White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “No, Amma. The sky isn’t blue. There’s just white light. White light has all of the colors of the rainbow in it, and when it is scattered through the squillions of molecules in the sky, the shortwave colors—blue, violet—they are the ones you see. The sky isn’t really blue. It just looks that way. It’s called Rayleigh scattering.”

  A strange child with a cold intellect.

  “You must be so proud,” Poppy repeated with a huge smile. “I would be.”

  “Sadly,” said Samad sighing, distracted from his erection by the dismal thought of his second son (by two minutes), “Millat is a good-for-nothing.”

  Poppy looked mortified at this. “Oh no! No, I didn’t mean that at all . . . I mean, I think he’s probably a little intimidated by Magid in that way, but he’s such a personality! He’s just not so . . . academic. But everybody just loves him—such a beautiful boy, as well. Of course,” she said, giving him a wink and a knock on the shoulder, “good genes.”

  Good genes? What did she mean, good genes?

  “Hullo!” said Archie, who had walked up behind them, giving Samad a strong thud on the back. “Hullo!” he said again, shaking Poppy’s hand, with the almost mock-aristocratic manner he used when confronted with educated people. “Archie Jones. Father of Irie, for my sins.”

  “Poppy Burt-Jones. I take Irie for—”

  “Music, yes, I know. Talks about you constantly. Bit disappointed you passed her over for first violin, though . . . maybe next year, eh? So!” said Archie, looking from Poppy to Samad, who was standing slightly apart from the other two and had a queer look, Archie thought, a bloody queer look on his face. “You’ve met the notorious Ick-Ball! You were a bit much in that meeting, Samad, eh? Wasn’t he, eh?”

  “Oh, I don’t know,” said Poppy sweetly. “I thought Mr. Iqbal made some good points, actually. I was really impressed by a lot of what he said. I’d like to be that knowledgeable on so many subjects. Sadly, I’m a bit of a one-trick pony. Are you, I don’t know, a professor of some kind, Mr. Iqbal?”

  “No, no,” said Samad, furious that he was unable to lie because of Archie, and finding the word “waiter” stopping in his throat. “No, the fact is I work in a restaurant. I did some study in younger days, but the war came and . . .” Samad shrugged as an end to the sentence, and watched with sinking heart as Poppy Burt-Jones’s freckled face contorted into one large, red, perplexed question mark.

  “War?” she said, as if he had said wireless or pianola or Victrola. “The Falklands?”

  “No,” said Samad flatly. “The Second World.”

  “Oh, Mr. Iqbal, you’d never guess. You must have been ever so young.”

  “There were tanks there older than us, love,” said Archie with a grin.

  “Well, Mr. Iqbal, that is a surprise! But they say dark skin wrinkles less, don’t they?”

  “Do they?” said Samad, forcing himself to imagine her taut, pink skin, folded over in layer after layer of dead epidermis. “I thought it was children that kept a man young.”

  Poppy laughed. “That too, I’d imagine. Well!” she said, looking flushed, coy, and sure of herself, all at the same time. “You look very good on it. I’m sure the Omar Sharif comparison’s been made before, Mr. Iqbal.”

  “No, no, no, no,” said Samad, glowing with pleasure. “The only comparison lies in our mutual love of bridge. No, no, no . . . And it’s Samad,” he added. “Call me Samad, please.”

  “You’ll have to call him Samad some other time, Miss,” said Archie, who always persisted in calling teachers Miss. “Because we’ve got to go. Wives waiting in the driveway. Dinner, apparently.”

  “Well, it was nice talking to you,” said Poppy, reaching for the wrong hand again, and blushing as he met her with the left.

  “Yes. Good-bye.”

  “Come on, come on,” said Archie, fielding Samad out of the door and down the sloping driveway to the front gates. “Dear God, fit as a butcher’s dog, that one! Phee-yooo. Nice, very nice. Dear me, you were trying it on . . . And what were you on about—mutual love of bridge. I’ve known you decades and I’ve never seen you play bridge. Five-card poker’s more your game.”

  “Shut up, Archibald.”

  “No, no, fair dues, you did very well. It’s not like you, though, Samad—having found God and all that—not like you to be distracted by the attractions of the flesh.”

  Samad shook Archie’s hand from where it was resting on his shoulder. “Why are you so irredeemably vulgar?”

  “I wasn’t the one . . .”

  But Samad wasn’t listening, he was already reciting in his head, repeating two English phrases that he tried hard to believe in, words he had learned these past ten years in England, words he hoped could protect him from the abominable heat in his trousers:

  To the pure all things are pure. To the pure all things are pure. To the pure all things are pure.

  Can’t say fairer than that. Can’t say fairer than that. Can’t say fairer than that.

  But let’s rewind a little.

  1. TO THE PURE ALL THINGS ARE PURE

  Sex, at least the temptation of sex, had long been a problem. When the fear of God first began to creep into Samad’s bones, circa 1976, just after his marriage to the small-palmed, weak-wristed, and uninterested Alsana, he had inquired of an elderly Alim in the mosque in Croydon whether it was permitted that a man might . . . with his hand on his . . .

  Before he had got halfway through this tentative mime, the old scholar had silently passed him a leaflet from a pile on a table and drawn his wrinkled digit firmly underneath point number three.

  There are nine acts which invalidate fast:

  (i) Eating and drinking

  (ii) Sexual intercourse

  (iii) Masturbation (istimna), which means self-abuse, resulting in ejaculation

  (iv) Ascribing false things to Almighty Allah, or his Prophet, or to the successors of the Holy Prophet

  (v) Swallowing thick dust

  (vi) Immersing one’s complete head in water

  (vii) Remaining in Janabat or Haidh or Nifas till the Adhan for Fajr prayers

  (viii) Enema with liquids

  (ix) Vomiting

  “And what, Alim,” Samad had inquired, dismayed, “if he is not fasting?”

  The old scholar looked grave. “Ibn ’Umar was asked about it and is reported to have answered: it is nothing except the rubbing of the male member until its water comes out. It is only a nerve that one kneads.”

  Samad had taken heart at this, but the Alim continued. “However, he answered in another report: it has been forbidden that one should have intercourse with oneself.”

  “But which is the correct belief? Is it halal or haraam? There are some who say . . .” Samad had begun sheepishly, “To the pure all things are pure. If one is truthful and firm in oneself, it can harm nobody else, nor offend . . .”

  But the Alim laughed at this. “And we know who they are. Allah have pity on the Anglicans! Samad, when the male organ of a man stands erect, two thirds of his intellect go away,” said the Alim, shaking his head. “And one third of his religion. There is an hadith of the Prophet Muhammad—peace be upon Him!—it is as follows: O Allah, I seek refuge in you from the evil of my hearing, of my sight, of my tongue, of my heart, and of my private parts.”

  “But surely . . . surely if the man himself is pure, then—”

  “Show me the pure man, Samad! Show me the pure act! Oh, Samad Miah . . . my advice to you is stay away from your right hand.”

  Of course, Samad, being Samad, had employed the best of his Western pragmatism, gone home and vigorously tackled the job with his functional left hand, repeating To the pure all things are pure. To the pure all things are pure, until orgasm finally arrived: sticky, sad, depressing. And that ritual continued for some five years, in the little bedroom at the top of the house where he slept alone (so as not to wake Alsana) after crawling back from the restaurant at three in the morning each and every morning; secretly, silen
tly; for he was, believe it or not, tortured by it, by this furtive yanking and squeezing and spilling, by the fear that he was not pure, that his acts were not pure, that he would never be pure, and always his God seemed to be sending him small signs, small warnings, small curses (a urethra infection, 1976, castration dream, 1978, dirty, encrusted sheet discovered but misunderstood by Alsana’s great-aunt, 1979) until 1980 brought crisis point and Samad heard Allah roaring in his ear like the waves in a conch-shell and it seemed time to make a deal.

  2. CAN’T SAY FAIRER THAN THAT

  The deal was this: on January 1, 1980, like a New Year dieter who gives up cheese on the condition that he can have chocolate, Samad gave up masturbation so that he might drink. It was a deal, a business proposition, that he had made with God: Samad being the party of the first part, God being the sleeping partner. And since that day Samad had enjoyed relative spiritual peace and many a frothy Guinness with Archibald Jones; he had even developed the habit of taking his last gulp looking up at the sky like a Christian, thinking: I’m basically a good man. I don’t slap the salami. Give me a break. I have the odd drink. Can’t say fairer than that . . .

  But of course he was in the wrong religion for compromises, deals, pacts, weaknesses, and can’t say fairer than thats. He was supporting the wrong team if it was empathy and concessions he wanted, if he wanted liberal exegesis, if he wanted to be given a break. His God was not like that charming white-bearded bungler of the Anglican, Methodist, or Catholic churches. His God was not in the business of giving people breaks. The moment Samad set eyes on the pretty redhaired music teacher Poppy Burt-Jones that July of 1984, he knew finally the truth of this. He knew his God was having his revenge, he knew the game was up, he saw that the contract had been broken, and the sanity clause did not, after all, exist, that temptation had been deliberately and maliciously thrown in his path. In short, all deals were off.

  Masturbation recommenced in earnest. Those two months, between seeing the pretty redhaired music teacher once and seeing her again, were the longest, stickiest, smelliest, guiltiest fifty-six days of Samad’s life. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he found himself suddenly accosted by some kind of synesthetic fixation with the woman: hearing the color of her hair in the mosque, smelling the touch of her hand on the tube, tasting her smile while innocently walking the streets on his way to work; and this in turn led to a knowledge of every public convenience in London, led to the kind of masturbation that even a fifteen-year-old boy living in the Shetlands might find excessive. His only comfort was that he, like Roosevelt, had made a New Deal: he was going to beat but he wasn’t going to eat. He meant somehow to purge himself of the sights and smells of Poppy Burt-Jones, of the sin of istimna, and, though it wasn’t fasting season and these were the longest days of the year, still no substance passed Samad’s lips between sunrise and sunset, not even, thanks to a little china spitoon, his own saliva. And because there was no food going in the one end, what came out of the other end was so thin and so negligible, so meager and translucent, that Samad could almost convince himself that the sin was lessened, that one wonderful day he would be able to massage one-eyed Jack as vigorously as he liked and nothing would come out but air.

  But despite the intensity of the hunger—spiritual, physical, sexual—Samad still did his twelve hours daily in the restaurant. Frankly, he found the restaurant about the only place he could bear to be. He couldn’t bear to see his family, he couldn’t bear to go to O’Connell’s, he couldn’t bear to give Archie the satisfaction of seeing him in such a state. By mid-August he had upped his working hours to fourteen a day; something in the ritual of it—picking up his basket of pink swan-shaped napkins and following the trail of Shiva’s plastic carnations, correcting the order of a knife or fork, polishing a glass, removing the smear of a finger from the china plates—soothed him. No matter how bad a Muslim he might be, no one could say Samad wasn’t a consummate waiter. He had taken one tedious skill and honed it to perfection. Here at least he could show others the right path: how to disguise a stale onion bhaji, how to make fewer prawns look like more, how to explain to an Australian that he doesn’t want the amount of chili he thinks he wants. Outside the doors of the Palace he was a masturbator, a bad husband, an indifferent father, with all the morals of an Anglican. But inside here, within these four green and yellow paisley walls, he was a one-handed genius.

  “Shiva! Flower missing. Here.”

  It was two weeks into Samad’s New Deal and an average Friday afternoon at the Palace, setting up.

  “You’ve missed this vase, Shiva!”

  Shiva wandered over to examine the empty, pencil-thin, aquamarine vase on table nineteen.

  “And there is some lime pickle afloat in the mango chutney in the sauce carousel on table fifteen.”

  “Really?” said Shiva dryly. Poor Shiva; nearly thirty now; not so pretty; still here. It had never happened for him, whatever he thought was going to happen for him. He did leave the restaurant, Samad remembered vaguely, for a short time in 1979 to start up a security firm, but “nobody wanted to hire Paki bouncers” and he had come back, a little less aggressive, a little more despairing, like a broken horse.

  “Yes, Shiva. Really and truly.”

  “And that’s what’s driving you crazy, is it?”

  “I wouldn’t go as far as to say crazy, no . . . it is troubling me.”

  “Because something,” interrupted Shiva, “has got right up your arse recently. We’ve all noticed it.”

  “We?”

  “Us. The boys. Yesterday it was a grain of salt in a napkin. The day before Gandhi wasn’t hung straight on the wall. The past week you’ve been acting like Führer-gee,” said Shiva, nodding in Ardashir’s direction. “Like a crazy man. You don’t smile. You don’t eat. You’re constantly on everybody’s case. And when the head waiter’s not all there it puts everybody off. Like a football captain.”

  “I am certain I do not know to what you are referring,” said Samad, tight-lipped, passing him the vase.

  “And I’m certain you do,” said Shiva provocatively, placing the empty vase back on the table.

  “If I am concerned about something, there is no reason why it should disrupt my work here,” said Samad, becoming panicked, passing him back the vase. “I do not wish to inconvenience others.”

  Shiva returned the vase to the table once more. “So there is something. Come on, man . . . I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye, but we’ve got to stick together in this place. How long have we worked together? Samad Miah?”

  Samad looked up suddenly at Shiva, and Shiva saw he was sweating, that he seemed almost dazed. “Yes, yes . . . there is . . . something.”

  Shiva put his hand on Samad’s shoulder. “So why don’t we sod the fucking carnation and go and cook you a curry—sun’ll be down in twenty minutes. Come on, you can tell Shiva all about it. Not because I give a fuck, you understand, but I have to work here too and you’re driving me mad, mate.”

  Samad, oddly touched by this inelegant offer of a listening ear, laid down his pink swans and followed Shiva into the kitchens.

  “Animal, vegetable, mineral?”

  Shiva stood at a work surface and began chopping a breast of chicken into perfect cubes and dousing them in cornstarch.

  “Pardon me?”

  “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?” repeated Shiva impatiently. “The thing that’s bothering you.”

  “Animal, mainly.”

  “Female?”

  Samad dropped onto a nearby stool and hung his head.

  “Female,” Shiva concluded. “Wife?”

  “The shame of it, the pain of it will come to my wife, but no . . . she is not the cause.”

  “Another bird. My specialist subject.” Shiva performed the action of rolling a camera, sang the theme to Mastermind, and jumped into shot. “Shiva Bhagwati, you have thirty seconds on shagging women other than your wife. First question: is it right? Answer: depends. Second question: shall
I go to hell?—”

  Samad cut in, disgusted. “I am not . . . making love to her.”

  “I’ve started so I’ll finish: shall I go to hell? Answer—”

  “Enough. Forget it. Please, forget that I mentioned anything of this.”

  “Do you want eggplant in this?”

  “No . . . green peppers are sufficient.”

  “Alrighty,” said Shiva, throwing a green pepper up in the air and catching it on the tip of his knife. “One Chicken Bhuna coming up. How long’s it been going on, then?”

  “Nothing is going on. I met her only once. I barely know her.”

  “So: what’s the damage? A grope? A snog?”

  “A handshake, only. She is my sons’ teacher.”

  Shiva tossed the onions and peppers into hot oil. “You’ve had the odd stray thought. So what?”

  Samad stood up. “It is more than stray thoughts, Shiva. My whole body is mutinous, nothing will do what I tell it. Never before have I been subjected to such physical indignities. For example: I am constantly—”

  “Yeah,” said Shiva, indicating Samad’s crotch. “We noticed that too. Why don’t you do the five-knuckle-shuffle before you get to work?”

  “I do . . . I am . . . but it makes no difference. Besides, Allah forbids it.”

  “Oh, you should never have got religious, Samad. It don’t suit you.” Shiva wiped an onion-tear away. “All that guilt’s not healthy.”

  “It is not guilt. It is fear. I am fifty-seven, Shiva. When you get to my age, you become . . . concerned about your faith, you don’t want to leave things too late. I have been corrupted by England, I see that now—my children, my wife, they too have been corrupted. I think maybe I have made the wrong friends. Maybe I have been frivolous. Maybe I have thought intellect more important than faith. And now it seems this final temptation has been put in front of me. To punish me, you understand. Shiva, you know about women. Help me. How can this feeling be possible? I have known of the woman’s existence for no more than a few months, I have spoken to her only once.”

 
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