White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe not.”

  “Maybe he’ll go into government, maybe the law,” suggested Clara.

  “Rubbish! My son is for God, not men. He is not fearful of his duty. He is not fearful to be a real Bengali, a proper Muslim. Here he tells me the goat in the photograph is dead. ‘I helped to kill the goat, Abba,’ he says. ‘It kept on moving some time after we had split it in two.’ Is that a boy who is fearful?”

  It clearly being incumbent upon someone to say no, Clara said it with little enthusiasm and reached for the photograph Samad was passing her. There was Magid, dressed in his customary gray, standing next to the doomed goat with the old house behind him.

  “Oh! Look at his nose! Look at the break. He’s got a Roman nose, now. He looks like a little aristocrat, like a little Englishman. Look, Millat.” Clara put the photo under Millat’s smaller, flatter nose. “You two don’t look so much like twins anymore.”

  “He looks,” said Millat after a cursory glance, “like a chief.”

  Samad, never au fait with the language of the Willesden streets, nodded soberly and patted his son’s hair. “It is good that you see the difference between you two boys, Millat, now rather than later.” Samad glared at Alsana as she spun an index finger in a circle by her temple, as she tapped the side of her head: crazee, nutso. “Others may scoff, but you and I know that your brother will lead others out of the wilderness. He will be a leader of tribes. He is a natural chief.”

  Millat laughed so loud at this, so hard, so uncontrollably, that he lost his footing, slipped on a washcloth, and broke his nose against the sink.

  Two sons. One invisible and perfect, frozen at the pleasant age of nine, static in a picture frame while the television underneath him spewed out all the shit of the eighties—Irish bombs, English riots, transatlantic stalemates—above which mess the child rose untouchable and unstained, elevated to the status of ever-smiling Buddha, imbued with serene Eastern contemplation; capable of anything, a natural leader, a natural Muslim, a natural chief—in short, nothing but an apparition. A ghostly daguerreotype formed from the quicksilver of the father’s imagination, preserved by the salt solution of maternal tears. This son stood silent, distant, and was “presumed well,” like one of Her Majesty’s colonial island outposts, stuck in an eternal state of original naivete, perpetual prepubescence. This son Samad could not see. And Samad had long learned to worship what he could not see.

  As for the son he could see, the one who was under his feet and in his hair, well, it is best not to get Samad started up on that subject, the subject of The Trouble with Millat, but here goes: he is the second son, late like a bus, late like cheap postage, the slowcoach, the catch-up kid, losing that first race down the birth canal, and now simply a follower by genetic predisposition, by the intricate design of Allah, the loser of two vital minutes that he would never make up, not in those all-seeing parabolic mirrors, not in those glassy globes of the godhead, not in his father’s eyes.

  Now, a more melancholy child than Millat, a more deep-thinking child, might have spent the rest of his life hunting these two minutes and making himself miserable, chasing the elusive quarry, laying it finally at his father’s feet. But what his father said about him did not concern Millat all that much: he knew himself to be no follower, no chief, no wanker, no sell-out, no scrub, no fuckwit—no matter what his father said. In the language of the street Millat was a rudeboy, a badman, at the forefront, changing image as often as shoes; sweet-as, safe, wicked, leading kids up hills to play football, downhill to rifle fruit machines, out of schools, into video shops. In Rocky Video, Millat’s favorite haunt, run by an unscrupulous coke-dealer, you got porn when you were fifteen, R-rateds when you were eleven, and snuff movies under the counter for five quid. Here was where Millat really learned about fathers. Godfathers, blood-brothers, pacinodeniros, men in black who looked good, who talked fast, who never waited a (mutherfuckin’) table, who had two, fully functioning, gun-toting hands. He learned that you don’t need to live under flood, under cyclone, to get a little danger, to be a wise man. You go looking for it. Aged twelve, Millat went out looking for it, and though Willesden Green is no Bronx, no South Central, he found a little, he found enough. He was arsey and mouthy, he had his fierce good looks squashed tightly inside him like a jack-in-the-box set to spring aged thirteen, at which point he graduated from leader of zit-faced boys to leader of women. The Pied Piper of Willesden Green, smitten girls trailing behind him, tongues out, breasts pert, falling into pools of heartbreak . . . and all because he was the BIGGEST and the BADDEST, living his young life in CAPITALS: he smoked first, he drank first, he even lost it—IT!—aged thirteen and a half. OK, so he didn’t FEEL much or TOUCH much, it was MOIST and CONFUSING, he lost IT without even knowing where IT went, but he still lost IT because there was no doubt, NONE, that he was the best of the rest, on any scale of juvenile delinquency he was the shining light of the teenage community, the DON, the BUSINESS, the DOG’S GENITALIA, a street boy, a leader of tribes. In fact, the only trouble with Millat was that he loved trouble. And he was good at it. Wipe that. He was great.

  Still, there was much discussion—at home, at school, in the various kitchens of the widespread Iqbal/Begum clan—about The Trouble with Millat, mutinous Millat aged thirteen, who farted in mosque, chased blondes, and smelled of tobacco, and not just Millat but all the children: Mujib (fourteen, criminal record for joyriding), Khandakar (sixteen, white girlfriend, wore mascara in the evenings), Dipesh (fifteen, marijuana), Kurshed (eighteen, marijuana and very baggy trousers), Khaleda (seventeen, sex before marriage with Chinese boy), Bimal (nineteen, doing a diploma in Drama); what was wrong with all the children, what had gone wrong with these first descendants of the great ocean-crossing experiment? Didn’t they have everything they could want? Was there not a substantial garden area, regular meals, clean clothes from Marks ’n’ Sparks, A-class top-notch education? Hadn’t the elders done their best? Hadn’t they all come to this island for a reason? To be safe. Weren’t they safe?

  “Too safe,” Samad explained, patiently consoling one or other weeping, angry ma or baba, perplexed and elderly dadu or dida, “they are too safe in this country, accha? They live in big plastic bubbles of our own creation, their lives all mapped out for them. Personally, you know I would spit on Saint Paul, but the wisdom is correct, the wisdom is really Allah’s: put away childish things. How can our boys become men when they are never challenged like men? Hmm? No doubt about it, on reflection, sending Magid back was the best thing. I would recommend it.”

  At which point, the assembled weepers and moaners all look mournfully at the treasured picture of Magid and goat. They sit mesmerized, like Hindus waiting for a stone cow to cry, until a visible aura seems to emanate from the photo: goodness and bravery through adversity, through hell and high water; the true Muslim boy; the child they never had. Pathetic as it was, Alsana found it faintly amusing, the tables having turned, no one weeping for her, everyone weeping for themselves and their children, for what the terrible eighties were doing to them both. These gatherings were like last-ditch political summits, they were like desperate meetings of government and church behind closed doors while the mutinous mob roamed wild on the streets, smashed windows. A distance was establishing itself, not simply between fathersons, oldyoung, borntherebornhere, but between those who stayed indoors and those who ran riot outside.

  “Too safe, too easy,” repeated Samad, as great-aunt Bibi wiped Magid lovingly with some Mr. Sheen. “A month back home would sort each and every one of them out.”

  But the fact was Millat didn’t need to go back home: he stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one in Willesden. In his mind he was as much there as he was here. He did not require a passport to live in two places at once, he needed no visa to live his brother’s life and his own (he was a twin, after all). Alsana was the first to spot it. She confided to Clara: By God, they’re tied together like a cat’s cradle, connected like a see-saw, push one
end, other goes up, whatever Millat sees, Magid saw and vice versa! And Alsana only knew the incidentals: similar illnesses, simultaneous accidents, pets dying continents apart. She did not know that while Magid watched the 1985 cyclone shake things from high places, Millat was pushing his luck along the towering wall of the cemetery in Fortune Green; that on February 10, 1988, as Magid worked his way through the violent crowds of Dhaka, ducking the random blows of those busy settling an election with knives and fists, Millat held his own against three sotted, furious, quick-footed Irishmen outside Biddy Mulligan’s notorious Kilburn public house. Ah, but you are not convinced by coincidence? You want fact fact fact? You want brushes with the Big Man with black hood and scythe? OK: on April 28, 1989, a tornado whisked the Chittagong kitchen up into the sky, taking everything with it except Magid, left miraculously curled up in a ball on the floor. Now, segue to Millat, five thousand miles away, lowering himself down upon legendary sixth-former Natalia Cavendish (whose body is keeping a dark secret from her); the condoms are unopened in a box in his back pocket; but somehow he will not catch it; even though he is moving rhythmically now, up and in, deeper and sideways, dancing with death.

  Three days:

  October 15, 1987

  Even when the lights went out and the wind was beating the shit out of the storm windows, Alsana, a great believer in the oracle that is the BBC, sat in a nightie on the sofa, refusing to budge.

  “If that Mr. Fish says it’s OK, it’s damn well OK. He’s BBC, for God’s sake!”

  Samad gave up (it was almost impossible to change Alsana’s mind about the inherent reliability of her favored English institutions, among them Princess Anne, Children’s Royal Variety Performance, Eric Morecambe, Woman’s Hour). He got the flashlight from the kitchen drawer and went upstairs, looking for Millat.

  “Millat? Answer me, Millat! Are you there?”

  “Maybe, Abba, maybe not.”

  Samad followed the voice to the bathroom and found Millat chin-high in dirty pink soapsuds, reading Viz.

  “Ah, Dad, wicked. Flashlight. Shine it over here so I can read.”

  “Never mind that.” Samad tore the comic from his son’s hands. “There’s a bloody hurricane blowing and your crazy mother intends to sit here until the roof falls in. Get out of the bath. I need you to go to the shed and find some wood and nails so that we can—”

  “But Abba, I’m butt-naked!”

  “Don’t split the hairs with me—this is an emergency. I want you to—”

  An almighty ripping noise, like something being severed at the roots and flung against a wall, came from outside.

  Two minutes later and the family Iqbal were lined up in varying states of undress, looking out through the long kitchen window on to a patch in the lawn where the shed used to be. Millat clicked his heels three times and hammed it up with cornershop accent, “O me O my. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

  “All right, woman. Are you coming now?”

  “Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe.”

  “Dammit! I’m not in the mood for a referendum. We’re going to Archibald’s. Maybe they still have light. And there is safety in numbers. Both of you—get dressed, grab the essentials, the life-or-death things, and get in the car!”

  Holding the car trunk open against a wind determined to bring it down, Samad was first amused and then depressed by the items his wife and son determined essential, life-or-death things:


  Born to Run (album)—Springsteen

  Poster of De Niro in “You talkin’ to me” scene from Taxi Driver

  Betamax copy of Purple Rain (rock movie)

  Shrink-to-fit Levi’s 501 (red tab)

  Pair of black Converse baseball shoes

  A Clockwork Orange (book)


  Sewing machine

  Three pots of Tiger Balm

  Leg of lamb (frozen)

  Foot bath

  Linda Goodman’s Starsigns (book)

  Huge box of beedi cigarettes

  Divargiit Singh in Moonshine over Kerala (musical video)

  Samad slammed the trunk down.

  “No penknife, no edibles, no light sources. Bloody great. No prizes for guessing which one of the Iqbals is the war veteran. Nobody even thinks to pick up the Qurn. Key item in emergency situation: spiritual support. I am going back in there. Sit in the car and don’t move a muscle.”

  Once in the kitchen Samad shone his flashlight around: kettle, gas ring, teacup, curtain, and then a surreal glimpse of the shed sitting happy like a treehouse in next door’s horsechestnut. He picked up the Swiss army knife he remembered leaving under the sink, collected his gold-plated, velvet-fringed Qurn from the living room, and was about to leave when the temptation to feel the gale, to see a little of the formidable destruction, came over him. He waited for a lull in the wind and opened the kitchen door, moving tentatively into the garden, where a sheet of lightning lit up a scene of suburban apocalypse: oaks, cedars, sycamores, elms felled in garden after garden, fences down, garden furniture demolished. It was only his own garden, often ridiculed for its corrugated-iron surround, treeless interior, and bed after bed of sickly-smelling herbs, that had remained relatively intact.

  He was just in the process of happily formulating some allegory regarding the bending Eastern reed versus the stubborn Western oak when the wind reasserted itself, knocking him sideways and continuing along its path to the storm windows, which it cracked and exploded effortlessly, blowing glass inside, regurgitating everything from the kitchen out into the open air. Samad, a recently airborne collander resting on his ear, held his book tight to his chest and hurried to the car.

  “What are you doing in the driving seat?”

  Alsana held on to the wheel firmly and talked to Millat via the rearview mirror. “Will someone please tell my husband that I am going to drive. I grew up by the Bay of Bengal. I watched my mother drive through winds like these while my husband was poncing about in Delhi with a load of fairy college boys. I suggest my husband gets in the passenger seat and doesn’t fart unless I tell him to.”

  Alsana drove at three miles an hour through the deserted, blacked-out high road while winds of 110 mph relentlessly battered the tops of the highest buildings.

  “England, this is meant to be! I moved to England so I wouldn’t have to do this. Never again will I trust that Mr. Crab.”

  “Amma, it’s Mr. Fish.”

  “From now on, he’s Mr. Crab to me,” snapped Alsana with a dark look. “BBC or no BBC.”

  The lights had gone out at Archie’s, but the Jones household was prepared for every disastrous eventuality from tidal wave to nuclear fallout; by the time the Iqbals got there the place was lit with dozens of gas lamps, garden candles, and night-lights, the front door and windows had been speedily reinforced with plywood, and the garden trees had their branches roped together.

  “It’s all about preparation,” announced Archie, opening the door to the desperate Iqbals and their armfuls of belongings, like a DIY king welcoming the dispossessed. “I mean, you’ve got to protect your family, haven’t you? Not that you’ve failed in that depar—you know what I mean—’sjust the way I see it: it’s me against the wind. If I’ve told you once, Ick-Ball, I’ve told you a million times: check the supporting walls. If they’re not in tip-top condition, you’re buggered, mate. You really are. And you’ve got to keep a pneumatic spanner in the house. Essential.”

  “That’s fascinating, Archibald. May we come in?”

  Archie stepped aside. “’Course. Tell the truth, I was expecting you. You never did know a drill bit from a screw handle, Ick-Ball. Good with the theory, but never got the hang of the practicalities. Go on, up the stairs, mind the night-lights—good idea that, eh? Hello, Alsi, you look lovely as ever; hello, Millboid, yer scoundrel. So Sam, out with it: what have you lost?”

  Samad sheepishly recounted the damage so far.

  “Ah, now you see, that’s not your windows—t
hey’re fine, I put them in—it’s the frames. Just ripped out of that crumbling wall, I’ll bet.”

  Samad grudgingly acknowledged this to be the case.

  “There’ll be worse to come, mark mine. Well, what’s done is done. Clara and Irie are in the kitchen. We’ve got a Bunsen burner going, and grub’s up in a minute. But what a bloody storm, eh? Phone’s out. ’Lectricity’s out. Never seen the likes of it.”

  In the kitchen, a kind of artificial calm reigned. Clara was stirring some beans, quietly humming the tune to “Buffalo Soldier.” Irie was hunched over a notepad, writing her diary obsessively in the manner of thirteen-year-olds:

  8:30 p.m. Millat just walked in. He’s sooo gorgeous but ultimately irritating! Tight jeans as usual. Doesn’t look at me (as usual, except in a FRIENDLY way). I’m in love with a fool (stupid me)! If only he had his brother’s brains . . . oh well, blah blah. I’ve got puppy love and puppy fat—aaaagh! Storm still crazy. Got to go. Will write later.

  “All right,” said Millat.

  “All right,” said Irie.

  “Crazy this, eh?”

  “Yeah, mental.”

  “Dad’s having a fit. House is torn to shit.”

  “Ditto. It’s been madness around here too.”

  “I’d like to know where you’d be without me, young lady,” said Archie, banging another nail into some plywood. “Best-protected house in Willesden, this is. Can’t hardly tell there’s a storm going on from here.”

  “Yeah,” said Millat, sneaking a final thrilling peek through the window at the apoplectic trees before Archie blocked out the sky entirely with wood and nails. “That’s the problem.”

  Samad clipped Millat round the ear. “Don’t you start in on the cheekiness. We know what we’re doing. You forget, Archibald and I have coped with extreme situations. Once you have fixed a five-man tank in the middle of a battlefield, your life at risk at every turn, bullets whizzing inches from your arse, while simultaneously capturing the enemy in the harshest possible conditions, let me be telling you, hurricane is little tiny small fry. You could do a lot worse than—yes, yes, very amusing, I’m sure,” muttered Samad, as the two children and the two wives feigned narcolepsy. “Who wants some of these beans? I’m dishing out.”

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