism that was almost daily in evidence. Hamid said—he always looked away as he spoke—“Your mother is naturally a saint. She comes from a family of saints.” So when Rupban advised Nazneen to be still in her heart and mind, to accept the Grace of God, to treat life with the same indifference with which it would treat her, she listened closely, with her large head tilted back and her cheeks slack with equanimity.
She was a comically solemn child. “How is my precious? Still glad you came back to life?” asked Mumtaz after she had not seen Nazneen for a couple of days. “I have no complaints or regrets to tell you,” said Nazneen. “I tell everything to God.”
What could not be changed must be borne. And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life. It was mantra, fettle, and challenge. So that, at the age of thirty-four, after she had been given three children and had one taken away, when she had a futile husband and had been fated a young and demanding lover, when for the first time she could not wait for the future to be revealed but had to make it for herself, she was as startled by her own agency as an infant who waves a clenched fist and strikes itself upon the eye.
* * *
Her sister, Hasina, born only three days after Banesa passed away (one hundred and twenty years old then and forevermore), listened to no one. At the age of sixteen, when her beauty was becoming almost unbearable to own or even to look at, she eloped to Khulna with the nephew of the sawmill owner. Hamid ground his teeth and an axe besides. For sixteen hot days and cool nights he sat between the two lemon trees that marked the entrance to the compound. For that time his only occupation was throwing stones at the piebald dogs that scavenged in the dump just beyond, and cursing his whore-pig daughter whose head would be severed the moment she came crawling back. Those nights, Nazneen lay awake listening to the rattling of the corrugated tin roof, starting at the owl calls that no longer sounded like owls but more like a girl felled by an axe on the back of her neck. Hasina did not come. Hamid went back to supervising the laborers in the paddy fields. But for a couple of thrashings given on only the slightest of provocation, you would not know he had lost a daughter.
Soon after, when her father asked if she would like to see a photograph of the man she would marry the following month, Nazneen shook her head and replied, “Abba, it is good that you have chosen my husband. I hope I can be a good wife, like Amma.” But as she turned to go she noticed, without meaning to, where her father put the photograph.
She just happened to see it. These things happen. She carried the image around in her mind as she walked beneath the banyans with her cousins. The man she would marry was old. At least forty years old. He had a face like a frog. They would marry and he would take her back to England with him. She looked across the fields, glittering green and gold in the brief evening light. In the distance a hawk circled and fell like a stone, came up again and flew against the sky until it shrank to nothing. There was a hut in the middle of the paddy. It looked wrong: embarrassed, sliding down at one side, trying to hide. The tornado that had flattened half the neighboring village had selected this hut to be saved, but had relocated it. In the village they were still burying their dead and looking for bodies. Dark spots moved through the far fields. Men, doing whatever they could in this world.
TOWER HAMLETS, LONDON, 1985
Nazneen waved at the tattoo lady. The tattoo lady was always there when Nazneen looked out across the dead grass and broken paving stones to the block opposite. Most of the flats, which enclosed three sides of a square, had net curtains, and the life behind was all shapes and shadows. But the tattoo lady had no curtains at all. Morning and afternoon she sat with her big thighs spilling over the sides of her chair, tipping forward to drop ash in a bowl, tipping back to slug from her can. She drank now, and tossed the can out of the window.
It was the middle of the day. Nazneen had finished the housework. Soon she would start preparing the evening meal, but for a while she would let the time pass. It was hot and the sun fell flat on the metal window frames and glared off the glass. A red-and-gold sari hung out of a top-floor flat in Rosemead block. A baby’s bib and miniature dungarees lower down. The sign screwed to the brickwork was in stiff English capitals and the curlicues beneath were Bengali. No Dumping. No Parking. No Ball Games. Two old men in white panjabi pajama and skullcaps walked along the path, slowly, as if they did not want to go where they were going. A thin brown dog sniffed along to the middle of the grass and defecated. The breeze on Nazneen’s face was thick with the smell from the overflowing communal bins.
Six months now since she’d been sent away to London. Every morning before she opened her eyes she thought, If I were the wishing type, I know what I would wish. And then she opened her eyes and saw Chanu’s puffy face on the pillow next to her, his lips parted indignantly even as he slept. She saw the pink dressing table with the curly-sided mirror, and the monstrous black wardrobe that claimed most of the room. Was it cheating? To think, I know what I would wish? Was it not the same as making the wish? If she knew what the wish would be, then somewhere in her heart she had already made it.
The tattoo lady waved back at Nazneen. She scratched her arms, her shoulders, the accessible portions of her buttocks. She yawned and lit a cigarette. At least two thirds of the flesh on show was covered in ink. Nazneen had never been close enough (never closer than this, never farther) to decipher the designs. Chanu said the tattoo lady was Hell’s Angel, which upset Nazneen. She thought the tattoos might be flowers, or birds. They were ugly and they made the tattoo lady more ugly than was necessary, but the tattoo lady clearly did not care. Every time Nazneen saw her she wore the same look of boredom and detachment. Such a state was sought by the sadhus who walked in rags through the Muslim villages, indifferent to the kindness of strangers, the unkind sun.
Nazneen sometimes thought of going downstairs, crossing the yard, and climbing the Rosemead stairwell to the fourth floor. She might have to knock on a few doors before the tattoo lady answered. She would take something, an offering of samosas or bhajis, and the tattoo lady would smile and Nazneen would smile and perhaps they would sit together by the window and let the time pass more easily. She thought of it but she would not go. Strangers would answer if she knocked on the wrong door. The tattoo lady might be angry at an unwanted interruption. It was clear she did not like to leave her chair. And even if she wasn’t angry, what would be the point? Nazneen could say two things in English: sorry and thank you. She could spend another day alone. It was only another day.
She should be getting on with the evening meal. The lamb curry was prepared. She had made it last night with tomatoes and new potatoes. There was chicken saved in the freezer from the last time Dr. Azad had been invited but had canceled at the last minute. There was still the dal to make, and the vegetable dishes, the spices to grind, the rice to wash, and the sauce to prepare for the fish that Chanu would bring this evening. She would rinse the glasses and rub them with newspaper to make them shine. The tablecloth had some spots to be scrubbed out. What if it went wrong? The rice might stick. She might oversalt the dal. Chanu might forget the fish.
It was only dinner. One dinner. One guest.
She left the window open. Standing on the sofa to reach, she picked up the Holy Qur’an from the high shelf that Chanu, under duress, had specially built. She made her intention as fervently as possible, seeking refuge from Satan with fists clenched and fingernails digging into her palms. Then she selected a page at random and began to read.
To God belongs all that the heavens and the earth contain. We exhort you, as We have exhorted those to whom the Book was given before you, to fear God. If you deny Him, know that to God belongs all that the heavens and earth contain. God is self-sufficient and worthy of praise.
The words calmed her stomach and she was pleased. Even Dr. Azad was nothing as to God. To God belongs all that the heavens and the earth contain. She said it over a few times, aloud. She was composed. Nothing could bother her. Only God, if he chose to. Chanu might flap about and squawk because Dr. Azad was coming for dinner. Let him flap. To God belongs all that the heavens and the earth contain. How would it sound in Arabic? More lovely even than in Bengali, she supposed, for those were the actual Words of God.
She closed the book and looked around the room to check it was tidy enough. Chanu’s books and papers were stacked beneath the table. They would have to be moved or Dr. Azad would not be able to get his feet in. The rugs, which she had held out of the window earlier and beaten with a wooden spoon, needed to be put down again. There were three rugs: red and orange, green and purple, brown and blue. The carpet was yellow with a green leaf design. One hundred percent nylon and, Chanu said, very hard-wearing. The sofa and chairs were the color of dried cow dung, which was a practical color. They had little sheaths of plastic on the headrests to protect them from Chanu’s hair oil. There was a lot of furniture, more than Nazneen had seen in one room before. Even if you took all the furniture in the compound, from every auntie and uncle’s ghar, it would not match up to this one room. There was a low...

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