'When we first came - tell them, you tell them - we lived in a one-room hovel. We dined on rice and dal, rice and dal. For breakfast we had rice and dal. For lunch we drank water to bloat out our stomachs. This is how he finished medical school. And now - look! Of course, the doctor is very refined. Sometimes he forgets that without my family's help he would not have all those letters after his name.'

'It's a success story,' said Chanu, exercising his shoulders. 'But behind every story of immigrant success there lies a deeper tragedy.'

'Kindly explain this tragedy.'

'I'm talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I'm talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one's identity and heritage. I'm talking about children who don't know what their identity is. I'm talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I'm talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one's sanity while striving to achieve the best for one's family. I'm talking -'

Chanu looked at Dr Azad but his friend studied the backs of his hands.

'Why do you make it so complicated?' said the doctor's wife. 'Assimilation this, alienation that! Let me tell you a few simple facts. Fact: we live in a Western society. Fact: our children will act more and more like Westerners. Fact: that's no bad thing. My daughter is free to come and go. Do I wish I had enjoyed myself like her when I was young? Yes!'

Mrs Azad struggled out of her chair. Nazneen thought - and it made her feel a little giddy - she's going to the pub as well. But their hostess walked over to the gas fire and bent, from the waist, to light it. Nazneen averted her eyes.

Mrs Azad continued. Listen, when I'm in Bangladesh I put on a sari and cover my head and all that. But here I go out to work. I work with white girls and I'm just one of them. If I want to come home and eat curry, that's my business. Some women spend ten, twenty years here and they sit in the kitchen grinding spices all day and learn only two words of English.' She looked at Nazneen who focused on Raqib. 'They go around covered from head to toe, in their little walking prisons, and when someone calls to them in the street they are upset. The society is racist. The society is all wrong. Everything should change for them. They don't have to change one thing. That,' she said, stabbing the air, 'is the tragedy.'

The room was quiet. The air was too bright, and the hard light hid nothing. The moments came and went, with nothing to ease their passing.

'Each one has his own tragedy,' said Chanu at last. His lips and brow worked feverishly on some private business. Raqib thought this conclusion unsatisfactory. He gazed at his father with cobra-like intensity, and then he began to cry.

'Come with me,'said Mrs Azad to Nazneen. I've got something for the baby.' In the bedroom, she looked at the back of a cupboard and pulled out a chewed teddy bear. She tried to interest the baby but Raqib just rubbed bis eyes and rolled off to sleep. Nazneen changed his nappy and put bis pyjamas on. He did not wake. Mrs Azad smoked a cigarette. She stroked Raqib's head with one hand and smoked with the other. Watching her now, Nazneen felt something like affection for this woman, this fat-nosed street fighter. And she knew why the doctor came. Not for the food, not to get away from this purple-clawed woman (although maybe for these things as well), not to share a love of learning, not to borrow books or discuss mobile libraries or literature or politics or art. He came as a man of science, to observe a rare specimen: unhappiness greater than his own.
667 words

From 'Brick Lane', A Black Swan Book, 2003, (paperback), pp.113-115

Nazneen - protagonist of the novel
Raqib - Nazneen's baby boy
Chanu - Nazneen's husband who Nazneen has been arranged to marry
Mr and Mrs Azad - Chanu's friends

dal - Indian side-dish
to engender - erzeugen
giddy - albern, schwindlig

1. What does Chanu understand by 'tragedy'?
2. Describe Mrs Azad's attitude towards integration and assimilation of immigrants to Britain.
  What difficulties might Muslim Bangladeshis such as the characters above have in Britain?
3. What does the statement 'unhappiness greater than his own' mean? Why does Nazneen think that she is unhappier than Mr Azad?
4. What do you think is most important for emigrants to heed if they want to live in a foreign country?

amazon.de Brick Lane
Monica Ali

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