White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “Look,” Alsana cut in. “When my little group get together, if we disagree about something, we can sort it out. Example: Mohona Hossain hates Divargiit Singh. Hates all his movies. Hates him with a passion. She likes that other fool with the eyelashes like a lady! But we compromise. Never once have I burned a single video of hers.”

  “Hardly the same thing, Mrs. Iqbal, hardly the same kettle with fish in it.”

  “Oh, passions are running high at the Women’s Committee—shows how much Samad Iqbal knows. But I am not like Samad Iqbal. I restrain myself. I live. I let live.”

  “It is not a matter of letting others live. It is a matter of protecting one’s culture, shielding one’s religion from abuse. Not that you’d know anything about that, naturally. Always too busy with this Hindi brain popcorn to pay any attention to your own culture!”

  “My own culture? And what is that please?”

  “You’re a Bengali. Act like one.”

  “And what is a Bengali, husband, please?”

  “Get out of the way of the television and look it up.”

  Alsana took out baltic-brain, number three of their twenty-four-volume-set Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia, and read from the relevant section:

  The vast majority of Bangladesh’s inhabitants are Bengalis, who are largely descended from Indo-Aryans who began to migrate into the country from the west thousands of years ago and who mixed within Bengal with indigenous groups of various racial stocks. Ethnic minorities include the Chakma and Mogh, Mongoloid peoples who live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts District; the Santal, mainly descended from migrants from present-day India; and the Biharis, non-Bengali Muslims who migrated from India after the partition.

  “Oi, mister! Indo-Aryans . . . it looks like I am Western after all! Maybe I should listen to Tina Turner, wear the itsy-bitsy leather skirts. Pah. It just goes to show,” said Alsana, revealing her English tongue, “you go back and back and back and it’s still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith, on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairy tale!”

  “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re out of your depth.”

  Alsana held up the encyclopedia. “Oh, Samad Miah. You want to burn this too?”

  “Look: I’ve no time to play right now. I am trying to listen to a very important news story. Serious goings-on in Bradford. So, if you don’t mind—”

  “Oh dear God!” screamed Alsana, the smile leaving her face, falling to her knees in front of the television, tracing her finger past the burning book to the face she recognized, smiling up at her through light tubes, her pixilated second son beneath her picture-framed first. “What is he doing? Is he crazy? Who does he think he is? What on earth is he doing there? He’s meant to be in school! Has the day come when the babies are burning the books, has it? I don’t believe it!”

  “Nothing to do with me. Tickle in the sneeze, Mrs. Iqbal,” said Samad coolly, sitting back in his armchair. “Tickle in the sneeze.”

  When Millat came home that evening, a great bonfire was raging in the back garden. All his secular stuff—four years’ worth of cool, pre- and post-Raggastani, every album, every poster, special-edition T-shirts, club flyers collected and preserved over two years, beautiful Air Max sneakers, copies 20–75 of 2000 AD magazine, signed photo of Chuck D, impossibly rare copy of Slick Rick’s “Hey Young World,” The Catcher in the Rye, his guitar, The Godfather I and II, Mean Streets, Rumblefish, Dog Day Afternoon, and Shaft in Africa—all had been placed on the funeral pyre, now a smoldering mound of ashes, which was giving off fumes of plastic and paper, stinging the boy’s eyes, which were already filled with tears.

  “Everyone has to be taught a lesson,” Alsana had said, lighting the match with heavy heart some hours earlier. “Either everything is sacred or nothing is. And if he starts burning other people’s things, then he loses something sacred also. Everyone gets what’s coming, sooner or later.”

  November 10, 1989

  A wall was coming down. It was something to do with history. It was an historic occasion. No one really knew quite who had put it up or who was tearing it down or whether this was good, bad, or something else; no one knew how tall it was, how long it was, or why people had died trying to cross it, or whether they would stop dying in future, but it was educational all the same; as good an excuse for a get-together as any. It was a Thursday night, Alsana and Clara had cooked, and everybody was watching history on TV.

  “Who’s for more rice?”

  Millat and Irie held out their plates, jostling for prime position.

  “What’s happening now?” asked Clara, rushing back to her seat with a bowl of Jamaican fried dumplings, from which Irie snatched three.

  “Same, man,” Millat grumbled. “Same. Same. Same. Dancing on the wall, smashing it with a hammer. Whatever. I wanna see what else is on, yeah?”

  Alsana snatched the remote control and squeezed in between Clara and Archie. “Don’t you dare, mister.”

  “It’s educational,” said Clara deliberately, her pad and paper on the armrest, waiting to leap into action at the suggestion of anything edifying. “It’s the kind of thing we all should be watching.”

  Alsana nodded and waited for two awkward-shaped bhajis to go down the gullet. “That’s what I try and tell the boy. Big business. Tip-top historic occasion. When your own little Iqbals tug at your trousers and ask you where you were when—”

  “I’ll say I was bored shitless watching it on TV.”

  Millat got a thwack round the head for “shitless” and another one for the impertinence of the sentiment. Irie, looking strangely like the crowd on top of the wall in her everyday garb of CND badges, graffiti-covered trousers, and beaded hair, shook her head in saddened disbelief. She was that age. Whatever she said burst like genius into centuries of silence. Whatever she touched was the first stroke of its kind. Whatever she believed was not formed by faith but carved from certainty. Whatever she thought was the first time such a thought had ever been thunk.

  “That’s totally your problem, Mill. No interest in the outside world. I think this is amazing. They’re all free! After all this time, don’t you think that’s amazing? That after years under the dark cloud of Eastern communism they’re coming into the light of Western democracy, united,” she said, quoting Newsnight faithfully. “I just think democracy is man’s greatest invention.”

  Alsana, who felt personally that Clara’s child was becoming impossibly pompous these days, held up the head of a Jamaican fried fish in protest. “No, dearie. Don’t make that mistake. Potato peeler is man’s greatest invention. That or Poop-a-Scoop.”

  “What they want,” said Millat, “is to stop pissing around wid dis hammer business and jus’ get some Semtex and blow de djam ting up, if they don’t like it, you get me? Be quicker, innit?”

  “Why do you talk like that?” snapped Irie, devouring a dumpling. “That’s not your voice. You sound ridiculous!”

  “And you want to watch dem dumplings,” said Millat, patting his belly. “Big ain’t beautiful.”

  “Oh, get lost.”

  “You know,” murmured Archie, munching on a chicken wing, “I’m not so sure that it’s such a good thing. I mean, you’ve got to remember, me and Samad, we were there. And believe me, there’s a good reason to have it split in two. Divide and conquer, young lady.”

  “Jesus Christ, Dad. What are you on?”

  “He’s not on anything,” said Samad severely. “You younger people forget why certain things were done, you forget their significance. We were there. Not all of us think fondly upon a united Germany. They were different times, young lady.”

  “What’s wrong with a load of people making some noise about their freedom? Look at them. Look at how happy they are.”

  Samad looked at the happy people dancing on the wall and felt contempt and something more irritating underneath it that could have been jealousy.

  “It is not
that I disagree with rebellious acts per se. It is simply that if you are to throw over an old order, you must be sure that you can offer something of substance to replace it; that is what Germany needs to understand. As an example, take my great-grandfather, Mangal Pande—”

  Irie sighed the most eloquent sigh that had ever been sighed. “I’d rather not, if it’s all the same.”

  “Irie!” said Clara, because she felt she should.

  Irie huffed. And puffed.

  “Well! He goes on like he knows everything. Everything’s always about him—and I’m trying to talk about now, today, Germany. I bet you,” she said, turning to Samad, “I know more about it than you do. Go on. Try me. I’ve been studying it all term. Oh, and by the way: you weren’t there. You and Dad left in 1945. They didn’t do the wall until 1961.”

  “Cold War,” said Samad sourly, ignoring her. “They don’t talk about hot war anymore. The kind where men get killed. That’s where I learned about Europe. It cannot be found in books.”

  “Oi-oi,” said Archie, trying to diffuse a row. “You do know Last of the Summer Wine’s on in ten minutes? BBC Two.”

  “Go on,” persisted Irie, kneeling up and turning around to face Samad. “Try me.”

  “The gulf between books and experience,” intoned Samad solemnly, “is a lonely ocean.”

  “Right. You two talk such a load of sh—”

  But Clara was too quick with a slap round the ear. “Irie!”

  Irie sat back down, not so much defeated as exasperated, and turned up the TV volume.

  The twenty-eight-mile-long scar—the ugliest symbol of a divided world, East and West—has no meaning anymore. Few people, including this reporter, thought to see it happen in their lifetimes, but last night, at the stroke of midnight, thousands lingering both sides of the wall gave a great roar and began to pour through checkpoints and to climb up and over it.

  “Foolishness. Massive immigration problem to follow,” said Samad to the television, dipping a dumpling into some ketchup. “You just can’t let a million people into a rich country. Recipe for disaster.”

  “And who does he think he is? Mr. Churchill-gee?” Alsana laughed scornfully. “Original whitecliffsdover piesnmash jellyeels royalvariety britishbulldog, heh?”

  “Scar,” said Clara, noting it down. “That’s the right word, isn’t it?”

  “Jesus Christ. Can’t any of you understand the enormity of what’s going on here? These are the last days of a regime. Political apocalypse, meltdown. It’s an historic occasion.”

  “So everyone keeps saying,” said Archie, scouring the TV Times. “But what about The Krypton Factor, ITV? That’s always good, eh? ’Son now.”

  “And stop sayin’ ‘an historic,’ ” said Millat, irritated at all the poncey political talk. “Why can’t you just say ‘a,’ like everybody else, man? Why d’you always have to be so la-di-da?”

  “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” (She loved him, but he was impossible.) “What possible fucking difference can it make?”

  Samad rose out of his seat. “Irie! This is my house and you are still a guest. I won’t have that language in it!”

  “Fine! I’ll take it to the streets with the rest of the proletariat.”

  “That girl,” tutted Alsana as her front door slammed. “Swallowed an encyclopedia and a gutter at the same time.”

  Millat sucked his teeth at his mother. “Don’t you start, man. What’s wrong with ‘a’ encyclopedia? Why’s everyone in this house always puttin’ on fuckin’ airs?”

  Samad pointed to the door. “OK, mister. You don’t speak to your mother like that. You out too.”

  “I don’t think,” said Clara quietly, after Millat had stormed up to his room, “that we should discourage the kids from having an opinion. It’s good that they’re free-thinkers.”

  Samad sneered, “And you would know . . . what? You do a great deal of free-thinking? In the house all day, watching the television?”

  “Excuse me?”

  “With respect: the world is complex, Clara. If there’s one thing these children need to understand it is that one needs rules to survive it, not fancy.”

  “He’s right, you know,” said Archie earnestly, ashing a fag in an empty curry bowl. “Emotional matters—then yes, that’s your department—”

  “Oh—women’s work!” squealed Alsana, through a mouth full of curry. “Thank you so much, Archibald.”

  Archie struggled to continue. “But you can’t beat experience, can you? I mean, you two, you’re young women still, in a way. Whereas we, I mean, we are, like, wells of experience the children can use, you know, when they feel the need. We’re like encyclopedias. You just can’t offer them what we can. In all fairness.”

  Alsana put her palm on Archie’s forehead and stroked it lightly. “You fool. Don’t you know you’re left behind like carriage and horses, like candlewax? Don’t you know to them you’re old and smelly like yesterday’s fishnchip paper? I’ll be agreeing with your daughter on one matter of importance.” Alsana stood up, following Clara, who had left at this final insult and marched tearfully into the kitchen. “You two gentlemen talk a great deal of the youknowwhat.”

  Left alone, Archie and Samad acknowledged the desertion of both families by a mutual rolling of eyes, wry smiles. They sat quietly for a moment, while Archie’s thumb flicked adeptly through An Historic Occasion, A Costume Drama Set in Jersey, Two Men Trying to Build a Raft in Thirty Seconds, A Studio Debate on Abortion, and back once more to An Historic Occasion.






  “Home? Pub? O’Connell’s?”

  Archie was about to reach into his pocket for a shiny ten pence when he realized there was no need.

  “O’Connell’s?” said Archie.

  “O’Connell’s?” said Samad.


  The Root Canals of Mangal Pande

  Finally, O’Connell’s. Inevitably, O’Connell’s. Simply because you could be without family in O’Connell’s, without possessions or status, without past glory or future hope—you could walk through that door with nothing and be exactly the same as everybody else in there. It could be 1989 outside, or 1999, or 2009, and you could still be sitting at the counter in the V-neck you wore to your wedding in 1975, 1945, 1935. Nothing changes here, things are only retold, remembered. That’s why old men love it.

  It’s all about time. Not just its stillness but the pure, brazen amount of it. Quantity rather than Quality. This is hard to explain. If only there was some equation . . . something like:

  Something to rationalize, to explain, why one would keep returning, like Freud’s grandson with his fort-da game, to the same miserable scenario. But time is what it comes down to. After you’ve spent a certain amount, invested so much of it in one place, your credit rating booms and you feel like breaking the chronological bank. You feel like staying in the place until it pays you back all the time you gave it—even if it never will.

  And with the time spent, comes the knowledge, comes the history. It was at O’Connell’s that Samad had suggested Archie’s remarriage, 1974. Underneath table six in a pool of his own vomit, Archie celebrated the birth of Irie, 1975. There is a stain on the corner of the pinball machine where Samad first spilled civilian blood, with a hefty right hook to a racist drunk, 1980. Archie was downstairs the night he watched his fiftieth birthday float up through fathoms of whiskey to meet him like an old shipwreck, 1977. And this is where they both came, New Year’s Eve, 1989 (neither the Iqbal nor Jones families having expressed a desire to enter the nineties in their company), happy to take advantage of Mickey’s special New Year fry-up: £2.85 for three eggs, beans, two rounds of toast, mushrooms, and a generous slice of seasonal turkey.

  The seasonal turkey was a bonus. For Archie and Samad, it was really all about being the witness, being the expert. They came here because they knew this place. They knew it inside and out. And if y
ou can’t explain to your kid why glass will shatter at certain impacts but not others, if you can’t understand how a balance can be struck between democratic secularism and religious belief within the same state, or you can’t recall the circumstances in which Germany was divided, then it feels good—no, it feels great—to know at least one particular place, one particular period, from firsthand experience, eyewitness reports; to be the authority, to have time on your side, for once, for once. No better historians, no better experts in the world than Archie and Samad when it came to The Postwar Reconstruction and Growth of O’Connell’s Poolroom.

  1952 Ali (Mickey’s father) and his three brothers arrive at Dover with thirty old pounds and their father’s gold pocket-watch. All suffer from disfiguring skin condition.

  1954–1963 Marriages; odd-jobs of all varieties; births of Abdul-Mickey, the five other Abduls, and their cousins.

  1968 After working for three years as delivery boys in a Yugoslavian dry-cleaning outfit, Ali and his brothers have a small lump sum with which they set up a cab service called Ali’s Cab Service.

  1971 Cab venture a great success. But Ali is dissatisfied. He decides what he really wants to do is “serve food, make people happy, have some face-to-face conversations once in a while.” He buys the disused Irish poolroom next to the defunct railway station on the Finchley Road and sets about renovating it.

  1972 In the Finchley Road only Irish establishments do any real business. So despite his Middle Eastern background and the fact that he is opening a café and not a poolroom, Ali decides to keep the original Irish name. He paints all the fittings orange and green, hangs pictures of racehorses, and registers his business name as “Andrew O’Connell Yusuf.” Out of respect, his brothers encourage him to hang fragments of the Qurn on the wall, so that the hybrid business will be “kindly looked upon.”

  May 13, 1973 O’Connell’s opens for business.

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