Ekram Kabir
The first question that would possibly pop up in one’s mind even before one starts reading Salaam Brick Lane is why Tarquin Hall wanted to write a book on Brick Lane. But, then, when you begin reading the book, you will discover the fact that the writer must have felt passionately about the whole of the East End neighbourhood. His Salaam Brick Lane is an honest account of what led Tarquin to be in Brick Lane and what happened once he was there.
How did he end up in Brick Lane? He says: “For the past ten years, I had been living away from England – the last three in India. On my return it had been my intention to put down roots in the leafy suburb of Barnes where I had grown up. But London property prices had shot up; I was broke; and this was where I had ended up, Brick Lane.”
He knew why he went to live in Brick Lane, but he did not know what lay ahead how he had become prudent in his understanding of East End. He narrates every aspect of the people who live in Banglatown. Most Bangladeshi immigrants coming from Bangladesh’s northeastern district of Sylhet now inhabit Banglatown. In his effort to dig into its history, the writer spends a lot of time in the library, finding out Brick Lane’s past.
Initially, Salaam Brick Lane looks like a work of nonfiction, but Tarquin has crafted the structure of the book so carefully that it feels like a work of fiction when you read through the book. Almost all elements of fiction are there and he does it with utmost sincerity.
Tarquin presents a few very admirable characters that are by no yardstick flat. Staring from his landlord Mr Ali to his new friend Naziz Afroze all of them are pretty much thinking souls. Mrs Suri his fiancée’s superfluous self-proclaimed Indian aunty – might seem a flat character. Tarquin has all the reasons to dislike Mrs Suri, as she perennially tries to convince his fiancée to marry none other than an Indian guy. But the writer does not portray Mrs Suri as villainous as she seems to him.
The writer meets a Bengali anthropologist from West Bengal, Aktar. This man, Tarquin says, changes his life, possibly when he asks “Are the Bangladeshis becoming English…?” This leads him to notice various aspects: Bangladeshi ladies continue to wear Bangladeshi in dress, in mind and also in attitude. Hijabs were one of the most common things among Bangladeshi girls. They do not speak the Queen’s English; rather they speak in the cockney accents of the East End. Although they can be criticised in many different ways, at the end he realises that a generation of East End Bangladeshis is really trying to become British.
The writer meets these people eight to nine to focus upon – during his one-year phase at Brick Lane. He must have been lucky to meet all these lively people who show an ability to grow out of what they were.
One of the main aspects of this page-turner is the presence of Anu Anand, his would-be wife. This book has a lot to do with his relationship with Anu. Her cover-to-cover presence in Salaam Brick Lane is an interesting way to portray someone. She is in his mind when he decides to stay in Brick Lane; she is the reason he develops a deep liking for East End; she is even present when he tries to make his flat liveable. He thinks about her more than he thinks about all these people he has met. The reader will discover this uncanny link between Brick Lane and the presence of Anu in the writer’s life. Writing this book and keeping her present all the time must have been a good feeling for the writer.
Tarquin follows a good technique to make his readers involved in the lives of those who live in Brick Lane. With his strong narration, he tells the story of their lives. He talks about how they speak the English language, how they feel about their parent-country, how they look at the Londoners, and how they make it possible to live with a ‘hybrid identity’. The writer also relates a lot of things with aspects from the lives of famous writers such as Jack London.
Tarquin actually observes and listens to the people he is writing about. His association with the Brick Lane-dwellers is amazing. He enters their lives, making them understand that he cares. Being a Briton, no one would have accused him of anything if he did not mingle with these people. But he did. Either out of his own interest or his situation leads him to be close to them. His portrayal of them seems quite impassioned, but when you read between the lines, you are bound to discover a strange sort of affection for them. He feels sad with their sadness; he is excited with their excitement; and he is even happy when he sees them happy. The writer does not say that he is sad, but it is clear enough from his attempt to look at the brighter sides of their lives. It is as if he wants to pull them up from their unwanted misery-like lifestyle.
The writer delineates a great many negative features of the Banglatown immigrant community, but ultimately develops a slice of admiration for them. This admiration compels him to elaborate the importance of East End and the making of today’s Brick Lane. The writer’s knowledge of Bangladesh is immense. He knows how Bangladeshis from Sylhet make it all the way to England.
But they fail to pick up many good things of England. The state of women continues to be the same as that of women in Bangladesh, in cases even worse. The state of women among Brick Lane’s Sylheti community becomes palpable when the writer attends a Bangladeshi wedding at the request of his landlord Mr Ali.
At this wedding he finds out the hybridity of the young generation Bangladeshis in UK. This book is also evidence of the writer’s realisation as to how the new East End has changed his idea about Englishness. All these years, Englishmen decided what Englishness means but Tarquin realises in the East End that being English is a state of mind. It is not a genetic thing and it changes over time.
Writers of Bangladeshi origin have written on Brick Lane. Manzu Islam’s Burrow and The Mapmakers of Spitalfields and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane are some instances. What they depict is the struggle for survival by Bangladeshi immigrants in the UK. Tarquin, on the hand, gives them an acceptable character.
This actually makes Salaam Brick Lane a must-read for, possibly, all Bangladeshis and British-Bangladeshis interested in coming by a solid account of London’s Brick Lane.
This book should also draw the attention of Bangladeshi publishers to thoughts of translating this fantastic piece of work into Bengali.

Ekram Kabir is interviewing Tarquin Hall.

About this entry