BEFORE MONICA ALI, THERE WAS MANZU ISLAM – book review

Niaz Zaman

Before there was Monica Ali and her Brick Lane, there was Syed Manzurul Islam – or as he now calls himself Manzu Islam – who wrote about Brick Lane and its denizens. In some of the short stories of The Mapmakers of Spitalfields, particularly the titular story, Islam describes what it is like to be Bangladeshi, especially an illegal Bangladeshi in East London. In Burrow – which seems at times an expanded version of the story of Brothero-Man, always on the look-out for those men in white overalls – Islam tells the story of Tapan Ali who comes to England as a student but stays on.
Like Monica Ali’s Chanu, Ali wants to settle down in England. He sees an opportunity in a marriage of convenience with Adela. But this marriage soon collapses. Though Adela knows she is pregnant, she says nothing to Ali. It is only much later that Ali, now having an affair with Nilufar, knows that he is a father. Now an illegal, Tapan becomes a mole who must burrow underground, supported, in Tapan’s case, by friends such as Sundar Mia, Masuk Bhai, Josef K and Nilufar Mia. But it is not possible for Tapan to escape the immigration officials forever.
Strangely enough, Tapan, who has been burrowing all this while, seems to feel relieved that his period of hiding is over. It is winter. But the sun is out and, inside the flat, Tapan doesn’t feel the cold. ‘Today is the day when finally it will happen.’ Someone has just informed on him, and the immigration officials are on their way. Yet, he doesn’t feel anxious, not because he has given in to the inevitable, but because he has freed himself from feeling that way.
He takes a shower, humming while he does so. He then dries himself and puts on a soft cotton lungi and a long silk punjabi-shirt – almost as if reclaiming his own identity. He thinks about the two women who have loved him: Adela with her pale skin, who has been so kind to him, and the dark-skinned Nilufar, who was ‘the guardian of our city of immigrants.’
While the conclusion is expected – there is an inevitability about Tapan’s being caught as there is with Brothero-man in ‘The Mapmakers’ – there is also a sense of joy that the period of anticipation is over. As Emily Dickinson said it is like the difference between the fear of the wreck and the moment after the wreck has been. Used to chasing illegals, the immigration officials are surprised to hear the humming, surprised too to find the door open.
In another part of Brick Lane, Nilufar looks out of her window. ‘She is not a bird-watcher, but she can’t keep her eyes off a solitary gull: it is hovering and circling, so full of joy.’
Unlike Monica Ali, who sees the promises of the west and who seems to stress through the lives of the two sisters that it is only in the UK that there can be true freedom, Manzu Islam reveals the underbelly, the mole-like lives of immigrants, legal and illegal, who dodge police, dodge immigration officials, dodge informers like Poltu Khan, dodge skinheads and ultranationalists..
Through Tapan’s encounter with the police on an earlier occasion, Islam shows the reality of the violence that most dark-skinned immigrants suffer. Apart from Tapan, there are also other Bangladeshi immigrants: powerful ‘holy men’ who dissuade immigrants from sending their daughters to school, drug addicts like the frustrated Kaisar, would-be writers and newspaper editors. Surprisingly, however, for a story like this one, there is also a lot of humour, some crude as in the joke of the Bangladeshi who does not know how to use the loo and is forced to scoop ‘it’ up and try to hide it in the park.
Using the street language of the Bangladeshi East Londoner, Islam has painted a vivid picture of the Bangladeshi immigrant in England.
Many years ago, I had an acquaintance – a relative by marriage really – who had gone to England and had become a mole like Tapan. I had heard about how she had had to flee the police. Heard at second-hand, the story seemed unreal. How much of the story was true? And how had she managed to escape? And why had she opted to live like that? Always afraid? Always looking over her shoulder? But reading Manzu Islam’s story brought back memories of her, and I wish now that I had been a little more sympathetic towards her.

Burrow
Manzu Islam
Peepal Tree; 2004
£ 9.99; 295 pp
(May be ordered from
www.peepaltreepress.com)

Niaz Zaman is professor of English at the University of Dhaka. Her area of specialization is American literature. This review first appeared in Bangladesh-based newspaper New Age.
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