White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “In everything they were impatient,” said the old man, shaking his head. Samad settled the bill.

  As they walked back, Archie said, “Cor, they don’t need many of ’em to conquer and pillage,” in an attempt to make conversation.

  “One strong man and one weak is a colony, Sapper Jones,” said Samad.

  When Archie and Samad reached the tank, they found Privates Mackintosh and Johnson and Captain Thomas Dickinson-Smith dead. Johnson strangled with cheese wire, Roy shot in the back. Roy’s jaw had been forced open, his silver fillings removed; a pair of pliers now sat in his mouth like an iron tongue. It appeared that Thomas Dickinson-Smith had, as his attacker moved toward him, turned from his allotted fate and shot himself in the face. The only Dickinson-Smith to die by English hands.

  While Archie and Samad assessed this situation as best they could, Colonel-General Jodl sat in a small red schoolhouse in Reims and shook his fountain pen. Once. Twice. Then led the ink a solemn dance along the dotted line and wrote history in his name. The end of war in Europe. As the paper was whisked away by a man at his shoulder, Jodl hung his head, struck by the full realization of the deed. But it would be a full two weeks before either Archie or Samad was to hear about it.

  These were strange times, strange enough for an Iqbal and a Jones to strike up a friendship. That day, while the rest of Europe celebrated, Samad and Archie stood on a Bulgarian roadside, Samad clutching a handful of wires, chipboard, and metal casing in his good fist.

  “This radio is stripped to buggery,” said Samad. “We’ll need to begin from the beginning. This is a very bad business, Jones. Very bad. We have lost our means of communication, transport, and defense. Worst: we have lost our commander. A man of war without a commander is a very bad business indeed.”

  Archie turned from Samad and threw up violently in a bush. Private Mackintosh, for all his big talk, had shat himself at St. Peter’s Gate, and the smell had forced itself into Archie’s lungs and dragged up his nerves, his fear, and his breakfast.

  As far as fixing the radio went, Samad knew how, he knew the theory, but Archie had the hands, and a certain knack when it came to wires and nails and glue. And it was a funny kind of struggle between knowledge and practical ability that went on between them as they pieced together the tiny metal strips that might save them both.

  “Pass me the three-ohm resistor, will you?”

  Archie went very red, unsure which item Samad was referring to. His hand wavered across the box of wires and bits and pieces. Samad discreetly coughed as Archie’s little finger strayed toward the correct item. It was awkward, an Indian telling an Englishman what to do—but somehow the quietness of it, the manliness of it, got them over it. It was during this time that Archie learned the true power of do-it-yourself, how it uses a hammer and nails to replace nouns and adjectives, how it allows men to communicate. A lesson he kept with him all his life.

  “Good man,” said Samad, as Archie passed him the electrode, but then, finding one hand not enough to manipulate the wires or to pin them to the radio board, he passed the item back to Archie and signaled where it was to be put.

  “We’ll get this done in no time,” said Archie cheerfully.

  “Bubblegum! Please, mister!”

  By the fourth day, a gang of village children had begun to gather round the tank, attracted by the grisly murders, Samad’s green-eyed glamour, and Archie’s American bubblegum.

  “Mr. Soldier,” said one chestnut-hued, sparrow-weight boy in careful English, “bubblegum please thankyou.”

  Archie reached into his pocket and pulled out five thin pink strips. The boy distributed them snootily among his friends. They began chewing wildly, eyes bursting from their heads with the effort. Then, as the flavor subsided, they stood in silent, awed contemplation of their benefactor. After a few minutes the same scrawny boy was sent up as the People’s Representative once more.

  “Mr. Soldier.” He held out his hand. “Bubblegum please thankyou.”

  “No more,” said Archie, going through an elaborate sign language. “I’ve got no more.”

  “Please, thankyou. Please?” repeated the boy urgently.

  “Oh, for God’s sake,” snapped Samad. “We have to fix the radio and get this thing moving. Let’s get on with it, OK?”

  “Bubblegum, mister, Mr. Soldier, bubblegum.” It became a chant, almost; the children mixing up the few words they had learned, placing them in any order.

  “Please?” The boy stretched out his arm in such a strenuous manner that it pushed him onto the very tips of his toes.

  Suddenly he opened his palm, and then smiled coquettishly, preparing to bargain. There in his open fist four green notes were screwed into a bundle like a handful of grass.

  “Dollars, mister!”

  “Where did you get this?” asked Samad, making a snatch for it. The boy seized back his hand. He moved constantly from one foot to another—the impish dance that children learn from war. The simplest version of being on your guard.

  “First bubblegum, mister.”

  “Tell me where you got this. I warn you not to play the fool with me.”

  Samad made a grab for the boy and caught him by the arm of his shirt. He tried desperately to wriggle free. The boy’s friends began to slink off, deserting their quickly sinking champion.

  “Did you kill a man for this?”

  A vein in Samad’s forehead was fighting passionately to escape his skin. He wished to defend a country that wasn’t his and revenge the killing of men who would not have acknowledged him in a civilian street. Archie was amazed. It was his country; in his small, cold-blooded, average way he was one of the many essential vertebrae in its backbone, yet he could feel nothing comparable for it.

  “No, mister, no, no. From him. Him.”

  He stretched his free arm and pointed to a large derelict house that sat like a fat brooding hen on the horizon.

  “Did someone in that house kill our men?” barked Samad.

  “What you say, mister?” squeaked the boy.

  “Who is there?”

  “He is doctor. He is there. But sick. Can’t move. Dr. Sick.”

  A few remaining children excitedly confirmed the name. Dr. Sick, mister, Dr. Sick.

  “What’s wrong with him?”

  The boy, now enjoying the attention, theatrically mimed a man crying.

  “English? Like us? German? French? Bulgarian? Greek?” Samad released the boy, tired from the misplaced energy.

  “He no one. He Dr. Sick, only,” said the boy dismissively. “Bubblegum?”

  A few days later and still no help had arrived. The strain of having to be continually at war in such a pleasant village began to pull at Archie and Samad, and bit by bit they relaxed more and more into a kind of civilian life. Every evening they ate dinner in the old man Gozan’s kitchen-café. Watery soup cost five cigarettes each. Any kind of fish cost a low-ranking bronze medal. As Archie was now wearing one of Dickinson-Smith’s uniforms, his own having fallen apart, he had a few of the dead man’s medals to spare and with them purchased other niceties and necessities: coffee, soap, chocolate. For some pork Archie handed over a fag-card of Dorothy Lamour that had been pressed against his arse in his back pocket ever since he joined up.

  “Go on, Sam—we’ll use them as tokens, like food stamps; we can buy them back when we have the means, if you like.”

  “I’m a Muslim,” said Samad, pushing a plate of pork away. “And my Rita Hayworth leaves me only with my own soul.”

  “Why don’t you eat it?” said Archie, guzzling his two chops down like a madman. “Strange business, if you ask me.”

  “I don’t eat it for the same reason you as an Englishman will never truly satisfy a woman.”

  “Why’s that?” said Archie, pausing from his feast.

  “It’s in our cultures, my friend.” He thought for a minute. “Maybe deeper. Maybe in our bones.”

  After dinner, they would make a pretense of scouring the village fo
r the killers, rushing through the town, searching the same three disreputable bars and looking in the back bedrooms of pretty women’s houses, but after a time this too was abandoned and they sat instead smoking cheap cigars outside the tank, enjoying the lingering crimson sunsets and chatting about their previous incarnations as newspaper boy (Archie) and biology student (Samad). They knocked around ideas that Archie did not entirely understand, and Samad offered secrets into the cool night that he had never spoken out loud. Long, comfortable silences passed between them like those between women who have known each other for years. They looked out on to stars that lit up unknown country, but neither man clung particularly to home. In short, it was precisely the kind of friendship an Englishman makes on holiday, that he can make only on holiday. A friendship that crosses class and color, a friendship that takes as its basis physical proximity and survives because the Englishman assumes the physical proximity will not continue.

  A week and a half since the radio had been repaired and there was still no reply to the aid signals they sent bouncing along the airwaves in search of ears to hear them. (By now, the villagers knew the war was over, but they felt disinclined to reveal the fact to their two visitors, whose daily bartering had proved such a boost to the local economy.) In the stretches of empty time, Archie would lever up sections of the wheel track with an iron pole, while Samad investigated the problem. Across continents, both men’s families presumed them dead.

  “Is there a woman that you have back in Brighton City?” asked Samad, anchoring his head between the lion jaws of track and tank.

  Archie was not a good-looking boy. He was dashing if you took a photo and put your thumb over his nose and mouth, but otherwise he was quite unremarkable. Girls would be attracted to his large, sad Sinatra-blue eyes, but then be put off by the Bing Crosby ears and the nose that ended in a natural onion-bulb swelling like W. C. Fields’s.

  “A few,” he said nonchalantly. “You know, here and there. You?”

  “A young lady has already been picked out for me. A Miss Begum—daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Begum. The ‘in-laws,’ as you say. Dear God, those two are so far up the rectums of the establishment in Bengal that even the lord governor sits sniveling waiting for his mullah to come in carrying a dinner invitation from them!”

  Samad laughed loudly and waited for company, but Archie, not understanding a word, stayed poker-faced as usual.

  “Oh, they are the best people,” continued Samad, only slightly dispirited. “The very best people. Extremely good blood . . . and as an added bonus, there is a propensity among their women—traditionally, throughout the ages, you understand—for really enormous melons.”

  Samad performed the necessary mime, and then returned his attention to realigning each tooth of track with its appropriate groove.

  “And?” asked Archie.

  “And what?”

  “Are they . . . ?” Archie repeated the mime, but this time with the kind of anatomical exaggeration that leaves air-traced women unable to stand upright.

  “Oh, but I have still some time to wait,” he said, smiling wistfully. “Unfortunately, the Begum family do not yet have a female child of my generation.”

  “You mean your wife’s not bloody born yet?”

  “What of it?” asked Samad, pulling a cigarette from Archie’s top pocket. He scratched a match along the side of the tank and lit it. Archie wiped the sweat off his face with a greasy hand.

  “Where I come from,” said Archie, “a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.”

  “Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,” said Samad tersely, “that it is a good idea.”

  Their final evening in the village was absolutely dark, silent. The muggy air made it unpleasant to smoke, so Archie and Samad tapped their fingers on the cold stone steps of a church, for lack of other hand-employment. For a moment, in the twilight, Archie forgot the war that had actually ceased to exist anyway. A past tense, future perfect kind of night.

  It was while they were still innocent of peace, during this last night of ignorance, that Samad decided to cement his friendship with Archie. Often this is done by passing on a singular piece of information: some sexual peccadillo, some emotional secret or obscure hidden passion that the reticence of new acquaintance has prevented being spoken. But for Samad, nothing was closer or meant more to him than his blood. It was natural, then, as they sat on holy ground, that he should speak of what was holy to him. And there was no stronger evocation of the blood that ran through him, and the ground which that blood had stained over the centuries, than the story of his great-grandfather. So Samad told Archie the much neglected, hundred-year-old, mildewed yarn of Mangal Pande.

  “So, he was your grandfather?” said Archie, after the tale had been told, the moon had passed behind clouds, and he had been suitably impressed. “Your real, blood grandfather?”


  “Well, that is something. Do you know: I remember it from school—I do—History of the Colonies, Mr. Juggs. Bald, bug-eyed, nasty old duffer—Mr. Juggs, I mean, not your grandfather. Got the message through, though, even if it took a ruler to the back of your hand . . . You know, you still hear people in the regiments calling each other Pandies, you know, if the bloke’s a bit of a rebel . . . I never thought where it came from . . . Pande was the rebel, didn’t like the English, shot the first bullet of the Mutiny. I remember it now, clear as a bell. And that was your grandfather!”


  “Well, well. That’s something, isn’t it?” said Archie, placing his hands behind his head and lying back to look at the stars. “To have a bit of history in your blood like that. Motivates you, I’d imagine. I’m a Jones, you see. ’Slike a ‘Smith.’ We’re nobody . . . My father used to say: ‘We’re the chaff, boy, we’re the chaff.’ Not that I’ve ever been much bothered, mind. Proud all the same, you know. Good honest English stock. But in your family you had a hero!”

  Samad puffed up with pride. “Yes, Archibald, that is exactly the word. Naturally, you will get these petty English academics trying to discredit him, because they cannot bear to give an Indian his due. But he was a hero and every act I have undertaken in this war has been in the shadow of his example.”

  “That’s true, you know,” said Archie thoughtfully. “They don’t speak well about Indians back home; they certainly wouldn’t like it if you said an Indian was a hero . . . everybody would look at you a bit funny.”

  Suddenly Samad grabbed his hand. It was hot, almost fevered, Archie thought. He’d never had another man grab his hand; his first instinct was to move or punch him or something, but then he reconsidered because Indians were emotional, weren’t they? All that spicy food and that.

  “Please. Do me this one, great favor, Jones. If ever you hear anyone, when you are back home—if you, if we, get back to our respective homes—if ever you hear anyone speak of the East,” and here his voice plummeted a register, and the tone was full and sad, “hold your judgment. If you are told ‘they are all this’ or ‘they do this’ or ‘their opinions are these,’ withhold your judgment until all the facts are upon you. Because that land they call ‘India’ goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same among that multitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.”

  Samad released Archie’s hand and rummaged in his pocket, dabbing his finger into a repository of white dust he kept in there, slipping it discreetly into his mouth. He leaned against the wall and drew his fingertips along the stone. It was a tiny missionary church, converted into a hospital and then abandoned after two months when the sound of shells began to shake the windowsills. Samad and Archie had taken to sleeping there because of the thin mattresses and the large airy windows. Samad had taken an interest too (due to loneliness, he told himself; due to melancholy) in the powdered morphine to be found in stray storage cabinets througho
ut the building; hidden eggs on an addictive Easter trail. Whenever Archie went to piss or to try the radio once more, Samad roved up and down his little church, looting cabinet after cabinet, like a sinner moving from confessional to confessional. Then, having found his little bottle of sin, he would take the opportunity to rub a little into his gums or smoke a little in his pipe, and then lie back on the cool terra-cotta floor, looking up into the exquisite curve of the church dome. It was covered in words, this church. Words left three hundred years earlier by dissenters, unwilling to pay a burial tax during a cholera epidemic, locked in the church by a corrupt landlord and left to die in there—but not before they covered every wall with letters to family, poems, statements of eternal disobedience. Samad liked the story well enough when he first heard it, but it only truly struck him when the morphine hit. Then every nerve in his body would be alive, and the information, all the information contained in the universe, all the information on walls, would pop its cork and flow through him like electricity through a ground wire. Then his head would open out like a deckchair. And he would sit in it a while and watch his world go by. Tonight, after just more than enough, Samad felt particularly lucid. Like his tongue was buttered and like the world was a polished marble egg. And he felt a kinship with the dead dissenters, they were Pande’s brothers—every rebel, it seemed to Samad tonight, was his brother—he wished he could speak with them about the mark they made on the world. Had it been enough? When death came, was it really enough? Were they satisfied with the thousand words they left behind?

  “I’ll tell you something for nothing,” said Archie, following Samad’s eyes and catching the church dome’s reflection in them. “If I’d only had a few hours left, I wouldn’t have spent it painting pictures on the ceiling.”

  “Tell me,” inquired Samad, irritated to have been dragged from his pleasant contemplation, “what great challenge would you undertake in the hours before your death? Unravel Fermat’s theorem, perhaps? Master Aristotelian philosophy?”

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