Long before he wrote a book dissing V.S. Naipaul, his one-time mentor, Paul Theroux wrote The Great Railway Bazaar in which he remarked that though he went in search of trains, he discovered passengers instead. Much the same spirit animates Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane, a memoir of the year he spent in London’s East End, well worth reading for the many memorable characters Hall introduces us to—quirks and patois intact.
There’s Ali, the harassed and loquacious slum landlord; Naziz, ex-street crook and self-taught pedant hoping for a better life; the irascible yet affectionate Sadie, plagued by memories of her Jewish upbringing; Aktar, the brooding Bengali anthropologist; and many more. Of course, the two central characters are Hall himself, and his fiancée Anu, attempting to create a future for themselves in London.
Behind these human stories is the well-researched and highly-readable saga of how Brick Lane has played host to waves of immigrants over the centuries, from Irish to Jewish to Bangladeshi – and how this has redefined notions of ‘Englishness’.
The only thing one didn’t like about the book? The title. ( Bit too Monica Ali, innit?)
(The author and his wife are currently in India; they blog at Sacred Cows.)