White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  And Samad, who usually had no time for omens or nose-tapping, was nervous enough to take the advice. But then Poppy (who was acutely aware that she was fading from Samad’s mind in comparison with the question of the boys) suddenly took an interest, claiming to have just sensed in a dream that it should be Magid and so it was Magid once more. Samad, in his desperation, even allowed Archie to flip a coin, but the decision was hard to stick by—best out of three, best out of five—Samad couldn’t trust it. And this, if you can believe it, was the manner in which Archie and Samad went about playing lottery with two boys, bouncing the issue off the walls of O’Connell’s, flipping souls to see which side came up.

  In their defense, one thing should be made clear. At no point was the word kidnap mentioned. In fact had this been offered as terminology for what he was about to do, Samad would have been appalled and astounded, would have dropped the whole thing like the somnambulist who wakes up to find himself in the master bedroom with a breadknife in his hand. He understood that he had not yet informed Alsana. He understood that he had booked a 3:00 a.m. flight. But it was in no way self-evident to him that these two facts were related or would combine to spell out kidnap. So it was with surprise that Samad greeted the vision of a violently weeping Alsana, at 2:00 a.m. on October 31, hunched over the kitchen table. He did not think, Ah, she has discovered what I am to do with Magid (it was finally and forever Magid), because he was not a mustachioed villain in a Victorian crime novel and besides which he was not conscious of plotting any crime. Rather his first thought was, So she knows about Poppy, and in response to this situation he did what every adulterous man does out of instinct: attack first.

  “So I must come home to this, must I?”—slam down bag for effect—“I spend all night in that infernal restaurant and then I am having to come back to your melodramatics?”

  Alsana convulsed with tears. Samad noticed too that a gurgling sound was emanating from the pleasant fat that vibrated in the gap of her sari; she waved her hands at him and then put them over her ears.

  “Is this really necessary?” asked Samad, trying to disguise his fear (he had expected anger, he didn’t know how to deal with tears). “Please, Alsana: surely this is an overreaction.”

  She waved her hand at him once more as if to dismiss him and then lifted her body a little and Samad saw that the gurgling had not been organic, that she had been hunched over something. A radio.

  “What on earth—”

  Alsana pushed the radio from her body into the middle of the table and motioned for Samad to turn it up. Four familiar beeps, the beeps that follow the English into whatever land they conquer, rang round the kitchen, and then in Received Pronunciation Samad heard the following:

  This is the BBC World Service at 0300 hours. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, was assassinated today, shot down by her Sikh bodyguards in an act of open mutiny as she walked in the garden of her New Delhi home. There is no doubt that her murder was an act of revenge for “Operation Blue Star,” the storming of the Sikhs’ holiest shrine at Amritsar last June. The Sikh community, who feel their culture is being attacked by—

  “Enough,” said Samad, switching it off. “She was no bloody good anyway. None of them is any bloody good. And who cares what happens in that cesspit, India. Dear me . . .” And even before he said it, he wondered why he had to, why he felt so malevolent this evening. “You really are genuinely pathetic. I wonder: where would those tears be if I died? Nowhere—you care more about some corrupt politician you never met. Do you know you are the perfect example of the ignorance of the masses, Alsi? Do you know that?” he said, talking as if to a child and holding her chin up. “Crying for the rich and mighty who would disdain to piss upon you. Doubtless next week you will be bawling because Princess Diana broke a fingernail.”

  Alsana gathered all the spit her mouth could accommodate and launched it at him.

  “Bhainchute! I am not crying for her, you idiot, I am crying for my friends. There will be blood on the streets back home because of this, India and Bangladesh. There will be riots—knives, guns. Public death, I have seen it. It will be like Mahshar, Judgment Day—people will die in the streets, Samad. You know and I know. And Delhi will be the worst of it, is always the worst of it. I have some family in Delhi, I have friends, old lovers—”

  And here Samad slapped her, partly for the old lovers and partly because it was many years since he had been referred to as a bhainchute (translation: someone who, to put it simply, fucks their sisters).

  Alsana held her face, and spoke quietly. “I am crying with misery for those poor families and out of relief for my own children! Their father ignores them and bullies them, yes, but at least they will not die on the streets like rats.”

  So this was going to be one of those rows: the same positions, the same lines, same recriminations, same right hooks. Bare fists. The bell rings. Samad comes out of his corner.

  “No, they will suffer something worse, much worse: sitting in a morally bankrupt country with a mother who is going mad. Utterly cuckoo. Many raisins short of the fruitcake. Look at you, look at the state of you! Look how fat you are!” He grabbed a piece of her, and then released it as if it would infect him. “Look how you dress. Running shoes and a sari? And what is that?”

  It was one of Clara’s African headscarfs, a long, beautiful piece of orange Kente cloth with which Alsana had taken to wrapping her substantial mane. Samad pulled it off and threw it across the room, leaving Alsana’s hair to crash down her back.

  “You do not even know what you are, where you come from. We never see family anymore—I am ashamed to show you to them. Why did you go all the way to Bengal for a wife, that’s what they ask. Why didn’t you just go to Putney?”

  Alsana smiled ruefully, shook her head, while Samad made a pretense of calm, filling their metal kettle with water and slamming it down on the stove.

  “And that is a beautiful lungi you have on, Samad Miah,” she said bitterly, nodding in the direction of his blue terry cloth jogging suit topped off with Poppy’s LA Raiders baseball cap.

  Samad said, “The difference is what is in here,” not looking at her, thumping just below his left breastbone. “You say you are thankful we are in England, that’s because you have swallowed it whole. I can tell you those boys would have a better life back home than they ever—”

  “Samad Miah! Don’t even begin! It will be over my dead body that this family moves back to a place where our lives are in danger! Clara tells me about you, she tells me. How you have asked her strange things. What are you plotting, Samad? I hear from Zinat all this about life insurance . . . who is dying? What can I smell? I tell you, it will be over my dead body—”

  “But if you are already dead, Alsi—”

  “Shut up! Shut up! I am not mad. You are trying to drive me mad! I phoned Ardashir, Samad. He is telling me you have been leaving work at eleven-thirty. It is two in the morning. I am not mad!”

  “No, it is worse. Your mind is diseased. You call yourself a Muslim—”

  Alsana whipped round to face Samad, who was trying to concentrate his attention on the whistling steam emerging from the kettle.

  “No, Samad. Oh no. Oh no. I don’t call myself anything. I don’t make claims. You call yourself a Muslim. You make the deals with Allah. You are the one he will be talking to, come Mahshar. You, Samad Miah. You, you, you.”

  Second round. Samad slapped Alsana. Alsana right hooked him in the stomach and then followed up with a blow to the left cheekbone. She then made a dash to the back door, but Samad caught her by the waist, rugby-tackled her, dragged her down, and elbowed her in the coccyx. Alsana, being heavier than Samad, knelt up, lifting him; flipped him over and dragged him out into the garden, where she kicked him twice as he lay on the ground—two short, fierce jabs to the forehead—but the rubber-cushioned sole did little damage and in a moment he was on his knees again. They made a grab for each other’s hair, Samad determined to pull until he saw blood. But this
left Alsana’s knee free and it connected swiftly with Samad’s crotch, forcing him to release the hair and swing a blind flier meant for her mouth but catching her ear. Around this time, the twins emerged half awake from their beds and stood at the long glass kitchen window to watch the fight, while the neighbors’ security lights came on, illuminating the Iqbal garden like a stadium.

  “Abba,” said Magid, after surveying the state of play for a moment. “Definitely Abba.”

  “Cha, man. No way,” said Millat, blinking in the light. “I bet you two orange lollies Amma’s going to kick the shit out of him.”

  “Ooooooo!” cried the twins in unison, as if it were a firework display, and then, “Aaaaaah!”

  Alsana had just ended the fight with a little help from the garden rake.

  “Now maybe some of us, who have to work in the morning, can get a decent night’s kip! Bloody Pakis,” shouted a neighbor.

  A few minutes later (because they always held each other after these fights, a hug somewhere between affection and collapse) Samad came in from the garden, still mildly concussed, and said, “Go to bed,” before brushing a hand through each son’s thick black hair.

  As he reached the door, he stopped. “You’ll thank me,” he said, turning to Magid, who smiled faintly, thinking maybe Abba was going to get him that chemistry set after all. “You’ll thank me in the end. This country’s no good. We tear each other apart in this country.”

  Then he walked up the stairs and phoned Poppy Burt-Jones, waking her up to tell her there would be no more kisses in the afternoon, no more guilty walks, no more furtive taxis. End of affair.

  Maybe all the Iqbals were prophets, because Alsana’s nose for trouble was more right than it had ever been. Public decapitations, families cremated in their sleep, hanging bodies outside the Kashmir gate, people stumbling around dazed missing pieces of themselves; body parts taken from Muslim by Sikh, from Sikh by Hindu; legs, fingers, noses, toes, and teeth, teeth everywhere, scattered throughout the land, mingling with the dust. A thousand people had died by November 4 when Alsana emerged from under the bathwater to hear the crackling voice of Our Man in Delhi telling her about it from the top of the medicine cabinet.

  Terrible business. But, as Samad saw it, some of us have the luxury of sitting in the bath and listening to the foreign news while some of us have a living to make, and an affair to forget, and a child to abduct. He squeezed into the white flares, checked the air ticket, phoned Archie to go over the plan, and left for work.

  On the tube there was a youngish, prettyish girl, dark, Spanish-looking, mono-browed, crying. Just sitting opposite him, in a pair of big, pink leg-warmers, crying quite openly. Nobody said anything. Nobody did anything. Everybody hoped she was getting off at Kilburn. But she kept on like that, just sitting, crying; West Hampstead, Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, St. John’s Wood. Then at Bond Street she pulled a photo of an unpromising-looking young man out of her rucksack, showed it to Samad and some of the other passengers.

  “Why he leave? He break my heart . . . Neil, he say his name, Neil. Neil, Neil.”

  At Charing Cross, end of the line, Samad watched her cross the platform and get the train going straight back to Willesden Green. Romantic, in a way. The way she said “Neil” as if it were a word bursting at the seams with past passion, with loss. That kind of flowing, feminine misery. He had expected something similar of Poppy, somehow; he had picked up the phone expecting gentle, rhythmic tears and later on letters, maybe, scented and stained. And in her grief he would have grown, as Neil was probably doing at this moment; her grief would have been an epiphany bringing him one step closer to his own redemption. But instead he had got only “Fuck you, you fucking fuck.”

  “Told you,” said Shiva, shaking his head and passing Samad a basket of yellow napkins to be shaped like castles. “I told you not to fuck with that business, didn’t I? Too much history there, man. You see: it ain’t just you she’s angry with, is it?”

  Samad shrugged and began on the turrets.

  “No, man, history, history. It’s all brown man leaving English woman, it’s all Nehru saying See-Ya to Madam Britannia.” Shiva, in an effort to improve himself, had joined the Open University. “It’s all complicated, complicated shit, it’s all about pride. Ten quid says she wanted you as a servant boy, as a wallah peeling the grapes.”

  “No,” protested Samad. “It wasn’t that way. This is not the dark ages, Shiva, this is 1984.”

  “Shows how much you know. From what you’ve told me, she’s a classic case, mate, classic.”

  “Well, I have other concerns now,” muttered Samad (privately calculating that his children would by now be safely tucked in at the Joneses’ sleepover, that it was two more hours before Archie would need to wake Magid, leaving Millat to sleep on). “Family concerns.”

  “No time!” cried Ardashir, who had crept up from behind, imperceptibly as ever, to examine the battlements of Samad’s castles. “No time for family concerns, cousin. Everyone’s concerned, everybody’s trying to get their family out of that mess back home—I myself am forking out one thousand big ones for a ticket for my big-mouth sister—but I still have to come to work, I still have to get on with things. Busy night tonight, cousin,” called Ardashir, as he exited the kitchen to pace around the restaurant floor in a black tuxedo. “Don’t let me down.”

  It was the busiest night in the week, Saturday, the night when the crowds come in waves: pre-theater, post-theater, post-pub, post-club; the first polite and conversational, the second humming showtunes, the third rowdy, the fourth wide-eyed and abusive. The theater crowds were naturally the favorite of the waiters; they were even-tempered and tipped big and inquired after the geography of the food—its Eastern origin, its history—all of which would be happily fabricated by the younger waiters (whose furthest expedition east was the one they made daily, back home to Whitechapel, Smithfield, the Isle of Dogs) or rendered faithfully and proudly by the elders in black Biro on the back of a pink napkin.

  I’ll Bet She Is! was the show at the National these past few months, a rediscovered mid-fifties musical set in the thirties. It was about a rich girl who runs away from her family and meets a poor boy on the road, who is himself off to fight the Civil War in Spain. They fall in love. Even Samad, who had no particular ear for a tune, picked up enough discarded programs and heard enough tables burst into song to know most of the songs; he liked them, in fact they took his mind off the drudgery (even better—tonight they were sweet relief from worrying whether Archie would manage to get Magid outside the Palace at 1:00 a.m. on the dot); he murmured them along with the rest of the kitchen in a kind of working rhythm as they chopped and marinated, sliced and crushed.

  I’ve seen the Paris op’ra and the wonders of the East

  “Samad Miah, I’m looking for the Rajah mustard seeds.”

  Spent my summers by the Nile and my winters on the piste

  “Mustard seeds . . . I think I saw Muhammed with them.”

  I’ve had diamonds, rubies, furs, and velvet capes

  “Accusations, accusations . . . I have seen no mustard seeds.”

  I’ve had Howard Hughes peel me a grape

  “I’m sorry, Shiva, if the old man doesn’t have them, then I haven’t seen them.”

  But what does it mean without love?

  “Then what are these?” Shiva walked over from his place next to the chef and picked up a packet of mustard seeds by Samad’s right elbow. “Come on, Sam—get it together. Head in the clouds this evening.”

  “I’m sorry . . . I have a lot on my mind . . .”

  “That lady friend of yours, eh?”

  “Keep your voice down, Shiva.”

  “They tell me I’m spoilt, a rich broad who means trouble,” sang Shiva in the strangest of Hindified transatlantic accents. “Oi-oi, my chorus. But whatever love I’m given I pay it back double.”

  Shiva grabbed a small aquamarine vase and sang his big finale into its upturned end. “But no amount
of money, will make my honey mine . . . You should take that advice, Samad Miah,” said Shiva, who was convinced Samad’s recent remortgage was funding his illicit affair, “it’s good advice.”

  A few hours later Ardashir appeared once more through the swing doors, breaking up the singing to deliver his second-phase pep talk. “Gentlemen, gentlemen! That is more than enough of that. Now, listen up: it’s ten-thirty. They’ve seen the show. They’re hungry. They got only one pitiful tub of ice-cream in the interval and plenty of Bombay gin, which, as we all know, brings on the need for curry and that, gentlemen, is where we come in. Two tables of fifteen just came in and sat at the back. Now: when they ask for water what do you do? What do you do, Ravind?”

  Ravind was brand-new, nephew of the chef, sixteen, nervy. “You tell them—”

  “No, Ravind, even before you speak, what do you do?”

  Ravind bit his lip. “I don’t know, Ardashir.”

  “You shake your head,” said Ardashir, shaking his head. “Simultaneous with a look of concern and fear for their well-being.” Ardashir demonstrated the look. “And then you say?”

  “ ‘Water does not help the heat, sir.’ ”

  “But what helps the heat, Ravind? What will aid the gentleman with the burning sensation he is presently feeling?”

  “More rice, Ardashir.”

  “And? And?”

  Ravind looked stumped and began to sweat. Samad, who had been belittled by Ardashir too many times to enjoy watching someone else play the victim, leaned over to whisper the answer in Ravind’s clammy ear.

  Ravind’s face lit up in gratitude. “More naan bread, Ardashir!”

  “Yes; because it soaks up the chili and more importantly water is free and naan bread is one pound twenty. Now, cousin,” said Ardashir, turning to Samad and waggling a bony finger, “how will the boy learn? Let the boy answer for himself next time. You have your own business: a couple of ladies on table twelve requested the head waiter specifically, to be served only by him, so—”

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