‘An Unstoppable Force’: Secrecy and Transgression in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane

This essay represents my own work, in accordance with University regulations. 

“It was as if she had woken one day to find that she had become a collector, guardian of a great archive of secrets, without the faintest knowledge of how she had gotten started or how her collection had grown. Perhaps, she considered, they just breed with each other. And then she imagined her secrets like a column of ants, appearing at first like a few negligible specks and turning so quickly into an unstoppable force” (228). 



Unlike adventurous protagonists in the tradition of the realist novel such as Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre, Nazneen is confined to the domestic arena and draws her power only from within. This is hinted at in the epigraphs announcing fate as the major theme of the novel. Because each of Nazneen’s attempts to forge into the outside world is considered a transgression in her society, she turns into a “guardian of a great archive of secrets”: her first walk in the city;  her sister’s despair; her knowledge of Tariq’s descent into drugs, and most significantly the affair with Karim, are all secrets. While her husband, Chanu, conceals to abscond responsibility and soften his wounding humiliations, Nazneen uses secrecy to test the suffocating social boundaries around her before eventually breaking free from them. 

As the secrets compound, the gulf between Nazneen and her husband widens, and by the end of the novel, the roles of husband and wife in the family have completely reversed. Secrecy allows Nazneen to ascertain her power and attain selfhood, sharpening her perception and allowing her to establish roots in the city, even as the marriage crumbles.

I: Quiet Rebellion

Mishra (2003) finds Chanu’s depiction is fuller than Nazneen’s. This is indeed a correct first impression. But if one takes Nazneen’s secrecy into account, she acquires a more complex interiority. In the first half of the novel, Nazneen’s secrets afford her a quiet rebellion, a profound rejoinder to Chanu’s hollow tirades.

While Chanu’s past is only one of glory, Nazneen’s is more nuanced. She clings to the legend of her nativity: Nazneen had been taught that she had survived her childhood only because she was surrendered to fate. Her mother, Amma, downplays the role she had played in nursing the daughter and instead attributes it to fate. This grants the child freedom from life’s drudgery and banishes all ambition. For a woman, the desire for self-improvement is itself considered a sin. But Nazneen’s life is nothing but toil: she submits to her father, who marries her off to Chanu. And at her house, she essentially becomes a maid, tending only to Chanu’s needs: she cuts his corns and trims his nails. Because there is no satisfaction in such humiliating work, Nazneen falls back into her mother’s philosophy: she surrenders to fate, which justifies the toil and gives her a different source of purpose, a purpose she may have found in a job of her own. Unrooted and displaced in London, Nazneen grounds herself in tradition. She draws resilience from the conviction that there is nothing she can do about her life. “What could not be changed must be born,” was how Amma had put it (p. 4). But the toil becomes too unbearable for Nazneen and she quietly rebels. These transgressions gather into secrets.

When Jorina, a woman in the neighborhood, commits suicide, Nazneen is concerned. The news is broken by Mrs. Islam, whose authority over the neighborhood rests solely on her archive of secrets. For women, secrecy is a source of power. This is made more explicit when Nazneen inquires about why Jorina had killed herself. “You can hardly keep it a secret when you begin going out to work,” Razia theorizes (p. 13). The woman’s sin, it turns out, was that she had found a job for herself. This piques Nazneen’s curiosity. She formulates a question about Jorina’s death, rephrasing it endlessly, but she never gathers enough courage to pose it to Chanu. This sets the ground for her rebellion. 

When Nazneen accompanies Chanu to Dr. Azad’s practice, he introduces her as “shy”, but she locks eyes with the doctor, finding herself “caught in a complicity of looks” (p. 19), which threatens to give off what her husband is not saying. Although she has no role in the conversation, she still manages to tip Chanu off. Nazneen also represses her desire to act, secretly hatching plans in her head, which compensate for her passivity. “She wanted to get up from the table and walk out of the door and never see [Chanu] again” (p. 18). So forceful is her desire for rebellion even when she is completely subdued.

Nazneen’s first true transgression is the walk she makes to the city by herself, unaccompanied by her husband. This journey represents independence. Chanu confines her to the house, locked from the outside world. Embarrassed, he also hides the details of his job from Nazneen. He wants to live with her in the same house but still somehow maintain a distance, keeping the assaults against his manhood only to himself. Even in his ramblings, Chanu manages to remain obscure, rarely briefing Nazneen on the true contents of the books he reads, claiming that they are not easy to translate. This forces Nazneen to forge into the city on her own. And when she takes the walk to the city and makes it back to her house safely, having asked for directions, this cements Nazneen’s power and bolsters her self-confidence. “See what I can do,” she says to herself, addressing Chanu, although she cannot yet summon the courage to tell him about the walk (p. 40). At least she discovers she no longer has to rely on him. And this must be kept a secret: he wields too much power over. If Nazneen confesses her transgression, Chanu may restrain her and this is not a risk she is ready to take.

But Nazneen finds a different outlet for action. Her sister, Hasina, writes to her from home to tell her that she had escaped from her husband to Dhaka. This is Hasina’s secret and no one in the village knows about it. Nazneen is convinced her sister’s action will put her in great peril. “Once you get talked about, then that’s it,” she confirms (p.38). A woman is only safe as long as she remains servile to her husband; if she breaks free, that is the end for her, as has been the case of Jorina. Nazneen is worried such a fate is awaiting her sister and she appeals to Chanu for action. But Chanu downplays the sister’s case and instead sympathizes with the husband, whom Hasina had confessed had brutally beaten her. “What will happen will happen,” Chanu says, echoing Amma’s philosophy of submission to fate. Nazneen feels betrayed and withholds Hasina’s future letters from her husband. This, she believes, is a case she must take up on her own. For the first time, she punishes Chanu for the grievance. She stops praying for his promotion, puts “fiery chilies’ into his sandwich, slips the razor when cutting his corns, and registers her rebellion in all the chores she undertakes (p. 40). But Chanu barely notices Nazneen’s discontent. If anything, he suppresses her even more. For instance, when Nazneen suggests enrolling in Razia’s college, Chanu feigns indifference (p. 51). This confirms to her that she cannot rely on him for anything. Nazneen must rebel more fiercely.

II: The Affair

Walter (2003) finds fault with Hasina’s letters, writing, “I don’t quite understand why Hasina’s letters are written in such broken prose, since presumably she would write in her own language”. This ignores the fact that spelling mistakes can also occur in the Bengali language. But the true distinction between the sisters is one of temperament. Nazneen admires Hasina’s broken spelling and finds her correspondence more lively than her own letters, which are anguished and forever in search of perfection. Gorra (2003) lucidly captures the true intention of Hasina’s letters. “Hasina’s account of her life in a desperately poor city [tells] Nazneen that the “home” she imagines no longer exists,” he writes. 

Hasina’s desperation is clearly overstated. Mishra (2003) points out that Hasina “sounds more like a travel writer from England than an oppressed Bangladeshi woman”. However, there is no doubt that Hasina’s grim experience back home alleviates Nazneen’s nostalgia and grounds her in the city. This is a secret she withholds from the tormented Chanu, until later in the novel. But her sister’s correspondence is not enough solace for Nazneen. The “external three-way torture of daughter-father-daughter” becomes too unbearable for her (p. 147).

This slowly leads to Nazneen’s biggest secret. Estranged from her husband, Nazneen begins dreaming of finding a job for herself and sending money to Hasina (p. 133). She swings into action and masters “basting, stitching, hemming, buttonholing and gathering” (p. 139). In this way, she invents a job for herself without leaving the house, as Jorina had been forced to do. At this point, Nazneen also finds out that Chanu had taken a loan from Mrs. Islam and she confronts him about it. As always, he merely ignores her. But when Nazneen starts working at home, Chanu does not ask her to stop; instead, the roles of wife and husband reverse and he begins helping her, “passing scissors, dispensing advice, making tea, folding garments (p. 147.” He desperately wants to be in charge, even calculating the profit margins on her behalf. Chanu is unmotivated and he has given up his big ambitions. He has essentially resigned to fate. “Now, I just take the money, I say thank you. I count it,” he says (p. 154). This sense of despair bothers Nazneem and she desperately wants an escape. 

This is when Nazneen falls for Karim, the middleman who brings her the garments. Unlike Chanu, Karim is a man of action; in fact, his favorite catchphrase is “man”. Though he is of the same generation as Tariq, Karim is different. Where Tariq steals from his mother (saying “Ok-Mama” to everything she says) and succumbs to drugs (a secret Nazneen picks on early but never discloses to Razia), Karim rebels from his parents and loathes them intensely. He scolds his father for spending too much money calling back home and faults him for growing passive after decades of driving. Karim just cannot stand weakness and this attracts Nazneen to him. 

In Nazneen’s eyes, Karim accounts for Chanu’s weaknesses: he is confident and knows his place in the world. And he gives her the attention she needs. Being an Islamic activist, Karim brings Nazneen leaflets and slowly radicalizes her. This allows her to avenge Chanu for a lifetime’s grievances. “You are not the only one who knows things,” she would retort, secretly and only to herself (p. 176). But Chanu still remains indifferent, even oblivious. Threatened by the leaflets, he finds mistakes in them, claiming they give “a wrong impression of Muslims” (p. 188), though he is himself not a practicing Muslim. But this does not discourage Nazneen. The secrecy of her affair with Karim and the possibility of Chanu finding out only intensifies her desire (p. 188). 

The affair permits Nazneen to break free from the philosophy that she had inherited from her mother (and subsequently Chanu) and grants her urgency, almost instantly. “For a glorious moment,” we are told, “it was clear that clothes, not fate, made her” (p. 201). This allows her to bridge the barrier between her and Karim, while at the same time drawing closer to her daughters, who are of the same generation. And as soon as Chanu alienates Shahana by calling her memsahib and addressing her through her younger sister, Bibi, she begins confiding in Nazneen. The immensity of the transgression (considered to be the biggest sin in Islam) endows Nazneen with a fearlessness she had never known before. The city also justifies her action: Nazneen overhears the “rhythmic knocking” from the bed of her next-door neighbor, who drops one new boyfriend after another, and this allows her to view her own affair as nothing out of the ordinary (p. 221).

III: The Epiphany

After the affair, Nazneen changes and begins to use her power: she stands up to Mrs. Islam, who had been bullying her with her two sons for a long time; she breaks up with Karim after realizing he is not the man she had imagined him to be, and she refuses to return back home with Chanu when he acquires the tickets. These are all out of sync with Nazneen’s temperament in most of the novel. The secrecy takes on an outward force, which surprises the reader. Yet, even when she awakens, Nazneen still lacks a strong conviction. Though she refuses to return home, she does not entirely abandon Chanu and one can imagine her sending money to him. 

Therefore, Brick Lane leaves loose ends. For instance, no reason is provided for why Nazneen does not tell Razia about Tariq’s descent into drugs, although the two are close friends. And the epiphany about Karim comes too suddenly. Moreover, the relationship between Chanu and Nazneen continues to linger on. These moments can all be seen as an extension of Nazneen’s passivity. Hiddleston (2005) argues that the novel operates on “shapes and shadows”, playing with “provisional forms, rather than determinate individuals or incontrovertible truths” (Hiddleston, 71). In a sense, the novel is itself cast as fate, unrooted, uncertain of itself. It becomes a secret to unravel. This hesitancy in the narration is one Ali herself confesses in a 2003 essay in The Guardian. “Standing neither behind a closed door, nor in the thick of things, but rather in the shadow of the doorway, is a good place from which to observe,” she writes. But I am convinced that these are just the faults of a debut novel. Although Nazneen’s epiphany comes too late and lasts only briefly, I think this force can be gleaned even in the early pages if one pays attention to her power for secrecy. 


Nazneen’s power gathers slowly, almost like an army of ants, and this is driven by her talent for secrecy. These secrets allow Nazneen to transcend the social boundaries and eventually take control of her fate. But the journey to this moment is too slow and it comes too swiftly, which necessitates close attention to detail, particularly the secrets. 


Hiddleston J. Shapes and Shadows: (Un)veiling the Immigrant in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 2005;40(1):57-72. doi:10.1177/0021989405050665

Micheal Gorra, “East Enders”, The New York Times, September 7 2003. Available here.

Monica Ali, Brick Lane. New York: Scribner, 2003.

————— “Where I am Coming From”, The Guardian, June 17 2003. Available here.

Natasha Walter, “Citrus Scent of Inexorable Desire”, The Guardian, June 14 2003. Available here.

 Pankaj Mishra, “Enigmas of Arrival”, The New York Review of Books,  December 18 2003. Available here.

Monica Ali: photos

Bambay Dreams, a 2002 musical, painted an image of a multicultural London. This portrayal contradicted Ali’s experience.
Female students of Dacca University marching on Language Movement Day, 1953/Wikipedia
A map showing Tower Hamlets and Brick Lane/Google Maps
Protests in Brick Lane when the movie was announced. Credit: David Sillitoe
A photo of Tower Hamlets, one of London’s poor neighborhoods. Martin Goodwin/Guardian
A photo from the front page of the Bolton School website.
Bolton Garden, in the Bolton neighborhood, London. Hidden London/Peter Trimming
A screenshot from the Brick Lane movie trailer. YouTube.
The headline of the first review of Brick Lane in the New York Times. The book was read in the aftermath of 9/11.

Monica Ali: a brief biography

Monica Ali was born in 1967 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Her father was a teacher; her mother a counselor.
In 1971, when Ali was three, her family moved to Bolton, England, where she was enrolled in school.
Ali’s father adored R.K. Narayan and she devoured him as a child. She also read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; Flaubert and Zola; Austin and Hardy. Ali acknowledges these writers had all made a deep impression on her and perhaps even influenced her own work.
Ali did not begin writing until much later. She attended Oxford, where she studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. After college, she briefly worked in marketing.
Ali began writing only after she had her first child. Once she became a mother, Ali says she remembered the stories her father had told her as a child and felt a duty to preserve them, if only for her own children.
So Ali joined a short story forum on the internet, where writers anonymously exchanged work and shared feedback. This sharpened Ali’s critical skills and allowed her to discover her own voice. She immediately recognized the short story form was too confining and wanted to write a novel. This would later become Brick Lane

Shakespeare’s Shadow in Mrs Dalloway

An illustration of a book in a spotlight, with portraits of William Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf on facing pages.
Images of Shakespeare and Woolf. (Courtesy of Vinimay Kaul).

Shakespeare looms large over Mrs Dalloway.

In the passage I selected, Septimus finds a justification for his attitude about life in the work of Shakespeare, even when this is only fiction that he has concocted himself. 

Shakespeare also draws the curtain between husband and wife: Rezia’s inability to read Shakespeare defines her as a stranger, at least in the eyes of Septimus. Ultimately, Septimus and Shakespeare become inseparable, veteran and soldier intertwined.  Rezia even wonders if she will ever have a son like Septimus— in this case, Septimus is elevated to legend, just as Shakespeare had been. In fact, we are told that the war was in part fought in the name of Shakespeare. 

Shakespeare’s shadow also extends beyond this passage.

For instance, Clarissa Dalloway clings to Shakespeare’s words and draws her strongest motivation from them. And this begins early on. When we first encounter her, Mrs. Dalloway is haunted by memories of Peter Walsh, a scene reminiscent of Antony and Cleopatra

Take the partying words of Antony and Cleopatra in the play: 

Sir, you and I must part, but that’s not it. 

Sir, you and I have loved, but there’s not it: 

That you know well.

(The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, 1664, 86-89).

A version of those words becomes almost a refrain on the first page of Mrs. Dalloway. “Was that it?” Mrs. Dalloway asks herself again and again as she probes her memories, particularly those involving Peter Walsh. This comparison of the pair to perhaps the best-known lovers in literature means Clarissa and Peter were also once in love, but they were kept asunder by fate. 

Mrs. Dalloway also rehashes another refrain from Shakespeare, which is even more potent than the first one:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages. 

(Oxford World’s Classics, Mrs Dalloway, 11).

Whenever her anxiety mounts, Mrs. Dalloway turns to this phrase. “Fear no more,” she whispers to herself. This, it must be noted, is in complete opposition to Septimus’s interpretation of Shakespeare. Hers is one of hope; his of desperation. Yet both are referencing the same poet. 

The relationship between Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton is also compared to the one between Othello and Desdemona. When Othello reunites with Desdemona early in the play, he breaks into extreme exaltation, declaring “if it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy’, a line quoted in Mrs. Dalloway (44). This suggests Clarissa was also in love with Sally. 

So Clarissa, like Shakespeare’s Antony, has many relationships—Sally, Peter, and tragically, Richard. And just like Antony, she ends up in the wrong marriage. 

That is why I would argue Mrs. Dalloway is deeply influenced by Shakespeare’s tragedies. In fact, the novel can itself be considered a tragedy. This is achieved through the death of Septimus, which mimics Cleopatra’s. 

In essence, Mrs. Dalloway is a novel of failed marriages. On a smaller scale, the passage I selected illustrates this point. Rezia and Septimus are unable to understand one another. This is attributed to their temperaments: the husband is cultured; the wife is practical. From this, we can also glean the gender disparities in society. The man can afford to study Shakespeare, while the woman is expected to undertake monotonous trimming. The husband can engage in abstraction as the wife worries about having children. We can also draw a distinction between the foreigner and the veteran citizen. Rezia is unable to understand Septimus and Shakespeare both. But on a larger scale, the dualities keep multiplying and they all echo Shakespeare. This leads me to further speculate that Septimus is supposed to be an archetype for English culture, a force as great as Shakespeare’s legend. Of course this legend was deeply scarred during the war. The mapping of Septimus’s insanity is then an act of disassociation of the English culture, a commentary on what should be kept and what should be left behind.

Marriage and Madness in Mrs Dalloway

p2 web.png
courtesy of MassArt Illustration Thesis 2019

Here is the passage I choose:

“Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language—Anthony and Cleopatra—had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity—the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aechylus (translated) the same. There Rezia sat at the table trimming hats. She trimmed hats from Mrs. Filmer’s friends; she trimmed hats by the hour. She looked pale, mysterious, like a lily, drowned, under water, he thought. 

“The English are so serious,” she would say, putting her arms round Septimus, her cheek against his. 

Love between man and woman was repulsive to Shakespeare. The business of copulation was filth to him before the end. But, Rezia said, they must have children. They have been married for five years.

They went to the Tower together; to Victoria and Albert Museum; stood in the crowd to see the King open Parliament. And there were the shops—hats shops, dress shops, shops with leather bags in the window, where she would stand staring. But she must have a boy.

She must have a son like Septimus, she said. But nobody could be like Septimus; so gentle; so serious; so clever. Could she not read Shakespeare too? Was Shakespeare a difficult author? She asked.”

(Mrs. Dalloway, Oxford World’s Classics, 115-116)


Septimus represents the abstract and Rezia the practical. And as the husband and wife drift apart, their worldviews diverge as well. This passage sketches the deterioration of Septimus’s mind and by extension his marriage. 

While Septimus had once found Shakespeare “intoxicating”, he now finds him rather dull. Previously, he had considered Shakespeare a great poet and had even gone to war in his name. 

But this has since changed. Now, he merely hears “a boy”, a word he uses to denigrate a poet that is considered a national treasure. 

For Septimus, even the act of reading has become “business”, a tiresome chore. 

So he assigns Shakespeare a different meaning, one befitting his current state of mind. A parallel is drawn between Septimus’s past and his present: what was once beauty has for him become contempt. He finds life too repetitive and this is captured in the recurring assonance—”putting”, “getting”, and “sordity”. These words deliver the meaninglessness previously only hinted in “business”: what bothers Septimus is not so much life itself but rather the energy and work it requires. 

“Beauty” is also contrasted with “loathing, hatred and despair”. This rather defeatist language demonstrates Septimus’s desperation. He moves from one extreme to the other. For him, there is no middle ground. And it all happens in his mind. At one point, he was intoxicated by language. Now, he is depressed by it. Practicality has no significance for him and he is also losing interest in the abstract (represented by Shakespeare) 

Rezia is the physical representation of practicality. Her work— the ”trimming” of hats—strikes Septimus as yet another chore. His view of her work can be apprehended in the recurrence of variations of the word “trim”. To Septimus, Rezia is “drowned, under water”. He is unable to make any sense of her work, which is admittedly not done for pleasure but rather out of obligation.

Though practical, Rezia misses to notice the gravity of Septimus’s condition. She is seeking a distraction from work and expects her husband to return her touch, but Septimus remains aloof. Because she is herself a stranger in the country, Rezia attributes her husband’s distance to the nature of the “English”, thus misunderstanding him. Everything she desires is “repulsive” to Septimus: “the business of copulation” and “children”. Rezia even wants “a boy”, the very word Septimus uses to disparage Shakespeare. 

In the end, Septimus is repulsed by Rezia as well. His mind is fading and his marriage, too.

Web of Capital: A Glimpse of Greenwich District, High Street

It’s the dawn of the 19th-century and we’re in London’s Greenwich District.  

The population stands at 32,621. Our district has only one hospital, Royal Seamens, which cares for our disabled sailors. A decade into the century, the population grows to 36,780—an increase of 12.75 percent. No new institutions appear in this period. Another decade passes and the population is now 41,530. This is an increase of yet another 12.91 percent. The population growth in the two decades has remained the same—we’ve had a total of 27.21 percent increase in population since the turn of the century. The numbers are rising yes, but this is not substantial enough to lead to subsequent growth in the institutions in the district. We need another factor for a more significant change to occur. This comes in 1834, when the new Poor Law, which requires children to be housed in exchange for work, is passed in London. But our district has to wait a bit longer—six years, to be exact. In 1840, the Greenwich Poor Law Workhouse appeared.

Between 1841-1850, the population rose to 55,212. This entails an increase of 32.94 percent from the previous decade and an increase of 69.25 percent since the beginning of the century.  The appearance of the workhouse has impacted the growth of our district in this short period—in fact, we can speculate that the workhouse might be responsible for a 20.11 percent rise in the population. But we’ve to speed later into the century for a full glimpse of the true impact of the workhouse. 

Boom! We’re now at the tail end of the century. The population in Greenwich District is 131,233 people. This is an increase of 302.3 percent since the turn of the century. But we want to know what caused the population growth. In just the last half of the century, the population has risen 137.69 percent. In the first half, as you may remember, we’d a growth of only 69.25 percent. The difference is more than double. This means the workhouse has significantly increased the population of Greenwich District. 

The suggestion of our data is clear. The workhouse has recruited a lot of children, many of whom had traveled from outside our district. In 1875, another workhouse had to be built to accommodate more inmates. Perhaps due to the poor conditions at the workhouses, St. John’s Hospital was built in the district. Where we’d had a hospital for seamen previously, we now have two missions — our district now caters to the spirituality of the seamen, which signifies the growth of the church in the late 19th-century. 

From the experience of our district, we glean a trend, which may extend to the rest of the city. The introduction of the new Poor Law in 1834 led to the emergence of the workhouses, which were a magnet for inmates. This subsequently led to the growth of the population in the areas where the workhouses were located.


Up until now, we’ve gotten the impression that the upsurge in Greenwich’s population was entirely due to the workhouses, but this may not be true. Other sites in our district have also played a role in attracting residents from around the city and perhaps even the world. Greenwich was home to the Royal Observatory, which, as the image below indicates, was a popular attraction. It was located in a park, which turned into a site for social gatherings. The district was also home to astronomers from around the world. As the population grew and industry flourished, scientific discoveries began to be made. Time was measured; new maps were made and the stars and planets explored—this was Greenwich, after all. All these factors contributed to the expansion of the district and the rise of the population. 

Greenwich Park, with the Royal Observatory, on Easter Monday, from Modern London.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

You may be asking how these factors were interconnected. Well, let’s consider trade, which perhaps provided the most important impetus for Greenwitch’s growth. Our district housed the West India Docks, which facilitated the import and export of goods. This brought free raw materials and labor. The docks were surrounded by warehouses, which made it easier to load and reload goods, shortening the amount of time it took. This design was efficient and it was replicated all across the city, leading to the growth of the shipping industry. There was also the East India Company in our district, which was established in 1803 and even preceded the West India Docks, and it brought goods and labor all the way from India. We can imagine some of the workers must have settled in Greenwich. We can also speculate that traders moved from other parts of the city to be closer to the docks. This created an interconnected web, which linked our district to other parts of the city and the outside world all at equal measure— it was the net of capital, it was the pace of the 19th-century.

The hospital was located just across from the docks, which perhaps was meant to control the outbreak of diseases.

The West India Docks in the Isle of Dogs with Greenwich Hospital in the Foreground.

As we can see in the image below, the Empire was beginning to take shape. From the docks, the goods were sent to the warehouses and the people to the hospital. And the first part of the cycle was complete.

Greenwich Hospital, from Black’s guide to London and its environs.


The second part of the cycle of capital involves selling. To understand this better, we need to draw closer, right into a street in Victorian London. 

This is the view from your street.

It’s past noon. You’ve reached High Street, which houses your business. The carriage creaks to a halt.

Just as you’re stepping out, the driver leans in and whispers, “Sir, your hair.”

You don’t catch the rest of what he says, but you decide you must get a haircut today and go straight into the barber.

Just like yesterday, there’s another man in the line and you’re asked to stand by. Stepping out of the shop and into the chair outside, you fish out a book from your coat and begin reading.

Crank, crank! The noise is too distracting. Craning your neck for a look, you notice a glass cutter has taken up the shop on the second floor of the building. The landlord was looking for someone to rent it. 

You begin to wonder why the carriages still haven’t arrived today. When you draw out your watch from your coat pocket, you notice it’s broken. You decide to take it to the watchmaker, who says you’ll be waiting for three days for it to be fixed. This is too long.

Annoyed, you step into the street. 

In distance, the carriages you were waiting for are approaching. They’re carrying garments you had ordered weeks ago. You now head to your shop to open the store. 

“Sir, sir,” you hear from behind you, “it’s your turn.”

This is the barber’s voice. You pretend you haven’t heard him and fasten your pace. You run into men unloading china and a whole package of plates falls down and crushes. The china dealer is dismayed, but once he notices you’re the owner of the cloth mart, he calms down, comforted by the fact that you’ll be able to pay for the broken plates. The hosier and fringe manufacturer across from your building has also received the hosiery she had ordered and you’re worried about the competition. As you open your store, a waft of tobacco fills the air. It must be from the tobacco dealer’s direction. From your window, you catch a young boy stealthily walking out of the gold seller’s and breaking into a run. The men on the street take after him.

“I must return to 2021,” you think. But for now, you must remain a cloth dealer in 19th-century London.

This is the view from across your street.



For Nairobi – with Love

I haven’t traveled much, but Nairobi, seen here at night, is perhaps the greatest of all the cities I’d been to.

Though I grew up in Kenya, I came to Nairobi only much later,  when I was old enough to discover the world on my own. Initially, the city resisted me, as I imagine all cities do first—it was scary, it was overwhelming. I stayed on and as my memories of the city piled up, it slowly opened up to me and I eventually fell in love.

I clearly recall the moment I felt at home in Nairobi. It happened in Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month. One night, my friends and I were walking to a mosque at the heart of the city, and as happens sooner or later in every city, we got mugged. Later in the month, while walking from the mosque, we got mugged again. But one of the robbers recognized us at the last minute and returned our items. And it hit me just then: this was home and even the robbers knew us.

And now I miss home dearly.