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The Mapmakers of Spitalfields

Written by Debjani Chatterjee for Rising East on no date provided

The publication of this collection of seven short stories by Bangladesh-born Syed Manzurul Islam is an exciting event and Peepal Tree Press should be congratulated for bringing it out. Good short stories are difficult to write and these stories may not always be very successful, occasionally having an experimental and even unfinished air about them. But there can be little doubt that they add a fresh and distinctive voice to the contemporary British short story scene. At his best, Islam is a talented writer who impresses with his skilled craftsmanship and poetic style. These stories are wistful and nostalgic, cynical and touching, reflective and insightful of the lives of Bengali immigrants to London’s East End. Located in Bangladesh and in England, the ones set in England are generally more successful, though they always have the memories of Bangladesh, the country left behind, in the background. They combine fantasy with realism, and a dark - sometimes coarse - humour with a deft and delicate touch.

The title story, ‘The Mapmakers of Spitalfields’, is the best story in the collection. For this alone the book would be worth buying. It has all the ingredients of the good story: an intriguing plot with a beginning, middle and end, interesting characters, real dialogue, vivid descriptions, and the pace manages to hold the reader’s attention and suspense till the very end with its surprise revelation.
The central character in the story is the enigmatic ‘mapmaker’ of Spitalfields, Brothero-Man, half-mad, half-holy fool, whose mission it is to walk down the streets and alleys and into the homes and shops in Spitalfields, all the while ‘drawing the secret blueprint of a new city. It wasn’t exactly in the likeness of our left-behind cities from the blossoms of memories. Nor did it grow entirely from the soon-to-be razed foreign cities where we travellers arrived with expectant maps in our dreams... a strange new city, always at the crossroads, and between the cities of lost times and cities of times yet to come.’

The reader sees the colourful neighbourhood of the East End through Brothero-Man’s eyes, and its businesses and its people are drawn with sympathy. ‘God, how he loved the place’, we are told. ‘If you could fathom his mumble, you would hear him saying, ‘Goodly goodly delectation, look-look, dekho-dekho, such a first-class scene.’

Bending the English tongue
Brothero-Man’s language, his own unique blend of Bengali and English, is one of the fascinating things about him. Like the man himself, it is a language of adaptation. It is significant that Brothero-Man never steps foot outside his charmed ‘territory’ this side of Brick Lane. Munir claims that he ‘can’t make any sense of his babbles’ which are neither Bengali nor English, but Brothero-Man has a sense of belonging, Spitalfields has made him what he is and one senses his forgiveness of Munir’s moment of betrayal because he knows that Munir’s words only hurt himself - it is Munir who has not yet found his place in this ‘twilight’ world which is Brothero-Man’s natural habitat. If Brothero-Man has no home of his own, it is because he lives with, and is part of, the many inhabitants of Spitalfields: the poet who lives in a rat-infested house, the leather-jacketed cool Bengali youths, Zamshed Mia who owns the sari shop and ‘never usually spent an idle moment not making a profit’, Turbanwallah from the pub, Allamuddin Khan ‘the all-round guru who has the Kama Sutra on his mind but Tagore’s verses on his lips’, and many other characters who might appear weird to outsiders like ‘the men in white overalls’ who come to catch the lunatic. But for Brothero-Man they are all members of his extended family. They too respond to him on a human level, in spite of their hypocrisies and other limitations; the pious bearded hajjis and the pool-playing youths may have little in common with each other, but they nevertheless relate to Brothero-Man in their own ways, each group recognises his special place in their community and seeks to hide and protect him from the outsiders. Allamuddin Khan argues: ‘even if he is mad, what the hell they think they are up to? We have been living all our lives with so called mad people, even eating from the same plate. And certainly living in the same house and the same neighbourhood. It never bothered us. Anyway who can tell who is really mad?’

The Sonar Bangla Cafe and all the haunts that Brothero-Man frequents have that mix of East and West that is characteristic of both the area and of him. If, by the end of the story, one concludes that Brothero-Man is a schizophrenic, then it is also a schizophrenic place that he inhabits. Perhaps he has adapted to it exceptionally well and, on his own terms, he makes a lot of sense. His description of the pub holds true for his entire surroundings: ‘Brothero, just like me, this place is not what it seems. You see, it’s an either-neither place. But most interesting. You’ve to lift the veil-bhorka to see the face.’

Brothero-Man is categorised as being ‘one of the pioneer jumping-ship men, who landed in the East End and lived by bending the English tongue to the umpteenth degree.’ His is a link language that can communicate with many tongues in the area. The children in the playground speak his language. Brothero-Man loves listening to their rhymes: ‘oh what sweet rhymes they were. Those Bengali ones, learnt from the hums and lullabies of their mothers, were mixing with the hickory dickory dock of those English ones.’ The children who once screamed: ‘Mad mad mad, there goes a stark-pagal-mad, who is madder than the hatter-mad’, come to trust him and ‘accept him as a permanent landmark.’ But their games, their nonsense rhymes and their scream are in the same language as Brothero-Man’s, who calls to them enticingly: ‘Little brotheros and little sisteros, abracadabra, are you ready for Alibaba’s magic-jadu show?’

Brothero-Man is not with those who condemn Bengali youths for absorbing other cultural influences: for ‘funking BAD BAD beats... hyped on Afro-man’s vibes’ and using martial arts to face ‘the skin-headed boys in uni-jacks’. He admires them for defending Brick Lane from the ‘enemy’, a fight in which he too played a prominent part. He remarks: ‘Brothero, do you hear what them farty-wurty mouths say? Them say how the boys have gone kaput - neither here nor there - lost in the shit-hole of a gulla-zero. What a fucking-wukking talk that is, brothero... Sure, them don’t got the brain, even the goat shit size. Aren’t they everywhere, brothero, aren’t these boys everywhere?’
Brothero-Man not only talks in two tongues at once (‘magic-jadu’, ‘bawkk, hawk, bawk not knowing how to talk’, etc.), but his trick of adding nonsense rhyming words for emphasis (‘rubbishy-wubbishy’, ‘fussing-wussing’, ‘hish, mish, bish, I’m the king kish’, etc.) is a very Bengali characteristic - an example of his ‘bending the English tongue’.

When Soraya speaks in Bengali idiom to her husband, the author gives a literal translation: ‘What’s happened to you? Have you eaten your head or what?’ In ‘Fragments from the Life of the Nicest Man in Town’ the Bengali lynch mob’s shouts are literally translated: ‘Get him, get that pig’s litter, oh honest folks, get that motherfucker.’ In ‘The Fabled Beauty of the Jatra’, a love note praises in traditional South Asian style: ‘Beauty, oh my dear Beauty, you move as gracefully as an elephant.’
‘Fragments from the Life of the Nicest Man in Town’ is another story which I greatly enjoyed. Set in Bangladesh, it is a modern version of a well known fable about a king and his minister who choose to go mad when they realise that they are misfits in a land where everyone is insane. The traditional tale which the protagonist tells his lodger lies at the core of the story and offers the only key to understanding his strange behaviour. Also set in Bangladesh are ‘The Fabled Beauty of the Jatra’, ‘The Ultimate Ride in a Palanquin’ and some of the tales told within the story, ‘Going Home’. While they evoke an exotic culture, often with nostalgia and tenderness, there is also much violence and tragedy in these stories.

‘Going Home’ and ‘The Tower of the Orient’ share some of the characters who also appear in ‘The Mapmakers of Spitalfields’ and, in all these stories located in the East End of London, the concept of ‘home’ is explored from the immigrant’s point of view. ‘The crossroads’ is another recurring image in the book. ‘Going Home’ begins with: ‘It all began with a chance meeting at the crossroads’. In ‘Meeting at the Crossroads’ two refugees ‘from the far-flung corners of the earth’, who have met as students at an English university, reach a crossroads in their relationship and in their lives as their past and future meet in collision. In fact, in one way or another, almost all of Islam’s characters are at a crossroads. They all bring the baggage of their past with them, they all have dreams of the past and the future, and they all have to confront reality in the present. Soraya, for instance, in a story that is too heavy with symbolism, has to confront racism on the thirteenth floor of the Tower of the Orient, as well as her own childhood terrors, her ignorance and her ostrich head-in-the-sand tendency. When she first arrives at her new flat, she cannot face painful facts; she reassures herself that all she has to do is polish up her English to ‘make friends with the neighbours, invite them round to teas and dinners... After all, she wasn’t a stranger, but only coming home.’ Soraya freezes at the horror in her elderly neighbour’s eyes and the hissed: ‘God, what’s next!’ at the sudden sight of the Asian newcomers. The narrator of ‘Going Home’ calls London ‘our city’, but when an American tourist says: ‘Gee! we kinda love your fog, pal’, expecting to see ‘the brothers of Sherlock Holmes’, he knows that they have made a mistake in addressing him. He and his friends are ‘the wrong sort of cousins and pals’, and the tourist’s exclamation: ‘Holy shit! Gee! Gee!’ on discovering ‘only brown fellows turning away their faces in the mist’, comes as no surprise. Even when the narrator falls into an open manhole, he observes matter-of-factly: ‘We don’t fall like Alice, because migrants like us don’t fall like Alice.’

Skin-heads and tourists may not see it, but the reader senses that for Islam at least the East End of London is very much ‘home’. Whoever said that home had to be a bed of roses anyway? His soul brother, Brothero-Man, ‘lived by bending the English tongue to the umpteenth degree’, but the author proves himself to be a fine exponent of that language.

This is a review of The Mapmakers of Spitalfields

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