by Claire Chambers
Something rather different comes out of fiction by three Bengali women writers based in Britain, as compared to the male authors I examined in Banglaphone Fiction I and II. In this third and final part of the essay, I first examine Monica Ali who, in her novel Brick Lane, mostly evokes life in Britain, with only occasional and usually proleptic descriptions of Bangladesh. By contrast, Sunetra Gupta's Memories of Rain is at once intercontinental, urban, and stateless – often all within a single sentence. The final author Tahmima Anam deploys an alternative strategy again, choosing, in A Golden Age and The Good Muslim, to abjure representations of Britain altogether, in favour of a concentrated focus on the Bangladeshi nation.
‘This is another disease that afflicts us,' said the doctor. ‘I call it Going Home Syndrome. Do you know what that means?' He addressed himself to Nazneen. …
‘[W]hen they have saved enough they will get on an aeroplane and go?'
‘They don't ever really leave home. Their bodies are here but their hearts are back there. And anyway, look how they live: just recreating the villages here. … But they will never save enough to go back. … Every year they think, just one more year. But whatever they save, it's never enough.'
‘We would not need very much,' said Nazneen. Both men looked at her. She spoke to her plate.
No text exemplifies more clearly the contrast between the England-returned and the myth of return migrants that I discuss elsewhere than Brick Lane. The above quotation illustrates what the medical man Dr Azad calls ‘Going Home Syndrome', a disease that he claims afflicts Bangladeshi migrants. This links with a strand in the novel about the migrant's sense of being out of place, which can lead to mental illness such as Nazneen's collapse due to ‘nervous exhaustion'. (See Esra Santesso's Disorientation for a good reading of this.)
Probably the most important means by which migrants either try to assimilate in the host country or turn away from it towards the homeland is through education. At first, Nazneen's husband Chanu imagines himself to be immune to Going Home Syndrome, and tries instead to make a life for himself in Britain. When he arrives in England, all Chanu has is the usual few pounds in his pocket, along with the significant additional item of his degree certificate. In England he undertakes classes in everything from nineteenth-century economics to cycling proficiency, and acquires further certificates. These he frames and displays on the wall of his and Nazneen's poky Tower Hamlets home, as a talisman of his hopes of promotion at work and the consequent acquisition of a comfortable life in London. Yet his dreams remain unrealized, whether because of institutional racism at his work or his own incompetence is never made clear. Chanu's aspirations then take a bitter turn towards his becoming an England-returned success story. He clings increasingly to the fantasy of returning to Dhaka in financial and social triumph. However, as sociologist Muhammad Anwar argues, this notion of return migration often proves to be a myth, especially because wives and children help men to put down roots in the new country. Nazneen and especially her young daughters Shahana and Bibi fear their father's longed-for homecoming. The rationale for going back to Dhaka is tenuously based on a saviour complex – to rescue Nazneen's sister, the vulnerable ingenue Hasina whose unwittingly alarming letters to Nazneen about sexual grooming and exploitation pepper the narrative – but the three women now have roots in Britain. They decide to stay on. Trailing clouds of defeat more than glory, the patriarch Chanu goes home on his own.
A decision in reverse, whereby the woman moves back to the subcontinent while her husband stays in Britain, is described by Sunetra Gupta. A Bengali Hindu author who writes about life in London and elsewhere in southern England, Gupta's day job is as an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford. Her most interesting work of fiction is probably Memories of Rain (1992). This debut novel centres on the young, dreamy protagonist Moni's furtive plans to return home to Calcutta. This choice has been made for her by her husband Anthony's passionate and drawn-out affair with a slim, green-eyed Englishwoman named Anna. Languorous, even lachrymose free indirect discourse conveys Moni's acute sense of her own beauty and intelligence and her refined disappointment in her husband's womanizing. Indeed, the narrative voice recalls that of another Bengali woman writer, American-resisdent Bharati Mukherjee, who in early works such as The Tiger's Daughter expresses the similarly elitist ennui of the upper-class exile.
Gupta's Moni works as a translator for the National Health Service, interpreting the medical problems of poor Bangladeshi migrants for their health care professionals. Despite sharing a language and ethnicity with these mostly Muslim inhabitants of Britain, she feels that they have little in common. This has more to do with the British-Bengalis' modest social class and destitution than their religion. Repelled by ‘the pits of squalor that they called their homes' and with a Brahminical distaste for their ‘dense smell of spice trapped in winter wool, of old oil and fungus, poverty and filth', Moni exhibits significant condescension towards her co-regionalists. In the course of the plane journey back to Calcutta, she encounters a British Bengali of indeterminate religious identity who tries to engage her in conversation. Her sense of superiority is again exposed as she refuses to listen to the specificities of his potted biography:
he is going back to do his medical elective at the hospital where his father was trained, it will be an experience, he was a child of two when his parents left, she knows their story, she has heard it many times before, of how they had landed upon English soil with a mere five pounds to their name, the first difficult years, on weekends they had shared curried shad with other couples and reminisced of hilsa fish, cradling their children, they had rubbed their eyes in the damp heat of the coin-operated gas fires, and absorbed heavy texts, and now they basked in their hard-earned success, in detached suburban homes, their children amassing A-levels, she remembers a damp day… when an unmistakable East Bengal accent drifted through the spangled wire, you will not remember me, her father's distant cousin, they had urged her to spend a day with them, and the following evening … in the oppressive heat of their home she had met his kind wife, the smell of fried spice hung dense in the overheated hallway, the wife, her aunt, took her coat …
This passage is worth quoting at length because it demonstrates how the unnamed Bengali and his family are rendered generic by her dismissive aside, ‘she knows their story'. What could have become a novel in itself – the tale of a Bengali couple with little money overcoming the hardship and hostility of Britain through hard work and community support – is reduced to less than a sentence. Moni's aunt and uncle, Hindu migrants who presumably moved from East Bengal because of Partition, make her familiar with the narrative trajectory, so she closes her ears. Further information about Gupta's writerly concerns is made manifest at the level of the 595-word sentence, of which I have quoted only an excerpt. With their breathless, iterative comma splices and literary impressionistic intertwining of actions with memories and thoughts, Gupta's sentences engage in quasi-modernist provocation.
They also allow the novelist to convey that Moni never truly gets to know England. Each time the narrative starts to explore the country, her character's memories and tastes make it veer off into descriptions of India, more specifically Calcutta. For example, the well-worn trope of a migrant's journey on the Tube transmutes, at Gupta's hand, into reminiscences about an English teacher back in Calcutta. In the space of a single, however protracted, sentence, Moni quickly abandons London's autumnal streets for the overheated cocoon of a train. On the wall of her carriage is some verse by Keats, part of a ‘Poems on the Underground' promotion. Reading this leads the upper-class character to think, with a mixture of contempt and compassion, about a temporary lecturer who taught Keats at her Calcuttan college and whose broad Bengali accent she and the other girls had mocked. This cognitive and spatial dissonance, which prevents the narrative from dwelling on the London Underground or Romantic poetry for long, is characteristic of much of the Banglaphone writing I have examined so far in this essay's three parts, even if it is especially exaggerated in Gupta's prose.
Another Bengali woman writer based in London, Tahmima Anam, has a different literary approach altogether. Whereas Ali uses occasional flashbacks to Bangladesh and Gupta tightly interbraids her present-day British action Calcuttan memories, Anam chooses not to represent Britain at all.
Her first novel, A Golden Age, was published in 2007 and focused on the 1971 Liberation War which, after India's military involvement, led to Pakistan's defeat and the creation of the new nation of Bangladesh. As with Brick Lane, the plot is conveyed through third-person narrative interspersed with occasional letters. A Golden Age's protagonist Rehana is an Urdu-speaking widow who strives to protect her teenage children while supporting the Mukti Bahini, or Bangladeshi liberation army, in its war effort.
The action of The Good Muslim, Anam's second novel of her planned Bengal Trilogy, mostly unfolds during the 1980s, a decade when the Islamic Right became increasingly powerful in Bangladesh. Focalization is transferred from A Golden Age's Rehana to her daughter, Maya, now in her early thirties, and occasionally to her older brother, Sohail. These siblings react very differently to ‘the Dictator' Hussain Muhammad Ershad's military rule. Sohail joins the Tablighi Jamaat, an austere, revivalist religious movement, while Maya keeps faith with the secular, left-leaning nationalism that sustained them both during the war years, an era of political idealism she remembers with exponential nostalgia as she and her brother grow apart.
In 2013, Anam was named one of Britain's best young novelists by Granta magazine. In interviews and journalism she not only focuses on Bangladeshi politics and cultural production, but also discusses 'making a home in London', the banal details of the contents of her weekly veg box, and her earlier life as a PhD student in the US. One would not know this from her fiction, set in Bangladesh or in the case of her forthcoming novel Shipbreaker the Bangladeshi diaspora in Dubai. And this is to be welcomed, while simultaneously welcoming Anam into the fold of British literature. As with many of the writers explored here, she is a global thinker, a nationalist who is not easily confined within national boundaries.
What we might call ‘Banglaphone fiction' is, I have argued over the last three posts, currently experiencing a boom. Depictions of Bangladeshis, especially Sylhetis, in London, their cuisine, and other aspects of popular culture form an enduring fascination, among Hindu Indian as well as Muslim Bangladeshi authors. An increasing number of women writers, with heritage from Calcutta as well as Dhaka, are adding their voices to the chorus of Banglaphone fiction. Ali, Gupta, and Anam have the confidence to focus on Britain, divert away from it towards memories of the subcontinent, or ignore it altogether. What future women novelists will do with these very different models remains to be seen.