White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  The cymbal player, dubious of what place he would occupy in such a radical change of genre, took it upon himself to be the first to ridicule the scheme. “What, you mean that Eeeee EEEAA aaaa EEEeeee AAOoooo music?” he said, doing a creditable impression of the strains to be found at the beginning of a Hindi musical, or in the back room of an “Indian” restaurant, along with attendant head movements. The class let out a blast of laughter as loud as the brass section and echoed the gag en masse: Eeee Eaaaoo OOOAaaah Eeee OOOiiiiiiii . . . This, along with screeching parodic violins, penetrated Samad’s deep, erotic half-slumber and sent his imagination into a garden, a garden encased in marble where he found himself dressed in white and hiding behind a large tree, spying on a be-saried, bindi-wearing Poppy Burt-Jones, as she wound flirtatiously in and out of some fountains; sometimes visible, sometimes not.

  “I don’t think—” began Poppy Burt-Jones, trying to force her voice above the hoo-hah, then, raising it several decibels, “I DON’T THINK IT IS VERY NICE TO—” and here her voice slipped back to normal as the class registered the angry tone and quietened down. “I don’t think it is very nice to make fun of somebody else’s culture.”

  The orchestra, unaware that this is what they had been doing, but aware that this was the most heinous crime in the Manor School rule book, looked to their collective feet.

  “Do you? Do you? How would you like it, Sophie, if someone made fun of Queen?”

  Sophie, a vaguely retarded twelve-year-old covered from head to toe in that particular rock band’s paraphernalia, glared over a pair of Coke-bottle spectacles.

  “Wouldn’t like it, miss.”

  “No, you wouldn’t, would you?”

  “No, miss.”

  “Because Freddie Mercury is from your culture.”

  Samad had heard the rumors that ran through the rank and file of the Palace waiters to the effect that this Mercury character was in actual fact a very light-skinned Persian called Farookh, whom the head chef remembered from school in Panchgani, near Bombay. But who wished to split hairs? Not wanting to stop the lovely Burt-Jones while she was in something of a flow, Samad kept the information to himself.

  “Sometimes we find other people’s music strange because their culture is different from ours,” said Miss Burt-Jones solemnly. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t equally good, now does it?”

  “NO, MISS.”

  “And we can learn about each other through each other’s culture, can’t we?”

  “YES, MISS.”

  “For example, what music do you like, Millat?”

  Millat thought for a moment, swung his saxophone to his side and began fingering it like a guitar. “Bo-orn to ruuun! Da da da da daaa! Bruce Springsteen, miss! Da da da da daaa! Baby, we were bo-orn—”

  “Umm, nothing—nothing else? Something you listen to at home, maybe?”

  Millat’s face fell, troubled that his answer did not seem to be the right one. He looked over at his father, who was gesticulating wildly behind the teacher, trying to convey the jerky head and hand movements of bharata natyam, the form of dance Alsana had once enjoyed before sadness weighted her heart, and babies tied down her hands and feet.

  “Thriiiii-ller!” sang Millat, full throated, believing he had caught his father’s gist. “Thriii-ller night! Michael Jackson, miss! Michael Jackson!”

  Samad put his head in his hands. Miss Burt-Jones looked queerly at the small child standing on a chair, gyrating and grabbing his crotch before her. “OK, thank you, Millat. Thank you for sharing . . . that.”

  Millat grinned. “No problem, miss.”

  While the children lined up to exchange twenty pence for two dry digestive biscuits and a cup of some tasteless fruit drink, Samad followed the light foot of Poppy Burt-Jones like a predator—into the music closet, a tiny room, windowless, with no means of escape, and full of instruments, filing cabinets overbrimming with sheet music, and a scent Samad had thought hers but now identified as the maturing leather of violin cases mixed with the mellowing odor of catgut.

  “This,” said Samad, spotting a desk beneath a mountain of paper, “is where you work?”

  Poppy blushed. “Tiny, isn’t it? Music budgets get cut every year until this year there was nothing left to cut from. It’s got to the point where they’re putting desks in cupboards and calling them offices. If it wasn’t for the Greater London Council, there wouldn’t even be a desk.”

  “It is certainly small,” said Samad, scanning the room desperately for some spot where he might stand that would put her out of arm’s reach. “One might almost say, claustrophobic.”

  “I know, it’s awful—but won’t you sit down?”

  Samad looked for the chair she might be referring to.

  “Oh God! I’m sorry! It’s here.” She swept paper, books, and rubbish onto the floor with one hand, revealing a perilous-looking stool. “I made it—but it’s pretty safe.”

  “You excel in carpentry?” inquired Samad, searching once again for more good reasons to commit a bad sin. “An artisan as well as a musician?”

  “No, no, no—I went to a few night classes—nothing special. I made that and a footstool, and the footstool broke. I’m no—do you know I can’t think of a single carpenter!”

  “There is always Jesus.”

  “But I can’t very well say ‘I’m no Jesus’ . . . I mean, obviously I’m not, but for other reasons.”

  Samad took his wobbly seat as Poppy Burt-Jones went to sit behind her desk. “Meaning you are not a good person?”

  Samad saw that he had flustered her with the accidental solemnity of the question; she drew her fingers through her bangs, fiddled with a small tortoiseshell button on her blouse, laughed shakily. “I like to think I’m not all bad.”

  “And that is enough?”

  “Well . . . I . . .”

  “Oh my dear, I apologize . . .” began Samad. “I was not being serious, Miss Burt-Jones.”

  “Well . . . Let’s say I’m no Mr. Chippendale—that’ll do.”

  “Yes,” said Samad kindly, thinking to himself that she had far better legs than a Queen Anne chair, “that will do.”

  “Now: where were we?”

  Samad leaned a little over the desk, to face her. “Were we somewhere, Miss Burt-Jones?”

  (He used his eyes; he remembered people used to say that it was his eyes—that new boy in Delhi, Samad Miah, they said, he has eyes to die for.)

  “I was looking—looking—I was looking for my notes—where are my notes?”

  She began rifling through the catastrophe of her desk, and Samad leaned back once more on his stool, taking what little satisfaction he could from the fact that her fingers, if he was not mistaken, appeared to be trembling. Had there been a moment, just then? He was fifty-seven—it was a good ten years since he’d had a moment—he was not at all sure he would recognize a moment if one came along. You old man, he told himself as he dabbed at his face with a handkerchief, you old fool. Leave now—leave before you drown in your own guilty excrescence (for he was sweating like a pig), leave before you make it worse. But was it possible? Was it possible that this past month—the month that he had been squeezing and spilling, praying and begging, making deals and thinking, thinking always about her—that she had been thinking of him?

  “Oh! While I’m looking . . . I remember there was something I wanted to ask you.”

  Yes! said the anthropomorphized voice that had taken up residence in Samad’s right testicle. Whatever the question the answer is yes yes yes. Yes, we will make love upon this very table, yes, we will burn for it, and yes, Miss Burt-Jones, yes, the answer is inevitably, inescapably, yes. Yet somehow, out there where conversation continued, in the rational world four feet above his ball-bag, the answer turned out to be—“Wednesday.”

  Poppy laughed. “No, I don’t mean what day it is—I don’t look that ditsy, do I? No, I meant what day is it; I mean, for Muslims. Only I saw Magid was in some kind of costume, and when I asked him what it
was for he wouldn’t speak. I was terribly worried that I’d offended him somehow.”

  Samad frowned. It is odious to be reminded of one’s children when one is calculating the exact shade and rigidity of a nipple that could so assert itself through bra and shirt.

  “Magid? Please do not worry yourself about Magid. I am sure he was not offended.”

  “So I was right,” said Poppy gleefully. “Is it like a type of, I don’t know, vocal fasting?”

  “Er . . . yes, yes,” stumbled Samad, not wishing to divulge his family dilemma, “it is a symbol of the Qurn’s . . . assertion that the day of reckoning would first strike us all unconscious. Silent, you see. So, so, so the eldest son of the family dresses in black and, umm, disdains speech for a . . . a period of . . . of time as a process of—of purification.”

  Dear God.

  “I see. That’s just fascinating. And Magid is the elder?”

  “By two minutes.”

  Poppy smiled. “Only just, then.”

  “Two minutes,” said Samad patiently, because he was speaking to one with no knowledge of the impact such small periods of time had amounted to throughout the history of the Iqbal family, “made all the difference.”

  “And does the process have a name?”

  “Amar durbol lagche.”

  “What does it mean?”

  Literal translation: I feel weak. It means, Miss Burt-Jones, that every strand of me feels weakened by the desire to kiss you.

  “It means,” said Samad aloud, without missing a beat, “closed-mouth worship of the Creator.”

  “Amar durbol lagche. Wow,” said Poppy Burt-Jones.

  “Indeed,” said Samad Miah.

  Poppy Burt-Jones leaned forward in her chair. “I don’t know . . . To me, it’s just like this incredible act of self-control. We just don’t have that in the West—that sense of sacrifice—I just have so much admiration for the sense your people have of abstinence, of self-restraint.”

  At which point Samad kicked the stool from under him like a man hanging himself, and met the loquacious lips of Poppy Burt-Jones with his own feverish pair.



  And the sins of the Eastern father shall be visited upon the Western sons. Often taking their time, stored up in the genes like baldness or testicular carcinoma, but sometimes on the very same day. Sometimes at the very same moment. At least, that would explain how two weeks later, during the old druidic festival of harvest, Samad can be found quietly packing the one shirt he’s never worn to mosque (to the pure all things are pure) into a plastic bag, so that he might change later and meet Miss Burt-Jones (4:30, Harlesden Clock) without arousing suspicion . . . while Magid and a changed-of-heart Millat slip only four cans of past-their-sell-by-date chickpeas, a bag of mixed potato chips, and some apples into two rucksacks (can’t say fairer than that), in preparation for a meeting with Irie (4:30, ice-cream van) and a visit to their assigned old man, the one to whom they will offer pagan charity, one Mr. J. P. Hamilton of Kensal Rise.

  Unbeknownst to all involved, ancient ley-lines run underneath these two journeys—or, to put it in modern parlance, this is a rerun. We have been here before. This is like watching TV in Bombay or Kingston or Dhaka, watching the same old British sitcoms spewed out to the old colonies in one tedious, eternal loop. Because immigrants have always been particularly prone to repetition—it’s something to do with that experience of moving from West to East or East to West or from island to island. Even when you arrive, you’re still going back and forth; your children are going round and round. There’s no proper term for it—original sin seems too harsh; maybe original trauma would be better. A trauma is something one repeats and repeats, after all, and this is the tragedy of the Iqbals—that they can’t help but reenact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign. It will take a few replays before they move on to the next tune. And this is what is happening as Alsana sews loudly on her monstrous Singer machine, double-stitching around the vacancy of a crotchless panty, oblivious to the father and the sons who are creeping around the house, packing clothes, packing provisions. It is a visitation of repetition. It is a dash across continents. It is a rerun. But one at a time, now, one at a time . . .

  Now, how do the young prepare to meet the old? The same way the old prepare to meet the young: with a little condescension; with low expectation of the other’s rationality; with the knowledge that the other will find what they say hard to understand, that it will go beyond them (not so much over the head as between the legs); and with the feeling that they must arrive with something the other will like, something suitable. Like Garibaldi biscuits.

  “They like them,” explained Irie when the twins queried her choice, as the three of them rumbled to their destination on the top of the No. 52 bus, “they like the raisins in them. Old people like raisins.”

  Millat, from under the cocoon of his Tomytronic, sniffed, “Nobody likes raisins. Dead grapes—bleurgh. Who wants to eat them?”

  “Old people do,” Irie insisted, stuffing the biscuits back into her bag. “And they’re not dead, akchully, they’re dried.”

  “Yeah, after they’ve died.”

  “Shut up, Millat. Magid, tell him to shut up!”

  Magid pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose and diplomatically changed the subject. “What else have you got?”

  Irie reached into her bag. “A coconut.”

  “A coconut!”

  “For your information,” snapped Irie, moving the nut out of Millat’s reach, “old people like coconuts. They can use the milk for their tea.”

  Irie pressed on in the face of Millat retching. “And I got some crusty French bread and some cheese crackers and some apples—”

  “We got apples, you chief,” cut in Millat, “chief,” for some inexplicable reason hidden in the etymology of North London slang, meaning fool, arse, wanker, a loser of the most colossal proportions.

  “Well, I got some more and better apples, akchully, and some Kendal mint cake and some ackee and saltfish.”

  “I hate ackee and saltfish.”

  “Who said you were eating it?”

  “I don’t want to.”

  “Well, you’re not going to.”

  “Well, good, ’cos I don’t want to.”

  “Well, good, ’cos I wouldn’t let you even if you wanted to.”

  “Well, that’s lucky ’cos I don’t. So shame,” said Millat; and, without removing his Tomytronic, he delivered shame, as was traditionally the way, by dragging his palm along Irie’s forehead. “Shame in the brain.”

  “Well, akchully, don’t worry ’cos you’re not going to get it—”

  “Oooh, feel the heat, feel the heat!” squealed Magid, rubbing his little palm in. “You been shamed, man!”

  “Akchully, I’m not shamed, you’re shamed ’cos it’s for Mr. J. P. Hamilton—”

  “Our stop!” cried Magid, shooting to his feet and pulling the bell cord too many times.

  “If you ask me,” said one disgruntled old age pensioner to another, “they should all go back to their own . . .”

  But this, the oldest sentence in the world, found itself stifled by the ringing of bells and the stamping of feet, until it retreated under the seats with the chewing gum.

  “Shame, shame, know your name,” trilled Magid. The three of them hurtled down the stairs and off the bus.

  And the No. 52 bus goes two ways. From the Willesden kaleidoscope, one can catch it south like the children; through Kensal Rise, to Portobello, to Knightsbridge, and watch the many colors shade off into the bright white lights of town; or you can get it north, as Samad did; Willesden, Dollis Hill, Harlesden, and watch with dread (if you are fearful like Samad, if all you have learned from the city is to cross the road at the sight of dark-skinned men) as white fades to yellow fades to brown, and then Harlesden Clock comes into view, st
anding like Queen Victoria’s statue in Kingston, Jamaica—a tall white stone surrounded by black.

  Samad had been surprised, yes surprised, that it was Harlesden she had whispered to him when he pressed her hand after the kiss—that kiss he could still taste—and demanded where it was he might find her, away from here, far from here (“My children, my wife,” he had mumbled, incoherent); expecting “Islington” or maybe “West Hampstead” or at least “Swiss Cottage” and getting instead, “Harlesden. I live in Harlesden.”

  “Stonebridge Estate?” Samad had asked, alarmed; wide-eyed at the creative ways Allah found to punish him, envisioning himself atop his new lover with a gangster’s four-inch knife in his back.

  “No—but not far from there. Do you want to meet up?”

  Samad’s mouth had been the lone gunman on the grassy knoll that day, killing off his brain and swearing itself into power all at the same time.

  “Yes. Oh, dammit! Yes.”

  And then he had kissed her again, turning something relatively chaste into something else, cupping her breast in his left hand and enjoying her sharp intake of breath as he did so.

  Then they had the short, obligatory exchange that those who cheat have to make them feel less like those who cheat.

  “I really shouldn’t—”

  “I’m not at all sure how this—”

  “Well, we need to meet at least to discuss what has—”

  “Indeed, what has happened, it must be discu—”

  “Because something has happened here, but—”

  “My wife . . . my children . . .”

  “Let’s give it some time . . . two weeks Wednesday? Four-thirty? Harlesden Clock?”

  He could at least, in this sordid mess, congratulate himself on his timing: 4:15 by the time he got off the bus, which left five minutes to nip into the McDonald’s toilets (that had black guards on the door, black guards to keep out the blacks) and squeeze out of the restaurant flares into a dark blue suit, with a wool V-neck and a gray shirt, the pocket of which contained a comb to work his thick hair into some obedient form. By which time it was 4:20, five minutes in which to visit cousin Hakim and his wife, Zinat, who ran the local £1 + 50p shop (a type of shop that trades under the false premise that it sells no items above this price but on closer inspection proves to be the minimum price of the stock) and whom he meant inadvertently to provide him with an alibi.

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