White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “Requested me? But I thought I might stay in the kitchen this evening. Besides, I cannot be requested like some personal butler, there is too much to do—that is not policy, cousin.”

  And at this moment Samad feels panicky. His thoughts are so taken up with the 1:00 a.m. abduction, with the prospect of splitting his twins, that he does not trust himself with hot plates and steaming bowls of dal, with the spitting fat of clay-oven chicken, with all the dangers that accost a one-handed waiter. His head is full of his sons. He is half in dream this evening. He has once again bitten every nail beyond the cuticle and is fast approaching the translucent high-moons, the bleeding hubs.

  He is saying, he hears himself saying, “Ardashir, I have a million things to do here in the kitchens. And why should—”

  And the answer comes, “Because the head waiter is the best waiter and naturally they tipped me—us—for the privilege. No quibbling, please, cousin. Table twelve, Samad Miah.”

  And perspiring lightly, throwing a white towel over his left arm, Samad begins tunelessly to hum the showstopper as he pushes through the doors.

  What won’t a guy do for a girl? How sweet the scent, how huge the pearl?

  It is a long walk to table twelve. Not in distance, it is only twenty meters in distance, but it is a long walk through the thick smells and the loud voices and the demands; through the cries of Englishmen; past table two, where the ashtray is full and must be cupped by another ashtray, lifted silently and switched for the new ashtray with perfect insouciance; stopping at table four, where there is an unidentifiable dish that was not ordered; debating with table five, who wish to be joined with table six, no matter the inconvenience; and table seven wants egg fried rice whether or not it is a Chinese dish; and table eight wobbles and more wine! More beer! It is a long walk if you are to negotiate the jungle; attending to the endless needs and needless ends, the desires, the demands of the pink faces that strike Samad now as pith-helmet-wearing gentlemen, feet up on the table with guns across their laps; as tea-slurping ladies on verandas cooling themselves under the breeze of the brown boys who beat the ostrich feathers—

  What lengths won’t he travel, how many hits of the gavel

  By Allah, how thankful he is (yes, madam, one moment, madam), how gladdened by the thought that Magid, Magid at least, will, in a matter of four hours, be flying east from this place and its demands, its constant cravings, this place where there exists neither patience nor pity, where the people want what they want now, right now (We’ve been waiting twenty minutes for the vegetables), expecting their lovers, their children, their friends, and even their gods to arrive at little cost and in little time, just as table ten expect their tandoori prawns . . .

  At the auction of her choosing, how many Rembrandts, Klimts, de Koonings?

  These people who would exchange all faith for sex and all sex for power, who would exchange fear of God for self-pride, knowledge for irony, a covered, respectful head for a long, strident shock of orange hair—

  It is Poppy at table twelve. It is Poppy Burt-Jones. And just the name would be enough right now (for he is at his most volatile, Samad; he is about to split his own sons in two like that first nervous surgeon wielding his clumsy spit-wet knife over the clodded skin of the twins of Siam), just the name would be enough to explode his mind. The name alone is a torpedo heading for a tiny fishing boat, blowing his thoughts out of the water. But it is more than the name, the echo of a name spoken by some thoughtless fool or found at the bottom of an old letter, it is Poppy Burt-Jones herself in the freckled flesh. Sitting cold and determined with her sister, who seems, like all siblings of those we have desired, an uglier, misfeatured version.

  “Say something, then,” says Poppy abruptly, fiddling with a Marlboro packet. “No witty rejoinder? No crap about camels or coconuts? Nothing to say?”

  Samad doesn’t have anything to say. He merely stops humming his tune, inclines his head at exactly the correct deferential angle, and puts the nib of his pen preparedly to paper. It is like a dream.

  “All right, then,” Poppy is saying tartly, looking Samad up and down, lighting up a fag. “Have it your way. Right. To start with we’ll have lamb samosas and the yogurt whatdyamacallit.”

  “And for the main,” the shorter, plainer, oranger, snubnosed sister is saying, “two Lamb Dawn Sock and rice, with chips, please, waiter.”

  At least Archie is right on time; right year, right date, right hour; 1984, November 5, 1:00 a.m. Outside the restaurant, dressed in a long trench coat, standing in front of his Vauxhall, one hand tickling some spanking new Pirelli tires, the other pulling hard on a fag like Bogart or a chauffeur or Bogart’s chauffeur. Samad arrives, clasps Archie’s right hand in his own and feels the coldness of his friend’s fingers, feels the great debt he owes him. Involuntarily, he blows a cloud of frozen breath into his face. “I won’t forget this, Archibald,” he is saying, “I won’t forget what you do for me tonight, my friend.”

  Archie shuffles about awkwardly. “Sam, before you—there’s something I have to—”

  But Samad is already reaching for the door, and Archie’s explanation must follow the sight of three shivering children in the back seat like a limp punchline.

  “They woke up, Sam. They were all sleeping in the same room—a sleepover, like. Nothing I could do. I just put coats over their pajamas—I couldn’t risk Clara hearing—I had to bring them.”

  Irie asleep; curled up with her head on the ashtray and her feet resting on the gearbox, but Millat and Magid reaching out for their father gleefully, pulling at his flares, chucking him on the chin.

  “Hey, Abba! Where we going, Abba? To a secret disco party? Are we really?”

  Samad looks severely at Archie; Archie shrugs.

  “We’re going on a trip to an airport. To Heathrow.”

  “Wow!”

  “And then when we get there, Magid—Magid—”

  It is like a dream. Samad feels the tears before he can stop them; he reaches out to his eldest-son-by-two-minutes and holds him so tight to his chest that he snaps the arm of his glasses. “And then Magid is going on a trip with auntie Zinat.”

  “Will he come back?” It is Millat. “It would be cool if he didn’t come back!”

  Magid pries himself from his father’s headlock. “Is it far? Will I be back in time for Monday—only I’ve got to see how my photosynthesis is for science—I took two plants: put one in the cupboard and one in the sunlight—and I’ve got to see, Abba, I’ve got to see which one—”

  Years from now, even hours after that plane leaves, this will be history that Samad tries not to remember. That his memory makes no effort to retain. A sudden stone submerged. False teeth floating silently to the bottom of a glass.

  “Will I get back for school, Abba?”

  “Come on,” says Archie, solemnly from the front seat. “We’ve got to get cracking if we’re going to make it.”

  “You’ll be in a school on Monday, Magid. I promise. Now sit back in your seats, go on. For Abba, please.”

  Samad closes the car door and crouches to watch his twin sons blow their hot breath on to the window. He puts his one hand up, applying a false touch to their lips, raw pink against the glass, their saliva mingling in the grimy condensation.

  CHAPTER NINE

  Mutiny!

  To Alsana’s mind the real difference between people was not color. Nor did it lie in gender, faith, their relative ability to dance to a syncopated rhythm or open their fists to reveal a handful of gold coins. The real difference was far more fundamental. It was in the earth. It was in the sky. You could divide the whole of humanity into two distinct camps, as far as she was concerned, simply by asking them to complete a very simple questionnaire, of the kind you find in Woman’s Own on a Tuesday:

  (a) Are the skies you sleep under likely to open up for weeks on end?

  (b) Is the ground you walk on likely to tremble and split?

  (c) Is there a chance (and please check the box, no m
atter how small that chance seems) that the ominous mountain casting a midday shadow over your home might one day erupt with no rhyme or reason?

  Because if the answer is yes to one or all of these questions, then the life you lead is a midnight thing, always a hair’s breadth from the witching hour; it is volatile, it is threadbare; it is carefree in the true sense of that term; it is light, losable like a key ring or a hair clip. And it is lethargy: why not sit all morning, all day, all year, under the same cypress tree drawing the figure of eight in the dust? More than that, it is disaster, it is chaos: why not overthrow a government on a whim, why not blind the man you hate, why not go mad, go gibbering through the town like a loon, waving your hands, tearing your hair? There’s nothing to stop you—or rather anything could stop you, any hour, any minute. That feeling. That’s the real difference in a life. People who live on solid ground, underneath safe skies, know nothing of this; they are like the English POWs in Dresden who continued to pour tea and dress for dinner, even as the alarms went off, even as the city became a towering ball of fire. Born of a green and pleasant land, a temperate land, the English have a basic inability to conceive of disaster, even when it is man-made.

  It is different for the people of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, formerly India, formerly Bengal. They live under the invisible finger of random disaster, of flood and cyclone, hurricane and mudslide. Half the time half their country lies under water; generations wiped out as regularly as clockwork; individual life expectancy an optimistic fifty-two, and they are coolly aware that when you talk about apocalypse, when you talk about random death en masse, well, they are leading the way in that particular field, they will be the first to go, the first to slip Atlantis-like down to the seabed when the pesky polar icecaps begin to shift and melt. It is the most ridiculous country in the world, Bangladesh. It is God’s idea of a really good wheeze, his stab at black comedy. You don’t need to give out questionnaires to Bengalis. The facts of disaster are the facts of their lives. Between Alsana’s sweet-sixteenth birthday (1971), for example, and the year she stopped speaking directly to her husband (1985), more people died in Bangladesh, more people perished in the winds and the rain, than in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden put together. A million people lost lives that they had learned to hold lightly in the first place.

  And this is what Alsana really held against Samad, if you want the truth, more than the betrayal, more than the lies, more than the basic facts of a kidnap: that Magid should learn to hold his life lightly. Even though he was relatively safe up there in the Chittagong Hills, the highest point of that low-lying, flatland country, still she hated the thought that Magid should be as she had once been: holding on to a life no heavier than a paisa coin, wading thoughtlessly through floods, shuddering underneath the weight of black skies . . .

  Naturally, she became hysterical. Naturally, she tried to get him back. She spoke to the relevant authorities. The relevant authorities said things like, “To be honest, love, we’re more worried about them coming in” or “To tell you the truth, if it was your husband who arranged the trip, there’s not a great deal that we—,” so she put the phone down. After a few months she stopped ringing. She went to Wembley and Whitechapel in despair and sat in the houses of relatives for epic weekends of weeping and eating and commiserations, but her gut told her that though the curry was sound, the commiserations were not all they seemed. For there were those who were quietly pleased that Alsana Iqbal, with her big house and her blacky-white friends and her husband who looked like Omar Sharif and her son who spoke like the Prince of Wales, was now living in doubt and uncertainty like the rest of them, learning to wear misery like old familiar silk. There was a certain satisfaction in it, even as Zinat (who never revealed her role in the deed) reached over the chair arm to take Alsana’s hand in her sympathetic claws. “Oh, Alsi, I just keep thinking what a shame it is that he had to take the good one! He was so very clever and so beautifully behaved! You didn’t have to worry about drugs and dirty girls with that one. Only the price of spectacles with all that reading.”

  Oh, there was a certain pleasure. And don’t ever underestimate people, don’t ever underestimate the pleasure they receive from viewing pain that is not their own, from delivering bad news, watching bombs fall on television, from listening to stifled sobs from the other end of a telephone line. Pain by itself is just Pain. But Pain + Distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human interest, cinéma vérité, a good belly chuckle, a sympathetic smile, a raised eyebrow, disguised contempt. Alsana sensed all these and more at the other end of her telephone line as the calls flooded in—May 28, 1985—to inform her of, to offer commiserations for, the latest cyclone.

  “Alsi, I simply had to call. They say there are so many bodies floating in the Bay of Bengal . . .”

  “I just heard the latest on the radio—ten thousand!”

  “And the survivors are floating on rooftops while the sharks and crocodiles snap at their heels.”

  “It must be terrible, Alsi, not knowing, not being sure . . .”

  For six days and six nights, Alsana did not know, was not sure. During this period she read extensively from the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and tried hard to believe his assurances (Night’s darkness is a bag that bursts with the gold of the dawn), but she was, at heart, a practical woman and found poetry no comfort. For those six days her life was a midnight thing, a hair’s breadth from the witching hour. But on the seventh day came light: the news arrived that Magid was fine, suffering only a broken nose delivered by a vase which had fallen from its perilous station on a high shelf in a mosque, blown over in the first breath of the first winds (and keep one eye on that vase, please, it is the same vase that will lead Magid by the nose to his vocation). It was only the servants, having two days earlier taken a secret supply of gin and piled into the family’s dilapidated station wagon on a pleasure trip to Dhaka, who were now floating belly-up in the Jamuna River as fish finned-silver stared up at them, pop-eyed and bemused.

  Samad was triumphant. “You see? He’ll come to no harm in Chittagong! Even better news, he was in a mosque. Better he break his nose in a mosque than in a Kilburn fight! It is exactly as I had hoped. He is learning the old ways. Is he not learning the old ways?”

  Alsana thought for a moment. Then she said: “Maybe, Samad Miah.”

  “What do you mean, ‘maybe’?”

  “Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe not.”

  Alsana had decided to stop speaking directly to her husband. Through the next eight years she would determine never to say yes to him, never to say no to him, but rather to force him to live like she did—never knowing, never being sure, holding Samad’s sanity to ransom, until she was paid in full with the return of her number-one-son-eldest-by-two-minutes, until she could once more put a chubby hand through his thick hair. That was her promise, that was her curse upon Samad, and it was exquisite revenge. At times it very nearly drove him to the brink, to the kitchen-knife stage, to the medicine cabinet. But Samad was the kind of person too stubborn to kill himself if it meant giving someone else satisfaction. He hung on in there. Alsana turning over in her sleep, muttering, “Just bring him back, Mr. Idiot . . . if it’s driving you nutso, just bring my baby back.”

  But there was no money to bring Magid back even if Samad had been inclined to wave the white dhoti. He learned to live with it. It got to the point where if somebody said “yes” or “no” to Samad in the street or in the restaurant, he hardly knew how to respond, he had come to forget what those two elegant little signifiers meant. He never heard them from Alsana’s lips. Whatever the question in the Iqbal house, there would never again be a straight answer:

  “Alsana, have you seen my slippers?”

  “Possibly, Samad Miah.”

  “What time is it?”

  “It could be three, Samad Miah, but Allah knows it could also be four.”

  “Alsana, where have you put the remote control?”

  “It is as likely to be in the dra
wer, Samad Miah, as it is behind the sofa.”

  And so it went.

  Sometime after the May cyclone, the Iqbals received a letter from their elder-son-by-two-minutes, written in a careful hand on exercise paper and folded around a recent photograph. It was not the first time he had written, but Samad saw something different in this letter, something that excited him and validated the unpopular decision he had made; some change of tone, some suggestion of maturity, of growing Eastern wisdom; and, having read it carefully in the garden first, he took great pleasure in bringing it back to the kitchen and reading it aloud to Clara and Alsana, who were drinking peppermint tea.

  “Listen: here he says, ‘Yesterday, Grandfather hit Tamim (he is the houseboy) with a belt until his bottom was redder than a tomato. He said Tamim had stolen some candles (it’s true. I saw him do it!), and this was what he got for it. He says sometimes Allah punishes and sometimes men have to do it, and it is a wise man who knows if it is Allah’s turn or his own. I hope one day I will be a wise man.’ Do you hear that? He wants to be a wise man. How many kids in that school do you know who want to be wise men?”

  “Maybe none, Samad Miah. Maybe all.”

  Samad scowled at his wife and continued, “And here, here where he talks about his nose: ‘It seems to me that a vase should not be in such a silly place where it can fall and break a boy’s nose. It should be somebody’s fault and somebody should be punished (but not a bottom smack unless they were small and not a grown-up. If they were younger than twelve). When I grow up I think I should like to make sure vases are not put in such silly places where they can be dangerous and I would complain about other dangerous things too (by the way, my nose is fine now!).’ See?”

  Clara frowned. “See what?”

  “Clearly he disapproves of iconography in the mosque, he dislikes all heathen, unnecessary, dangerous decoration! A boy like that is destined for greatness, isn’t he?”

 
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