White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “Someone tell a story,” said Alsana. “It’s going to get oh so boring if we have to listen to old warhorse big mouths all night.”

  “Go on, Sam,” said Archie with a wink. “Give us the one about Mangal Pande. That’s always good for a laugh.”

  A clamour of Nooo’s, mimed slitting of throats and self-asphyxiation went round the assembled company.

  “The story of Mangal Pande,” Samad protested, “is no laughing matter. He is the tickle in the sneeze, he is why we are the way we are, the founder of modern India, the big historical cheese.”

  Alsana snorted. “Big fat nonsense. Every fool knows Gandhi-gee is the big cheese. Or Nehru. Or maybe Akbar, but he was crook-backed, and huge-nosed, I never liked him.”

  “Dammit! Don’t talk nonsense, woman. What do you know about it? Fact is: it is simply a matter of market economy, publicity, movie rights. The question is: are the pretty men with the big white teeth willing to play you, et cetera. Gandhi had Mr. Kingsley—bully for him—but who will do Pande, eh? Pande’s not pretty enough, is he? Too Indian-looking, big nose, big eyebrows. That’s why I am always having to tell you ingrates a thing or two about Mangal Pande. Bottom line: if I don’t, nobody will.”

  “Look,” said Millat, “I’ll do the short version. Great-grandfather—”

  “Your great-great-grandfather, stupid,” corrected Alsana.

  “Whatever. Decides to fuck the English—”

  “Millat!”

  “To rebel against the English, all on his Jack-Jones, spliffed up to the eyeballs, tries to shoot his captain, misses, tries to shoot himself, misses, gets hung—”

  “Hanged,” said Clara absentmindedly.

  “Hanged or hung? I’ll get the dictionary,” said Archie, laying down his hammer and climbing off the kitchen counter.

  “Whatever. End of story. Bor-ing.”

  And now a mammoth tree—the kind endemic to North London, the ones that sprout three smaller trees along the trunk before finally erupting into glorious greenery, city-living for whole diaspora of magpies—a tree of this kind tore itself from the dog shit and the concrete, took one tottering step forward, swooned, and collapsed; through the guttering, through the storm windows, through the plywood, knocked over a gas lamp, and then landed in an absence that was Archie-shaped, for he had just left it.

  Archie was the first to leap into action, throwing a towel on the small fire progressing along the cork kitchen tiles, while everyone else trembled and wept and checked each other for injury. Then Archie, visibly shaken by this blow to his DIY supremacy, reclaimed control over the elements, tying some of the branches with kitchen rags and ordering Millat and Irie to go around the house putting out the gas lamps.

  “We don’t want to burn ourselves to death, now do we? I better find some black plastic and electric tape. Do something about this.”

  Samad was incredulous. “Do something about it, Archibald? I fail to see how some electric tape will change the fact there is a half a tree in the kitchen.”

  “Man, I’m terrified,” stuttered Clara, after a few minutes’ silence, as the storm lulled. “The quiet is always a bad sign. My grandmother—God rest her—she always said that. The quiet is just God pausing to take a breath before he shouts all over again. I think we should go into the other room.”

  “That was the only tree on this side. Best stay in here. Worst’s done here. Besides,” said Archie, touching his wife’s arm affectionately, “you Bowdens have seen worse than this! Your mother was born in a bloody earthquake, for Christ’s sake. 1907, Kingston’s falling apart and Hortense pops into the world. You wouldn’t see a little storm like this worrying her. Tough as nails, that one.”

  “Not toughness,” said Clara quietly, standing up to look through the broken window at the chaos outside, “luck. Luck and faith.”

  “I suggest we pray,” said Samad, picking up his novelty Qurn. “I suggest we acknowledge the might of the Creator as he does his worst this evening.”

  Samad began flicking through and, finding what he wanted, brought it patricianlike under his wife’s nose, but she slammed it shut and glared at him. Ungodly Alsana, who was yet a nifty hand with the word of God (good schooling, proper parents, oh yes), lacking nothing but the faith, prepared to do what she did only in emergency—recite: “I do not serve what you worship, nor do you serve what I worship. I shall never serve what you worship, nor will you ever serve what I worship. You have your own religion, and I have mine. Sura 109, translation N. J. Dawood. Now, will someone,” said Alsana, looking to Clara, “please remind my husband that he is not Mr. Manilow and he does not have the songs that make the whole world sing. He will whistle his tune and I will whistle mine.”

  Samad turned contemptuously from his wife and placed both hands rigidly on his book. “Who will pray with me?”

  “Sorry, Sam,” came a muffled voice (Archie had his head in the closet and was searching for the garbage bags). “Not really my cup of tea, either. Never been a church man. No offense.”

  Five more minutes passed without the wind. Then the quiet burst and God shouted just as Ambrosia Bowden had told her granddaughter he would. Thunder went over the house like a dying man’s bile, lightning followed like his final malediction, and Samad closed his eyes.

  “Irie! Millat!” called Clara, then Alsana. No answer. Standing bolt upright in the closet, smashing his head against the spice shelf, Archie said, “It’s been ten minutes. Oh blimey. Where are the kids?”

  One kid was in Chittagong, being dared by a friend to take off his lungi and march through a renowned crocodile swamp; the other two had sneaked out of the house to feel the eye of the storm, and were walking against the wind as if thigh-high in water. They waded into Willesden recreation ground, where the following conversation took place.

  “This is incredible!”

  “Yeah, mental!”

  “You’re mental.”

  “What do you mean? I’m fine!”

  “No, you’re not. You’re always looking at me. And what were you writing? You’re such a nerd. You’re always writing.”

  “Nothing. Stuff. You know, diary stuff.”

  “You’ve got the blatant hots for me.”

  “I can’t hear you! Louder!”

  “THE HOTS! BLATANTLY! YOU CAN HEAR ME.”

  “I have not! You’re an egomaniac.”

  “You want my arse.”

  “Don’t be a wanker!”

  “Well, it’s no good, anyway. You’re getting a bit big. I don’t like big. You can’t have me.”

  “I wouldn’t want to, Mr. Egomaniac.”

  “Plus: imagine what our kids would look like.”

  “I think they’d look nice.”

  “Browny-black. Blacky-brown. Afro, flat nose, rabbit teeth, and freckles. They’d be freaks!”

  “You can talk. I’ve seen that picture of your grandad—”

  “GREAT-GREAT-GRANDAD.”

  “Massive nose, horrible eyebrows—”

  “That’s an artist’s impression, you chief.”

  “And they’d be crazy—he was crazy—your whole family’s crazy. It’s genetic.”

  “Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”

  “And for your information, I don’t fancy you, anyway. You’ve got a bent nose. And you’re trouble. Who wants trouble?”

  “Well, watch out,” said Millat, leaning forward, colliding with some buckteeth, slipping a tongue in momentarily, and then pulling back. “’Cos that’s all the trouble you’re getting.”

  January 14, 1989

  Millat spread his legs like Elvis and slapped his wallet down on the counter. “One for Bradford, yeah?”

  The ticket man put his tired face close up to the glass. “Are you asking me, young man, or telling me?”

  “I just say, yeah? One for Bradford, yeah? You got some problem, yeah? Speaka da English? This is King’s Cross, yeah? One for Bradford, innit?”

  Millat’s Crew (Rajik, Ranil, Dipesh, and Hifan) sniggered and shuffle
d behind him, joining in on the yeahs like some kind of backing group.

  “Please?”

  “Please what, yeah? One for Bradford, yeah? You get me? One for Bradford. Chief.”

  “And would that be a return? For a child?”

  “Yeah, man. I’m fifteen, yeah? ’Course I want a return, I’ve got a ba¯¸rii to get back to like everybody else.”

  “That’ll be seventy-five pounds, then, please.”

  This was met with displeasure by Millat and Millat’s Crew.

  “You what? Takin’ liberties! Seventy—chaaaa, man. That’s moody. I ain’t payin’ no seventy-five pounds!”

  “Well, I’m afraid that’s the price. Maybe next time you mug some poor old lady,” said the ticket man, looking pointedly at the chunky gold that fell from Millat’s ears, wrists, fingers, and from around his neck, “you could stop in here first before you get to the jewelry store.”

  “Liberties!” squealed Hifan.

  “He’s cussin’ you, yeah?” confirmed Ranil.

  “You better tell ’im,” warned Rajik.

  Millat waited a minute. Timing was everything. Then he turned around, stuck his arse in the air, and farted long and loud in the ticket man’s direction.

  The Crew, on cue: “Somoka¯mi!”

  “What did you call me? You—what did you say? You little bastards. Can’t tell me in English? Have to talk your Paki language?”

  Millat slammed his fist so hard on the glass that it reverberated down the booths to the ticket man at the other end selling tickets to Milton Keynes.

  “First: I’m not a Paki, you ignorant fuck. And second: you don’t need a translator, yeah? I’ll give it to you straight. You’re a fucking faggot, yeah? Queer boy, poofter, batty-rider, shit-dick.”

  There was nothing Millat’s Crew prided themselves on more than the number of euphemisms they could offer for homosexuality.

  “Arse-bandit, fairy-fucker, toilet-trader.”

  “You want to thank God for the glass between us, boy.”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I thank Allah, yeah? I hope he fucks you up wicked, yeah? We’re going to Bradford to sort out the likes of you, yeah? Chief!”

  Halfway up platform 12, about to board a train they had no tickets for, a King’s Cross security guy stopped Millat’s Crew to ask them a question. “You boys not looking for any trouble, are you?”

  The question was fair. Millat’s Crew looked like trouble. And, at the time, a crew that looked like trouble in this particular way had a name, they were of a breed: Raggastani.

  It was a new breed, just recently joining the ranks of the other street crews: Becks, B-boys, Indie kids, wide-boys, ravers, rudeboys, Acidheads, Sharons, Tracies, Kevs, Nation Brothers, Raggas, and Pakis; manifesting itself as a kind of cultural mongrel of the last three categories. Raggastanis spoke a strange mix of Jamaican patois, Bengali, Gujarati, and English. Their ethos, their manifesto, if it could be called that, was equally a hybrid thing: Allah featured, but more as a collective big brother than a supreme being, a hard-as-fuck geezer who would fight in their corner if necessary; kung fu and the works of Bruce Lee were also central to the philosophy; added to this was a smattering of Black Power (as embodied by the album Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy); but mainly their mission was to put the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani. People had fucked with Rajik back in the days when he was into chess and wore V-necks. People had fucked with Ranil, when he sat at the back of the class and carefully copied all teachers’ comments into his book. People had fucked with Dipesh and Hifan when they wore traditional dress in the playground. People had even fucked with Millat, with his tight jeans and his white rock. But no one fucked with any of them anymore because they looked like trouble. They looked like trouble in stereo. Naturally, there was a uniform. They each dripped gold and wore bandanas, either wrapped around their foreheads or tied at the joint of an arm or leg. The trousers were enormous, swamping things, the left leg always inexplicably rolled up to the knee; the sneakers were equally spectacular, with tongues so tall they obscured the entire ankle; baseball caps were compulsory, low slung and irremovable; and everything, everything, everything was Nike‰; wherever the five of them went the impression they left behind was of one gigantic swoosh, one huge mark of corporate approval. And they walked in a very particular way, the left side of their bodies assuming a kind of loose paralysis that needed carrying along by the right side; a kind of glorified, funky limp like the slow, padding movement that Yeats imagined for his rough millennial beast. Ten years early, while the happy acidheads danced through the Summer of Love, Millat’s Crew were slouching toward Bradford.

  “No trouble, yeah?” said Millat to the security guy.

  “Just going—” began Hifan.

  “To Bradford,” said Rajik.

  “For business, yeah?” explained Dipesh.

  “See-ya! Bida¯yo!” called Hifan, as they slipped into the train, gave him the finger, and shoved their arses up against the closing doors.

  “Tax the window seat, yeah? Nice. I’ve blatantly got to have a fag in here, yeah? I’m fuckin’ wired, yeah? This whole business, man. This fuckin’ geezer, man. He’s a fuckin’ coconut—I’d like to fuck him up, yeah?”

  “Is he actually gonna be there?”

  All serious questions were always addressed to Millat, and Millat always answered the group as a whole. “No way. He ain’t going to be there. Just brothers going to be there. It’s a fucking protest, you chief, why’s he going to go to a protest against himself?”

  “I’m just saying,” said Ranil, wounded, “I’d fuck him up, yeah? If he was there, you know. Dirty fucking book.”

  “It’s a fucking insult!” said Millat, spitting some gum against the window. “We’ve taken it too long in this country. And now we’re getting it from our own, man. Rhas clut! He’s a fucking ba¯dor, white man’s puppet.”

  “My uncle says he can’t even spell,” said a furious Hifan, the most honestly religious of the lot. “And he dares to talk about Allah!”

  “Allah’ll fuck him up, yeah?” cried Rajik, the least intelligent, who thought of God as some kind of cross between Monkey-Magic and Bruce Willis. “He’ll kick him in the balls. Dirty book.”

  “You read it?” asked Ranil, as they whizzed past Finsbury Park.

  There was a general pause.

  Millat said, “I haven’t exackly read it exackly—but I know all about that shit, yeah?”

  To be more precise, Millat hadn’t read it. Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book; could not identify the book if it lay in a pile of other books; could not pick out the writer in a lineup of other writers (irresistible, this lineup of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Radclyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D. H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb). But he knew other things. He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelled of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people’s jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a filmmaker; that he should go back to his own country; or stay here and earn his bloody keep; that he worshiped elephants and wore turbans; that no one who looked like Millat, or spoke like Millat, or felt like Millat, was ever on the news unless they had recently been murdered. In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in the country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognized the anger, thought it recognized him, and grabbed it with both hands.

  “So . . . you ain’t read it?” asked Ranil nervously.

  “Look: you best believe I ain’t buying that shit, man. No way, star.”

  “Me neither,” said Hifan.

  “True star,” said Rajik.

  “
Fucking nastiness,” said Ranil.

  “Twelve ninety-five, you know!” said Dipesh.

  “Besides,” said Millat, with a tone of finality despite his high-rising terminals, “you don’t have to read shit to know that it’s blasphemous, you get me?”

  Back in Willesden, Samad Iqbal was expressing the very same sentiment loudly over the evening news.

  “I don’t need to read it. The relevant passages have been photocopied for me.”

  “Will someone remind my husband,” said Alsana, speaking to the newsreader, “that he does not even know what the bloody book is about because the last thing he read was the bloody A–Z.”

  “I’m going to ask you one more time to shut up so I can watch the news.”

  “I can hear screaming but it does not appear to be my voice.”

  “Can’t you understand, woman? This is the most important thing to happen to us in this country, ever. It’s crisis point. It’s the tickle in the sneeze. It’s big time.” Samad hit the volume button a few times with his thumb. “This woman—Moira whateverhernameis—she mumbles. Why is she reading news if she can’t speak properly?”

  Moira, turned up suddenly in midsentence, said, “. . . the writer denies blasphemy, and argues that the book concerns the struggle between secular and religious views of life.”

  Samad snorted. “What struggle! I don’t see any struggle. I get on perfectly OK. All gray cells in good condition. No emotional difficulties.”

  Alsana laughed bitterly. “My husband fights the Third World War every single bloody day in his head, so does everybody—”

  “No, no, no. No struggle. What’s he on about, eh? He can’t wangle out of it by being rational. Rationality! Most overrated Western virtue! Oh no. Fact is, he is simply offensive—he has offended—”

 
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