White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “Looks like it, dunnit?” said Archie.

  “May I plead for my life?”

  “If you like,” said Archie, pushing him on.

  Sitting in the jeep, some five minutes later, Samad heard a shot ring out. It made him jump. He slapped dead an insect that had been winding its way round his wrist, looking for enough flesh to bite. Lifting his head, he saw in front of him that Archie was returning: bleeding and limping badly, made visible, then invisible, illuminated, obscured, as he wound in and out of the headlights. He looked his tender age, the lamps making his blond hair translucent, his moon-shaped face lit up like a big baby, entering life head first.

  Samad

  1984, 1857

  The cricket test—which side do they cheer for? . . . Are you still looking back to where you came from or where you are?

  —Norman Tebbit

  CHAPTER SIX

  The Temptation of Samad Iqbal

  Children. Samad had caught children like a disease. Yes, he had sired two of them willingly—as willingly as a man can—but he had not bargained for this other thing. This thing that no one tells you about. This thing of knowing children. For forty-odd years, traveling happily along life’s highway, Samad had been unaware that, dotted along that road, in the crèche facilities of each service station, there lived a subclass of society, a mewling, puking underclass; he knew nothing of them and it did not concern him. Then suddenly, in the early eighties, he became infected with children; other people’s children, children who were friends of his children, and then their friends; then children in children’s programs on children’s TV. By 1984 at least 30 percent of his social and cultural circle was under the age of nine—and this all led, inevitably, to the position he now found himself in. He was a parent-governor.

  By a strange process of symmetry, being a parent-governor perfectly mirrors the process of becoming a parent. It starts innocently. Casually. You turn up at the annual spring fair full of beans, help with the raffle tickets (because the pretty red-haired music teacher asks you to) and win a bottle of whiskey (all school raffles are fixed), and, before you know where you are, you’re turning up at the weekly school council meetings, organizing concerts, discussing plans for a new music department, donating funds for the rejuvenation of the water fountains—you’re implicated in the school, you’re involved in it. Sooner or later you stop dropping your children at the school gates. You start following them in.

  “Put your hand down.”

  “I will not put it down.”

  “Put it down, please.”

  “Let go of me.”

  “Samad, why are you so eager to mortify me? Put it down.”

  “I have an opinion. I have a right to an opinion. And I have a right to express that opinion.”

  “Yes, but do you have to express it so often?”

  This was the hissed exchange between Samad and Alsana Iqbal, as they sat at the back of a Wednesday school governors’ meeting in early July ’84, Alsana trying her best to force Samad’s determined left arm back to his side.

  “Get off, woman!”

  Alsana put her two tiny hands to his wrist and tried applying a Chinese burn. “Samad Miah, can’t you understand that I am only trying to save you from yourself?”

  As the covert wrestling continued, the chairwoman, Katie Miniver, a lanky white divorcée with tight jeans, extremely curly hair, and buckteeth, tried desperately to avoid Samad’s eye. She silently cursed Mrs. Hanson, the fat lady just behind him, who was speaking about the woodworm in the school orchard, inadvertently making it impossible to pretend that Samad’s persistent raised hand had gone unseen. Sooner or later she was going to have to let him speak. In between nodding at Mrs. Hanson, she snatched a surreptitious glance at the minutes, which the secretary, Mrs. Khilnani, was scribbling away on her left. She wanted to check that it was not her imagination, that she was not being unfair or undemocratic, or worse still racist (but she had read Colour Blind, a seminal leaflet from the Rainbow Coalition, she had scored well on the self-test), racist in ways that were so deeply ingrained and socially determining that they escaped her attention. But no, no. She wasn’t crazy. Any random extract highlighted the problem:

  13.0 Mrs. Janet Trott wishes to propose a second climbing frame be built in the playground to accommodate the large number of children who enjoy the present climbing frame but unfortunately have made it a safety risk through dangerous overcrowding. Mrs. Trott’s husband, the architect Hanover Trott, is willing to design and oversee the building of such a frame at no cost to the school.

  13.1 Chairwoman can see no objection. Moves to put the proposition to a vote.

  13.2 Mr. Iqbal wishes to know why the Western education system privileges activity of the body over activity of the mind and soul.

  13.3 The Chairwoman wonders if this is quite relevant.

  13.4 Mr. Iqbal demands the vote be delayed until he can present a paper detailing the main arguments and emphasizes that his sons, Magid and Millat, get all the exercise they need via headstands that strengthen the muscles and send blood to stimulate the somatosensory cortex in the brain.

  13.5 Mrs. Wolfe asks whether Mr. Iqbal expects her Susan to undertake compulsory headstands.

  13.6 Mr. Iqbal infers that, considering Susan’s academic performance and weight problems, a headstand regime might be desirable.

  “Yes, Mr. Iqbal?”

  Samad forcefully removed Alsana’s fingers from the clamp grip they had assumed on his lapel, stood up quite unnecessarily, and sorted through a number of papers he had on a clipboard, removing the one he wanted and holding it out before him.

  “Yes, yes. I have a motion. I have a motion.”

  The subtlest manifestation of a groan went round the group of governors, followed by a short period of shifting, scratching, leg-crossing, bag-rifling, and the repositioning of coats-on-chairs.

  “Another one, Mr. Iqbal?”

  “Oh yes, Mrs. Miniver.”

  “Only you’ve tabled twelve motions already this evening; I think possibly somebody else—”

  “Oh, it is much too important to be delayed, Mrs. Miniver. Now, if I can just—”

  “Ms. Miniver.”

  “Pardon me?”

  “It’s just . . . it’s Ms. Miniver. All evening you’ve been . . . and it’s, umm . . . actually not Mrs. It’s Ms. Ms.”

  Samad looked quizzically at Katie Miniver, then at his papers as if to find the answer there, then at the beleaguered chairwoman again.

  “I’m sorry? You are not married?”

  “Divorced, actually, yes, divorced. I’m keeping the name.”

  “I see. You have my condolences, Miss Miniver. Now, the matter I—”

  “I’m sorry,” said Katie, pulling her fingers through her intractable hair. “Umm, it’s not Miss, either. I’m sorry. I have been married you see, so—”

  Ellen Corcoran and Janine Lanzerano, two friends from the Women’s Action Group, gave Katie a supportive smile. Ellen shook her head to indicate that Katie mustn’t cry (because you’re doing well, really well); Janine mouthed Go on and gave her a furtive thumbs-up.

  “I really wouldn’t feel comforta—I just feel marital status shouldn’t be an issue—it’s not that I want to embarrass you, Mr. Iqbal. I just would feel more—if you—it’s Ms.”

  “Mzzz?”

  “Ms.”

  “And this is some kind of linguistic conflation between the words Mrs. and Miss?” asked Samad, genuinely curious and oblivious to the nether wobblings of Katie Miniver’s bottom lip. “Something to describe the woman who has either lost her husband or has no prospect of finding another?”

  Alsana groaned and put her head in her hands.

  Samad looked at his clipboard, underlined something in pen three times, and turned to the parent-governors once more.

  “The Harvest Festival.”

  Shifting, scratching, leg-crossing, coat-repositioning.

  “Yes, Mr. Iqbal,” said Katie Miniver. “What abou
t the Harvest Festival?”

  “That is precisely what I want to know. What is all this about the Harvest Festival? What is it? Why is it? And why must my children celebrate it?”

  The headmistress, Mrs. Owens, a genteel woman with a soft face half hidden behind a fiercely cut blond bob, motioned to Katie Miniver that she would handle this.

  “Mr. Iqbal, we have been through the matter of religious festivals quite thoroughly in the autumn review. As I am sure you are aware, the school already recognizes a great variety of religious and secular events: among them, Christmas, Ramadan, Chinese New Year, Diwali, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, the birthday of Haile Selassie, and the death of Martin Luther King. The Harvest Festival is part of the school’s ongoing commitment to religious diversity, Mr. Iqbal.”

  “I see. And are there many pagans, Mrs. Owens, at Manor School?”

  “Pagan—I’m afraid I don’t under—”

  “It is very simple. The Christian calendar has thirty-seven religious events. Thirty-seven. The Muslim calendar has nine. Only nine. And they are squeezed out by this incredible rash of Christian festivals. Now, my motion is simple. If we removed all the pagan festivals from the Christian calendar, there would be an average of”—Samad paused to look at his clipboard—“of twenty days freed up in which the children could celebrate Lailat-ul-Qadr in December, Eid-ul-Fitr in January, and Eid-ul-Adha in April, for example. And the first festival that must go, in my opinion, is this Harvest Festival business.”

  “I’m afraid,” said Mrs. Owens, doing her pleasant-but-firm smile and playing her punchline to the crowd, “removing Christian festivals from the face of the earth is a little beyond my jurisdiction. Otherwise I would remove Christmas Eve and save myself a lot of work in stocking-stuffing.”

  Samad ignored the general giggle this prompted and pressed on. “But this is my whole point. This Harvest Festival is not a Christian festival. Where in the Bible does it say, For thou must steal foodstuffs from thy parents’ cupboards and bring them into school assembly, and thou shalt force thy mother to bake a loaf of bread in the shape of a fish? These are pagan ideals! Tell me where does it say, Thou shalt take a box of frozen fishfingers to an aged crone who lives in Wembley?”

  Mrs. Owens frowned, unaccustomed to sarcasm unless it was of the teacher variety, e.g., Do we live in a barn? And I suppose you treat your own house like that!

  “Surely, Mr. Iqbal, it is precisely the charity aspect of the Harvest Festival that makes it worth retaining? Taking food to the elderly seems to me a laudable idea, whether it has scriptural support or not. Certainly, nothing in the Bible suggests we should sit down to a turkey meal on Christmas Day, but few people would condemn it on those grounds. To be honest, Mr. Iqbal, we like to think of these things as more about community than religion as such.”

  “A man’s god is his community!” said Samad, raising his voice.

  “Yes, umm . . . well, shall we vote on the motion?”

  Mrs. Owens looked nervously around the room for hands. “Will anyone second it?”

  Samad pressed Alsana’s hand. She kicked him in the ankle. He stamped on her toe. She pinched his flank. He bent back her little finger and she grudgingly raised her right arm while deftly elbowing him in the crotch with her left.

  “Thank you, Mrs. Iqbal,” said Mrs. Owens, as Janice and Ellen looked over to her with the piteous, saddened smiles they reserved for subjugated Muslim women.

  “All those in favor of the motion to remove the Harvest Festival from the school calendar—”

  “On the grounds of its pagan roots.”

  “On the grounds of certain pagan . . . connotations. Raise your hands.”

  Mrs. Owens scanned the room. One hand, that of the pretty redheaded music teacher Poppy Burt-Jones, shot up, sending her many bracelets jangling down her wrist. Then the Chalfens, Marcus and Joyce, an aging hippie couple both dressed in pseudo-Indian garb, raised their hands defiantly. Then Samad looked pointedly at Clara and Archie, sitting sheepishly on the other side of the hall, and two more hands moved slowly above the crowd.

  “All those against?”

  The remaining thirty-six hands lifted into the air.

  “Motion not passed.”

  “I am certain the Solar Covenant of Manor School Witches and Goblins will be delighted with that decision,” said Samad, retaking his seat.

  After the meeting, as Samad emerged from the toilets, having relieved himself with some difficulty in a miniature urinal, the pretty redheaded music teacher Poppy Burt-Jones accosted him in the corridor.

  “Mr. Iqbal.”

  “Hmm?”

  She extended a long, pale, lightly freckled arm. “Poppy Burt-Jones. I take Magid and Millat for orchestra and singing.”

  Samad replaced the dead right hand she meant to shake with his working left.

  “Oh! I’m sorry.”

  “No, no. It’s not painful. It just does not work.”

  “Oh, good! I mean, I’m glad there’s no, you know, pain.”

  She was what you would call effortlessly pretty. About twenty-eight, maybe thirty-two at most. Slim, but not at all hard-bodied, and with a curved ribcage like a child; long, flat breasts that lifted at their tips; an open-necked white shirt, some well-worn Levi’s and gray sneakers, a lot of dark-red hair swished up in a sloppy ponytail. Wispy bits falling at the neck. Freckled. A very pleasant, slightly goofy smile that she was showing Samad right now.

  “Was there something you wanted to discuss about the twins? A problem?”

  “Oh no, no . . . well, you know, they’re fine. Magid has a little difficulty, but with his good marks I’m sure playing the recorder isn’t high on his list, and Millat has a real flair for the sax. No, I just wanted to say that I thought you made a good point, you know,” she said, chucking her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the hall. “In the meeting. The Harvest Festival always seemed so ridiculous to me. I mean, if you want to help old people, you know, well, vote for a different government, don’t send them cans of spaghetti.” She smiled at him again and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear.

  “It is a great shame more people do not agree,” said Samad, flattered somehow by the second smile and sucking in his well-toned fifty-seven-year-old stomach. “We seemed very much in the minority this evening.”

  “Well, the Chalfens were behind you—they’re such nice people—intellectuals,” she whispered, as if it were some exotic disease of the tropics. “He’s a scientist and she’s something in gardening—but both very down to earth with it. I talked to them and they thought you should pursue it. You know, actually, I was thinking that maybe we could get together at some point in the next few months and work on a second motion for the September meeting—you know, nearer the actual time, make it a little more coherent, maybe, print out leaflets, that sort of thing. Because you know, I’m really interested in Indian culture. I just think those festivals you mentioned would be so much more . . . colorful, and we could tie it in with artwork, music. It could be really exciting,” said Poppy Burt-Jones, getting really excited. “And I think it would be really good, you know, for the kids.”

  It was not possible, Samad knew, for this woman to have any erotic interest in him whatsoever. But still he glanced around for Alsana, still he jangled his car keys nervously in his pocket, still he felt a cold thing land on his heart and knew it was fear of his God.

  “I’m not actually from India, you know,” said Samad, with infinitely more patience than he had ever previously employed the many times he had been required to repeat this sentence since moving to England.

  Poppy Burt-Jones looked surprised and disappointed. “You’re not?”

  “No. I’m from Bangladesh.”

  “Bangladesh . . .”

  “Previously Pakistan. Previous to that, Bengal.”

  “Oh, right. Same sort of ball-park, then.”

  “Just about the same stadium, yes.”

  There was a bit of a difficult pause, in which Samad saw clearly tha
t he wanted her more than any woman he had met in the past ten years. Just like that. Desire didn’t even bother casing the joint, checking whether the neighbors were in—desire just kicked down the door and made himself at home. He felt queasy. Then he became aware that his face was moving from arousal to horror in a grotesque parody of the movements of his mind, as he weighed up Poppy Burt-Jones and all the physical and metaphysical consequences she suggested. He must speak before it got any worse.

  “Well . . . hmm, it is a good idea, retabling the motion,” he said against his will, for something more bestial than his will was now doing the talking. “If you could spare the time.”

  “Well, we can talk about it. I’ll give you a call about it in a few weeks. We could meet after orchestra, maybe?”

  “That would be . . . fine.”

  “Great! That’s agreed, then. You know, your boys are really adorable—they’re very unusual. I was saying it to the Chalfens, and Marcus put his finger on it: he said that Indian children, if you don’t mind me saying, are usually a lot more—”

  “More?”

  “Quiet. Beautifully behaved but very, I don’t know, subdued.”

  Samad winced inside, imagining Alsana listening to this.

  “And Magid and Millat are just so . . . loud.”

  Samad tried to smile.

  “Magid is so impressive intellectually for a nine-year-old—everybody says so. I mean, he’s really remarkable. You must be so proud. He’s like a little adult. Even his clothes . . . I don’t think I’ve ever known a nine-year-old to dress so—so severely.”

  Both twins had always been determined to choose their own clothes, but where Millat bullied Alsana into purchases of red-stripe Nikes, OshKosh B’Gosh, and strange jumpers that had patterns on the inside and the out, Magid could be found, whatever the weather, in gray pullover, gray shirt, and black tie with his shiny black shoes and National Health Service specs perched upon his nose, like some dwarf librarian. Alsana would say, “Little man, how about the blue one for Amma, hmm?,” pushing him into the primary colors section of Mothercare. “Just one blue one. Go so nice with your eyes. For Amma, Magid. How can you not care for blue? It’s the color of the sky!”

 
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