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Bricks In The Wall

By Farzana Versey

07 October, 2006

The 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 It has now been replaced by the arrogance of the mistresses of spices and Buddhas of suburbia uttering Moorish last sighs.

Physical space

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 reality.

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 history.

Intellectual space

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.

Emotional space

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.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer whose columns have been published in several leading newspapers and magazines. She can be reached at

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