Brick Lane

Brick Lane Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-21


After a local Bengali boy is stabbed, tensions start to rise in the neighborhood again, and Karim is excited by the possibility of a protest march finally being scheduled. Nazneen does not openly disagree with his plans of marriage, but she does not believe this plan could ever take place. Nazneen recalls memories of childhood incidents where her mother showed signs of mental disturbance, and the way this behavior was largely concealed and not discussed. Nazneen becomes increasingly determined to make her own choices about her future, and the future of her children, but she cannot decide on the best path.

An anti-Muslim protest by an English nationalist group is scheduled for October 27, and Karim hopes that the reaction against this protest will help to drum up support for the Bengal Tigers movement. Surprisingly, Chanu decides he wants to attend the Bengal Tigers meeting scheduled a week before the protest. During the meeting, the Questioner interrupts Karim to show the crowd disturbing images of Muslim casualties in various conflicts. Karim is able to regain control of the meeting, but Nazneen realizes that he is operating largely from his own ambitions and desire to assert leadership.

Nazneen runs into Mrs. Islam, who tells her that Chanu has borrowed money from Dr. Azad to pay for airplane tickets. Shocked, Nazneen confronts Chanu, who shows her the tickets booked for October 27. Despite Nazneen's protests that nothing is arranged, Chanu is confident they can resolve everything from Dhaka. He plans to go into the soap business.

Nazneen goes to visit Razia, who has locked Tariq in the bedroom while he suffers through drug withdrawal. Nazneen finally talks openly with her friend about Karim. As she wrestles with what to do, Nazneen has a nightmare in which her mother accuses her of having killed Raqib.

The day before the scheduled flights, Nazneen receives a letter from Hasina. Hasina tells her that on the day their mother died, she followed her into the shed and watched her examine several spears. Hasina wandered away before seeing what happened next, but the implication is clearly that Amma committed suicide. Reeling from this news, Nazneen finally makes up her mind: she will not return to Bangladesh. She decides to keep up the pretense until the last possible moment so that Chanu cannot try and change her mind. As Nazneen packs, Mrs. Islam comes to the flat with her two sons. They demand money from her, but Nazneen insists the debt has been paid. Mrs. Islam threatens to tell Chanu about Nazneen's affair, but Nazneen boldly bluffs that Chanu already knows. Confused, Mrs. Islam finally gives up and leaves.

Nazneen arranges to meet with Karim. She tells him that she is not going with Chanu, but that she is also not going to marry him. Karim is somewhat disappointed, but also relieved at how much simpler his life will be if the relationship ends. On the day the flight is scheduled, Chanu and Nazneen watch the crowds gather. In the evening, Bibi comes to tell her mother that Shahana has run away. Shahana and her friend want to run away to a new town so that their lives are no longer controlled by their parents. Nazneen rushes to the cafe where Bibi tells her that Shahana planned to meet her friend but has difficulty getting to it because streets have been closed due to the protest. Despite the growing tension and violence, Nazneen struggles through the crowds. By chance, she runs into Karim, and he helps her get to the cafe, where she finds Shahana.

Safely back at the flat, Nazneen finally tells Chanu that she is not going with him. Chanu leaves alone. Nazneen takes up sewing work in a business Razia has started so that she can support herself and her daughters. After the riot, things settle down at the estate, and the Bengal Tigers are no longer active. Nazneen does not know what happened to Karim, though she hears rumors he has gone to Bangladesh. Chanu writes faithfully, although he has little to report. He is able to find Hasina, and one day he tells Nazneen that she has run away with Zainab the cook. Nazneen and Chanu talk about the possibility of a future visit to Bangladesh, and in the meantime, Nazneen celebrates her newfound sense of independence and hopefulness.


When Nazneen finally confides to Karim that Chanu wants to take the family back to Bangladesh, he surprises her by suggesting they get married. This suggestion helps Nazneen to clarify her feelings for Karim: despite all the desires he ignites in her, she cannot actually imagine a future with him. Nazneen also has the models of Hasina's relationships to draw on: none of them have ever been successful, no matter how much love there was at the beginning. Nazneen also has to think of the welfare of her daughters. Karim's tendency to simply go ahead and start making plans on her behalf mirrors how Nazneen has been treated by first her father, and then her husband. But now, she is someone who has seen more of life and knows herself better, and Nazneen is no longer interested in having others decide her fate. Paradoxically, the independence and self-knowledge she achieves as a result of her affair with Karim prompts her to understand that she doesn't want to build a life with him.

Nonetheless, Nazneen is still conflicted about what to do, and stunned by how Chanu accelerates his plans in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Chanu correctly predicts that these attacks will heighten anti-Muslim sentiment, and he wants to get his family back to a country he understands, and can feel like he belongs in. Nazneen's future is finally decided by news from her past. Hasina has been wrestling with the idea that secrets are toxic. Monju's confession that she has always blamed herself for her son's injuries allows Hasina to help her, and Monju can finally die in peace. This episode connects with other moments where women turn to each other for honest and transparent support: for example, Nazneen finds healing and relief when she finally tells Razia about her affair. Emboldened, Hasina tells her sister a secret she has been keeping since childhood: their mother's death was suicide, not an accident.

This revelation makes it clear to Nazneen that a life lived without agency eventually turns toxic. She knew her mother was unhappy because of the way she was forced to submit to circumstances, but now she fully understands the extent of this suffering. Thinking about her own life and the life of her daughters, Nazneen knows she cannot go back to Bangladesh. At the same time, she does not want to simply replace life with one man with life with one another. She tells Karim that she will be remaining behind, but that she needs to make a life for herself. The ease with which Karim accepts this news shows that while the relationship served an important purpose for both of them, it lacked a true emotional connection.

Even with her plan clear in her mind, Nazneen struggles to execute it, since she knows it will hurt Chanu terribly. Her decision to delay until the last possible moment almost ends up costing her everything because it leads to Shahana running away in desperation. Shahana's flight mirrors how Hasina also ran away from her family as an adolescent, but whereas Hasina wanted the freedom to be with the man she chose, Shahana seeks the freedom to imagine a life that is not focused on men at all. Shahana's flight confirms that Nazneen is making the right choice for her family. It also shows that Nazneen can indeed struggle against fate: she is determined to save her daughter, and she does not let anything stand in her way. She follows this assertion of her own will with the moment that climaxes her journey towards self-determination: she tells Chanu that she is going to stay in London with her children.

Chanu's gentleness shows in how he responds to his wife. He accepts her decision and doesn't argue. As was the case when their son was ill, the crisis draws the couple together, and reminds readers that they really do love one another in their own way. In contrast with all the passionate relationships Nazeen and Hasina engage in, an arranged and enduring marriage seems to be the one where mutual love and tenderness can actually thrive. At the same time, Nazneen thrives in the independence she finds after Chanu leaves. Her choice to live alone and make her own decisions contrasts with Hasina's decision to continue to try and find love, no matter how many times she has been disappointed in the past. Yet what Nazneen says about Hasina ultimately ends up being true for both sisters: neither of them is going to give up. They do not have control over every part of their lives, and they have both encountered great suffering. Yet, neither of them will every stop striving for joy and trying to make a place for themselves in the world.