In The Wall
By Farzana Versey
07 October, 2006
fate of the filming of Monica Ali's book will add her to the roster
of Joans of Arc in what has now become a routine canonisation ritual
of pop multiculturalism. A group of Bangladeshis has been opposing the
film version of ' Brick Lane'; they found her story a caricature of
them and their surroundings.
Germaine Greer chose to speak
up for them: "She (Ali) writes in English and her point of view
is — whether she allows herself to impersonate a village Bangladeshi
woman or not, British. She has forgotten her Bengali, which she would
not have done if she had wanted to remember it. When it comes to writing
a novel, however, she becomes the pledge of our multi-ethnicity."
Salman Rushdie hit back at
Greer, referring to her views as "philistine, sanctimonious, and
disgraceful but it is not unexpected". His own reaction is not
unexpected when he neatly finds a way to bring back talk about his incarceration.
This, unfortunately, got
labeled a "literary spat" and took away from some serious
questions about the colonisation of space – physical, intellectual
and emotional. Diaspora literature at one time flaunted the arrogance
of a Brown Sahib. It has now been replaced by the arrogance of the mistresses
of spices and Buddhas of suburbia uttering Moorish last sighs.
When Greer stated, "Ali
did not concern herself with the possibility that her plot might seem
outlandish to the people who created the particular culture of Brick
Lane," she was in fact alluding to how one can make reality imitate
She had a point when she
elaborated, "English readers were charmed by her Bengali characters.
But some of the Sylhetis of Brick Lane did not recognise themselves.
Bengali Muslims smart under an Islamic prejudice that they are irreligious
and disorderly, the impure among the pure, and here was a proto-Bengali
writer with a Muslim name, portraying them as all of that and more.
For people who don't have much else, self-esteem is crucial."
This must really rub the
likes of Rushdie the wrong way, for they have used the Islamic card
as both identity and albatross. They romanticise their expatriate status
as "exile". How many displaced people has Rushdie supported?
Shouldn't he have a closer look at other lesser lives in danger? They
are either deported or on the run. In fact, many of them do not return
to their original homes, even as a symbolic gesture, but escape to lands
where they may not have to face the ignominy of being refugees in their
own land. They swallow denial of individuality. Balti cuisine was started
by a Bangladeshi and dignified for the British as Indian because it
was their largest colony.
Mr. Rushdie has no such concerns.
Had it been so, he would then have talked about true democracy in the
developed world, the free spirit of expression. It wouldn't strike him
that, unlike the little people who, despite having set up stores and
motels which grew into big businesses, have to 'pretend to be rehabilitated'
in their new environs, he can sup with the devil and call himself a
victim of Gabriel Farishta. His Shangri-la lies in a 14-inch scar on
the lissome limb of his Madras-Manhattan muse.
Does he really consider India
his motherland? As he wrote long ago in 'The Guardian', "I am conscious
of shifts in my writing. There was always a tug-of-war in me between
'there' and 'here', the pull of roots and the dream of leaving. In that
struggle of insiders and outsiders, I used to feel simultaneously on
both sides. Now I've come down firmly on the side of those who by preference,
nature or circumstance simply do not belong."
What does this mean? The
libertine and the liberal have been taken over. Free speech has become
the protected species of a precious few who call their designer baggage
The mechanisation of creativity
and the creativity in mechanisation have cut through the swathe of art-house
to transmogrify into fart-house with seamless ease.
The coloniser here is not
a foreigner, but a benevolent immigrant out to make a socially relevant
statement. These books and films do raise questions about the Asian
diaspora, but the Wembley-Southall-Birmingham-Bradford route comes with
too many bells and whistles.
Take just one example of
a film like East is East. You have to possess a warped mentality to
appreciate it. Zaheer Khan (Om Puri) is portrayed as a cultural idiot,
a tyrannical 'Paki' with a first wife back home, who does not know what
he wants. A man who has risen in life to set up a shop of his own, gone
ahead and married a White woman, would not behave the way he does, and
certainly not mouth foul language. These elements are added only to
make a mockery of people's need to find the familiar. But peeing in
a tin bucket? Making his England-born sons put surma in their eyes?
Presenting them with watches that show the time in Arabic? (Even Osama
wouldn't have placed such a premium on that.)
Or when Gurinder Chadha Punjabifies
Jane Austen, just take a look at her prejudices. She brings in a bumbling
NRI who is shown eating rather indelicately with his fingers. What was
going on in her mind? He has gone to America on his own steam, made
some money and is showing off because that is his USP. Does it mean
he is so deranged that he will stuff food in his mouth as though he
has been starving for months? Are we being told that this is the way
Indians connect with their roots?
Chadha has a neat hierarchy
of her own. The Indians living in India are good if they retain the
customs, add colour to the proceedings and, despite being gauche in
most matters, know their table manners. The NRIs who are nouveau riche
deserve contempt and they are villagers at heart and have no right to
be villagers at heart because they must adopt and adapt to their new
country. The NRIs who are born rich are good because they are assimilated
and know all about thin cucumber sandwiches.
Instead of being dismissed
as a Jackie Collins for her tell-all autobiography, Taslima Nasreen
was put on a pedestal for exposing the social mores that come with G-strings
attached. Her pathetic attempt at connecting the Partition, the Bangladesh
War and the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots in India in Lajja showed
quite clearly that the historicity she wallowed in could only be restricted
to the immediacy of her marketing skills.
There have been others who
have written against minority persecution in her country. The human
rights activist and writer, Salam Azad, wrote two books, 'Ethnic Cleansing'
and 'Post election atrocities on the Hindus in Bangladesh'. How many
people have heard of him?
In 'Brick Lane' the protagonist
is an outsider but not in the intellectual sense; she is more of a misfit
because she is docile due to her roots. Monica Ali must have realised
that breaking glass ceilings would only result in shards. A smell-of-the-soil
stuff has the right touch.
This literary pastiche has
been sanctified as the real thing. We had the example of a respected
Javed Akhtar writing the script for a wedding, that of a non-resident
Indian. Laxmi Mittal, being one of the richest men in the world, with
the most expensive house in England, could well afford to celebrate
his daughter's nuptials in style in Paris.
This would be decoded as
multiculturalism. The poor expat living in a house of cards is a mere
canvas for shrewd practitioners of the art of creating illusions. He
does not even have the luxury of claiming his own reality.
is a Mumbai-based writer whose columns have been published in several
leading newspapers and magazines. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
On This Article