White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “As you said: you’re fifty-seven. Midlife crisis.”

  “Midlife? What does this mean?” snapped Samad irritably. “Dammit, Shiva, I don’t plan to live for one hundred and fourteen years.”

  “It’s a manner of speaking. You read about it in the magazines these days. It’s when a man gets to a certain point in life, he starts feeling he’s over the hill . . . and you’re as young as the girl you feel, if you get my meaning.”

  “I am at a moral crossroads in my life and you are talking nonsense to me.”

  “You’ve got to learn this stuff, mate,” said Shiva, speaking slowly, patiently. “Female organism, gee-spot, testicle cancer, the menstropause—midlife crisis is one of them. Information the modern man needs at his fingertips.”

  “But I don’t wish for such information!” cried Samad, standing up and pacing the kitchen. “That is precisely the point! I don’t wish to be a modern man! I wish to live as I was always meant to! I wish to return to the East!”

  “Ah, well . . . we all do, don’t we?” murmured Shiva, pushing the peppers and onion around the pan. “I left when I was three. Fuck knows I haven’t made anything of this country. But who’s got the money for the air fare? And who wants to live in a shack with fourteen servants on the payroll? Who knows what Shiva Bhagwati would have turned out like back in Calcutta? Prince or pauper? And who,” said Shiva, some of his old beauty returning to his face, “can pull the West out of ’em once it’s in?”

  Samad continued to pace. “I should never have come here—that’s where every problem has come from. Never should have had my sons here, so far from God. Willesden Green! Visiting cards in sweetshop windows, Judy Blume in the school, condom on the pavement, Harvest Festival, teacher-temptresses!” roared Samad, picking items at random. “Shiva—I tell you, in confidence: my dearest friend, Archibald Jones, is an unbeliever! Now: what kind of a model am I for my children?”

  “Iqbal, sit down. Be calm. Listen: you just want somebody. People want people. It happens from Delhi to Deptford. And it’s not the end of the world.”

  “Of this, I wish I could be certain.”

  “When are you next seeing her?”

  “We are meeting for school-related business . . . the first Wednesday of September.”

  “I see. Is she Hindu? Muslim? She ain’t Sikh, is she?”

  “That is the worst of it,” said Samad, his voice breaking. “English. White. English.”

  Shiva shook his head. “I been out with a lot of white birds, Samad. A lot. Sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it ain’t. Two lovely American girls. Fell head over heels for a Parisian stunner. Even spent a year with a Romanian. But never an English girl. Never works. Never.”

  “Why?” asked Samad, attacking his thumbnail with his teeth and awaiting some fearful answer, some edict from on high. “Why not, Shiva Bhagwati?”

  “Too much history” was Shiva’s enigmatic answer, as he dished up the Chicken Bhuna. “Too much bloody history.”

  Eight-thirty a.m., the first Wednesday of September, 1984. Samad, lost in thought somewhat, heard the passenger door of his Austin Mini Metro open and close—far away in the real world—and turned to his left to find Millat climbing in next to him. Or at least a Millat-shaped thing from the neck down: the head replaced by a Tomytronic—a basic computer game that looked like a large pair of binoculars. Within it, Samad knew from experience, a little red car that represented his son was racing a green car and a yellow car along a three-dimensional road of l.e.d.’s.

  Millat parked his tiny backside on the brown plastic seat. “Ooh! Cold seat! Cold seat! Frozen bum!”

  “Millat, where are Magid and Irie?”


  “Coming with the speed of a train or coming with the speed of a snail?”

  “Eeek!” squealed Millat, in response to a virtual blockade that threatened to send his red car spinning off into oblivion.

  “Please, Millat. Take this off.”

  “Can’t. Need one, oh, two, seven, three points.”

  “Millat, you need to begin to understand numbers. Repeat: ten thousand, two hundred and seventy-three.”

  “Men blousand, poo bumdred and weventy-wee.”

  “Take it off, Millat.”

  “Can’t. I’ll die. Do you want me to die, Abba?”

  Samad wasn’t listening. It was imperative that he be at school before nine if this trip were going to have any purpose whatsoever. By nine, she’d be in class. By nine-oh-two, she’d be opening the register with those long fingers, by nine-oh-three she’d be tapping her high-mooned nails on a wooden desk somewhere out of sight.

  “Where are they? Do they want to be late for school?”


  “Are they always this late?” asked Samad, for this was not his regular routine—the school run was usually Alsana’s or Clara’s assignment. It was for a glimpse of Burt-Jones (though their meeting was only seven hours and fifty-seven minutes away, seven hours and fifty-six minutes away, seven hours . . .) that he had undertaken the most odious parental responsibility in the book. And he’d had a hard time convincing Alsana there was nothing peculiar in this sudden desire to participate fully in the educational transportation of his and Archie’s offspring:

  “But Samad, you don’t get in the house ’til three in the morning. Are you going peculiar?”

  “I want to see my boys! I want to see Irie! Every morning they are growing up—I never see it! Two inches Millat has grown.”

  “But not at eight-thirty in the morning. It is very funnily enough that he grows all the time—praise Allah! It must be some kind of a miracle. What is this about, hmm?” She dug her fingernail into the overhang of his belly. “Some hokery-pokery. I can smell it—like goat’s tongue gone off.”

  Ah, Alsana’s culinary nose for guilt, deceit, and fear was without equal in the borough of Brent, and Samad was useless in the face of it. Did she know? Had she guessed? These anxieties Samad had slept on all night (when he wasn’t slapping the salami) and then brought to his car first thing so that he might take them out on his children.

  “Where in hell’s name are they?”

  “Hell’s bells!”


  “You swore,” said Millat, taking lap fourteen and getting a five-oh-oh bonus for causing the combustion of Yellow Car. “You always do. So does M’ster Jones.”

  “Well, we have special swearing licenses.”

  Headless Millat needed no face to express his outrage. “NO SUCH THING AS—”

  “OK, OK, OK,” back-pedaled Samad, knowing there is no joy to be had in arguing ontology with a nine-year-old, “I have been caught out. No such thing as a license to swear. Millat, where’s your saxophone? You have orchestra today.”

  “In the trunk,” said Millat, his voice at once incredulous and disgusted: a man who didn’t know the saxophone went in the trunk on Sunday night was some kind of a social retard. “Why’re you picking us up? M’ster Jones picks us up on Mondays. You don’t know anything about picking us up. Or taking us in.”

  “I’m sure somehow I will muddle through, thank you, Millat. It is hardly rocket science, after all. Where are those two!” he shouted, beeping the horn, unhinged by his nine-year-old son’s ability to recognize the irregularity in his behavior. “And will you please be taking that damn thing off!” Samad made a grab for the Tomytronic and pulled it down around Millat’s neck.

  “YOU KILLED ME!” Millat looked back in the Tomytronic, horrified, and just in time to witness his tiny red alter ego swerving into the barriers and disappearing in a catastrophic light show of showering yellow sparks. “YOU KILLED ME WHEN I WAS WINNING!”

  Samad closed his eyes and forced his eyeballs to roll up as far as possible in his head, in the hope that his brain might impact upon them, a self-blinding, if he could achieve it, on a par with that other victim of Western corruption, Oedipus. Think: I want another woman. Think: I’ve killed my son. I swear. I eat bacon. I regularly slap t
he salami. I drink Guinness. My best friend is a kaffir nonbeliever. I tell myself if I rub up and down without using hands it does not count. But oh it does count. It all counts on the great counting board of He who counts. What will happen come Mahshar? How will I absolve myself when the Last Judgment comes?

  . . . Click-slam. Click-slam. One Magid, one Irie. Samad opened his eyes and looked in the rearview mirror. In the back seat were the two children he had been waiting for: both with their little glasses, Irie with her willful Afro (not a pretty child: she had got her genes mixed up, Archie’s nose with Clara’s awful buckteeth), Magid with his thick black hair slicked into an unappealing center part. Magid carrying a recorder, Irie with violin. But beyond these basic details, everything was not as it should be. Unless he was very much mistaken, something was rotten in this Mini Metro—something was afoot. Both children were dressed in black from head to toe. Both wore white armbands on their left arms upon which were painted crude renditions of baskets of vegetables. Both had pads of writing paper and a pen tied around their necks with string.

  “Who did this to you?”


  “Was it Amma? And Mrs. Jones?”


  “Magid! Irie! Cat got your tongues?”

  More silence; children’s silence, so desperately desired by adults yet eerie when it finally occurs.

  “Millat, do you know what this is about?”

  “’Sboring,” whined Millat. “They’re just being clever, clever, snotty, dumb-bum, Lord Magoo and Mrs. Ugly Poo.”

  Samad twisted in his car seat to face the two dissenters. “Am I meant to ask you what this is about?”

  Magid grasped his pen and, in his neat, clinical hand, printed: if you want to, then ripped off the piece of paper and handed it to Samad.

  “A Vow of Silence. I see. You too, Irie? I would have thought you were too sensible for such nonsense.”

  Irie scribbled for a moment on her pad and passed the missive forward. we are prostesting.

  “Pros-testing? What are Pros and why are you testing them? Did your mother teach you this word?”

  Irie looked like she was going to burst with the sheer force of her explanation, but Magid mimed the zipping up of her mouth, snatched back the piece of paper and crossed out the first s.

  “Oh, I see. Protesting.”

  Magid and Irie nodded maniacally.

  “Well, that is indeed fascinating. And I suppose your mothers engineered this whole scenario? The costumes? The notepads?”


  “You are quite the political prisoners . . . not giving a thing away. All right: may one ask what it is that you are protesting about?”

  Both children pointed urgently to their armbands.

  “Vegetables? You are protesting for the rights of vegetables?”

  Irie held one hand over her mouth to stop herself screaming the answer, while Magid set about his writing pad in a flurry. we are protesting about the harvest festival.

  Samad growled, “I told you already. I don’t want you participating in that nonsense. It has nothing to do with us, Magid. Why are you always trying to be somebody you are not?”

  There was a mutual, silent anger as each acknowledged the painful incident that was being referred to. A few months earlier, on Magid’s ninth birthday, a group of very nice-looking white boys with meticulous manners had turned up on the doorstep and asked for Mark Smith.

  “Mark? No Mark here,” Alsana had said, bending down to their level with a genial smile. “Only the family Iqbal in here. You have the wrong house.”

  But before she had finished the sentence, Magid had dashed to the door, ushering his mother out of view.

  “Hi, guys.”

  “Hi, Mark.”

  “Off to the chess club, Mum.”

  “Yes, M—M—Mark,” said Alsana, close to tears at this final snub, the replacement of “Mum” for “Amma.” “Do not be late, now.”

  “I GIVE YOU A GLORIOUS NAME LIKE MAGID MAHFOOZ MURSHED MUBTASIM IQBAL!” Samad had yelled after Magid when he returned home that evening and whipped up the stairs like a bullet to hide in his room. “AND YOU WANT TO BE CALLED MARK SMITH!”

  But this was just a symptom of a far deeper malaise. Magid really wanted to be in some other family. He wanted to own cats and not cockroaches, he wanted his mother to make the music of the cello, not the sound of the sewing machine; he wanted to have a trellis of flowers growing up one side of the house instead of the ever-growing pile of other people’s rubbish; he wanted a piano in the hallway in place of the broken door off cousin Kurshed’s car; he wanted to go on biking holidays to France, not day-trips to Blackpool to visit aunties; he wanted the floor of his room to be shiny wood, not the orange-and-green swirled carpet left over from the restaurant; he wanted his father to be a doctor, not a one-handed waiter; and this month Magid had converted all these desires into a wish to join in with the Harvest Festival like Mark Smith would. Like everybody else would.

  but we want to do it. or we’ll get a detention. mrs. owens said it is tradition.

  Samad blew his top. “Whose tradition?” he bellowed, as a tearful Magid began to scribble frantically once more. “Dammit, you are a Muslim, not a wood sprite! I told you, Magid, I told you the condition upon which you would be allowed. You come with me on hajj. If I am to touch that black stone before I die I will do it with my eldest son by my side.”

  Magid broke the pencil halfway through his reply, scrawling the second half with blunt lead. it’s not fair! i can’t go on hajj. i’ve got to go to school. i don’t have time to go to mecca. it’s not fair!

  “Welcome to the twentieth century. It’s not fair. It’s never fair.”

  Magid ripped the next piece of paper from the pad and held it up in front of his father’s face. you told her dad not to let her go.

  Samad couldn’t deny it. Last Tuesday he had asked Archie to show solidarity by keeping Irie at home the week of the festival. Archie had hedged and haggled, fearing Clara’s wrath, but Samad had reassured him: Take a leaf from my book, Archibald. Who wears the trousers in my house? Archie had thought about Alsana, so often found in those lovely silken trousers with the tapered ankle, and of Samad, who regularly wore a long piece of embroidered gray cotton, a lungi, wrapped round his waist, to all intents and purposes a skirt. But he kept the thought to himself.

  we won’t speak if you don’t let us go. we won’t speak ever, ever, ever, ever again. when we die everyone will say it was you. you you you.

  Great, thought Samad, more blood and sticky guilt on my one good hand.

  Samad didn’t know anything about conducting, but he knew what he liked. True, it probably wasn’t very complex, the way she did it, just a simple three/four, just a one-dimensional metronome drawn in the air with her index finger—but aaah, what a joy it was to watch her do it! Her back to him; her bare feet lifting—on every third beat—out of her slip-on shoes; her backside protruding ever so slightly, pressing up against the jeans each time she lunged forward for one of the orchestra’s ham-fisted crescendos—what a joy it was! What a vision! It was all he could do to stop himself rushing at her and carrying her off; it frightened him, the extent to which he could not take his eyes off her. But he had to rationalize: the orchestra needed her—God knows they were never going to get through this adaptation of Swan Lake (more reminiscent of ducks waddling through an oil slick) without her. Yet what a terrific waste it seemed—akin to watching a toddler on a bus mindlessly grabbing the breast of the stranger sitting next to him—what a waste, that something of such beauty should be at the disposal of those too young to know what to do with it. The second he tasted this thought he brought it back up: Samad Miah . . . surely a man has reached his lowest when he is jealous of the child at a woman’s breast, when he is jealous of the young, of the future . . . And then, not for the first time that afternoon, as Poppy Burt-Jones lifted out of her shoes once more and the ducks finally succumbed to the environmental disaster, he asked hims
elf: why, in the name of Allah, am I here? And the answer returned once more with the persistence of vomit: because I simply cannot be anywhere else.

  Tic, tic, tic. Samad was thankful for the sound of baton hitting on music stand, which interrupted him from these thoughts, these thoughts that were something close to delirium.

  “Now, kids, kids. Stop. Shhh, quieten down. Mouths away from instruments, bows down. Down, Anita. That’s it, yes, right on the floor. Thank you. Now: you’ve probably noticed we have a visitor today.” She turned to him and he tried hard to find some part of her on which to focus, some inch that did not heat his troubled blood. “This is Mr. Iqbal, Magid and Millat’s father.”

  Samad stood up as if he’d been called to attention, draped his wide-lapeled overcoat carefully over his volatile crotch, waved rather lamely, sat back down.

  “Say ‘Hello, Mr. Iqbal.’ ”

  “HELLO, MR. ICK-BALL,” came the resounding chorus from all but two of the musicians.

  “Now: don’t we want to play thrice as well because we have an audience?”


  “And not only is Mr. Iqbal our audience for today, but he’s a very special audience. It’s because of Mr. Iqbal that next week we won’t be playing Swan Lake anymore.”

  A great roar met this announcement, accompanied by a stray chorus of trumpet hoots, drumrolls, a cymbal.

  “All right, all right, enough. I didn’t expect quite so much joyous approval.”

  Samad smiled. She had humor, then. There was wit there, a bit of sharpness—but why think the more reasons there were to sin, the smaller the sin was? He was thinking like a Christian again; he was saying Can’t say fairer than that to the Creator.

  “Instruments down. Yes, you, Marvin. Thank you very much.”

  “What’ll we be doin’ instead, then, miss?”

  “Well . . .” began Poppy Burt-Jones, the same half-coy, half-daring smile he had noticed before. “Something very exciting. Next week I want to try to experiment with some Indian music.”

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