White Teeth by Zadie Smith

November 2, 1974 Samad and Archie stumble upon O’Connell’s on their way home and pop in for a fry-up.

  1975 Ali decides to carpet the walls to limit food stains.

  May 1977 Samad wins fifteen bob on fruit machine.

  1979 Ali has a fatal heart attack due to cholesterol build-up around the heart. Ali’s remaining family decide his death is a result of the unholy consumption of pork products. Pig is banned from the menu.

  1980 Momentous year. Abdul-Mickey takes over O’Connell’s. Institutes underground gambling room to make up for the money lost on sausages. Two large pool tables are used: the “Death” table and the “Life” table. All those who want to play for money play on the “Death” table. All those who object for religious reasons or because out of pocket play on the friendly “Life” table. Scheme a great success. Samad and Archie play on the “Death” table.

  December 1980 Archie gets highest ever recorded score on pinball: 51,998 points.

  1981 Archie finds unwanted cut-out of Viv Richards on Selfridges shop floor and brings it to O’Connell’s. Samad asks to have his great-grandfather Mangal Pande’s picture on the wall. Mickey refuses, claiming his “eyes are too close together.”

  1982 Samad stops playing on the “Death” table for religious reasons. Samad continues to petition for the picture’s installation.

  October 31, 1984 Archie wins £268.72 on the “Death” table. Buys beautiful new set of Pirelli tires for clapped-out car.

  New Year’s Eve, 1989, 10:30 P.M. Samad finally persuades Mickey to hang portrait. Mickey still thinks it “puts people off their food.”

  “I still think it puts people off their food. And on New Year’s Eve. I’m sorry, mate. No offense meant. ’Course my opinion’s not the fucking word of God, as it were, but it’s still my opinion.”

  Mickey attached a wire round the back of the cheap frame, gave the dusty glass a quick wipe-down with his apron, and reluctantly placed the portrait on its hook above the oven.

  “I mean, he’s so bloody nasty-looking. That mustache. He looks like a right nasty piece of work. And what’s that earring about? He’s not a queer, is he?”

  “No, no, no. It wasn’t unusual, then, for men to wear jewelry.”

  Mickey was dubious, giving Samad the look he gave to people who claimed to have got no game of pinball for their 50p and came seeking a refund. He got out from behind the counter and took a look at the picture from this new angle. “What d’you think, Arch?”

  “Good,” said Archie solidly. “I think: good.”

  “Please. I would consider it a great personal favor if you would allow it to stay.”

  Mickey tilted his head to one side and then the other. “As I said, I don’t mean no offense or nothing, I just think he looks a bit bloody shady. Haven’t you got another picture of him or sommink?”

  “That is the only one that survives. I would consider it a great personal favor, very great.”

  “Well . . .” ruminated Mickey, flipping an egg over, “you being a regular, as it were, and you going on about it so bloody much, I suppose we’ll have to keep it. How about a public survey? What d’you think, Denzel? Clarence?”

  Denzel and Clarence were sitting in the corner as ever, their only concession to New Year’s Eve a few pieces of mangy tinsel hanging off Denzel’s trilby and a feathered kazoo sharing mouth space with Clarence’s cigar.

  “Wass dat?”

  “I said, what d’you think of this bloke Samad wants up? It’s his grand-father.”

  “Great-grandfather,” corrected Samad.

  “You kyan see me playing dominoes? You tryin’ to deprive an ol’ man of his pleasure? What picture?” Denzel grudgingly turned to look at it. “Dat? Hmph! I don’t like it. He look like one of Satan’s crew!”

  “He a relative of you?” squeaked Clarence to Samad in his woman’s voice. “Dat explain much, my friend, much! He got some face like a donkey’s pum-pum.”

  Denzel and Clarence exploded into their dirty laughter. “Nuff to put my belly off its digesting, true sur!”

  “There you are!” exclaimed Mickey, victorious, turning back to Samad. “Puts the clientele off their food—that’s what I said right off.”

  “Assure me you are not going to listen to those two.”

  “I don’t know . . .” Mickey twisted and turned in front of his cooking; hard thought always enlisted the involuntary help of his body. “I respect you and that, and you was mates with my dad, but—no disrespect or nuffin’—you’re getting a bit fucking long in the tooth, Samad mate, some of the younger customers might not—”

  “What younger customers?” demanded Samad, gesturing to Clarence and Denzel.

  “Yeah, point taken . . . but the customer is always right, if you get my drift.”

  Samad was genuinely hurt. “I am a customer. I am a customer. I have been coming to your establishment for fifteen years, Mickey. A very long time in any man’s estimation.”

  “Yeah, but it’s the majority wot counts, innit? On most other fings I defer, as it were, to your opinion. The lads call you ‘The Professor’ and, fair dues, it’s not without cause. I am a respecter of your judgment, six days out of every seven. But bottom line is: if you’re one captain and the rest of the crew wants a bloody mutiny, well . . . you’re fucked, aren’t you?”

  Mickey sympathetically demonstrated the wisdom of this in his frying pan, showing how twelve mushrooms could force one mushroom over the edge and onto the floor.

  With the cackles of Denzel and Clarence still echoing in his ears, a current of anger worked its way through Samad and rose to his throat before he was able to stop it.

  “Give it to me!” He reached over the counter to where Mangal Pande was hanging at a melancholy angle above the stove. “I should never have asked . . . it would be a dishonor, it would cast into ignominy the memory of Mangal Pande to have him placed here in this—this irreligious house of shame!”

  “You what?”

  “Give it to me!”

  “Now look . . . wait a minute—”

  Mickey and Archie reached out to stop him, but Samad, distressed and full of the humiliations of the decade, kept struggling to overcome Mickey’s strong blocking presence. They tussled for a bit, but then Samad’s body went limp and, covered in a light film of sweat, he surrendered.

  “Look, Samad,” and here Mickey touched Samad’s shoulders with such affection that Samad thought he might weep. “I didn’t realize it was such a bloody big deal for you. Let’s start again. We’ll leave the picture up for a week and see how it goes, right?”

  “Thank you, my friend.” Samad pulled out a handkerchief and drew it over his forehead. “It is appreciated. It is appreciated.”

  Mickey gave him a conciliatory pat between the shoulder blades. “Fuck knows, I’ve heard enough about him over the years. We might as well ’ave him up on the bloody wall. It’s all the same to me, I suppose. Comme-see-comme-sar, as the Frogs say. I mean, bloody hell. Blood-ee-hell. And that extra turkey requires hard cash, Archibald, my good man. The golden days of Luncheon Vouchers are over. Dear oh dear, what a palaver over nuffin’ . . .”

  Samad looked deep into his great-grandfather’s eyes. They had been through this battle many times, Samad and Pande, the battle for the latter’s reputation. Both knew all too well that modern opinion on Mangal Pande weighed in on either side of two camps:

  An unrecognized hero

  Samad Iqbal

  A. S. Misra

  A palaver over nuffin’


  Magid and Millat




  Clarence and Denzel

  British scholarship from 1857 to the present day

  Again and again he had argued the toss with Archie over this issue. Over the years they had sat in O’Connell’s and returned to the same debate, sometimes with new information gleaned from Samad’s continual research into the matter—but ever since Archie found out the “truth” about Pand
e, circa 1953, there was no changing his mind. Pande’s only claim to fame, as Archie was at pains to point out, was his etymological gift to the English language by way of the word “Pandy,” under which title in the OED the curious reader will find the following definition:

  Pandy /’pandi/n. 2 colloq. (now Hist.) Also -dee. M19 [Perh. f. the surname of the first mutineer amongst the high-caste sepoys in the Bengal army.] 1 Any sepoy who revolted in the Indian Mutiny of 1857–9 2 Any mutineer or traitor 3 Any fool or coward in a military situation.

  “Plain as the pie on your face, my friend.” And here Archie would close the book with an exultant slam. “And I don’t need a dictionary to tell me that—but then neither do you. It’s common parlance. When you and me were in the army: same. You tried to put one over on me once, but the truth will out, mate. ‘Pandy’ only ever meant one thing. If I were you, I’d start playing down the family connection, rather than bending everybody’s ear twenty-four hours a bloody day.”

  “Archibald, just because the word exists, it does not follow that it is a correct representation of the character of Mangal Pande. The first definition we agree on: my great-grandfather was a mutineer and I am proud to say this. I concede matters did not go quite according to plan. But traitor? Coward? The dictionary you show me is old—these definitions are now out of currency. Pande was no traitor and no coward.”

  “Ahhh, now, you see, we’ve been through this, and my thought is this: there’s no smoke without fire,” Archie would say, looking impressed by the wisdom of his own conclusion. “Know what I mean?” This was one of Archie’s preferred analytic tools when confronted with news stories, historical events, and the tricky day-to-day process of separating fact from fiction. There’s no smoke without fire. There was something so vulnerable in the way he relied on this conviction, that Samad had never had the heart to disabuse him of it. Why tell an old man that there can be smoke without fire as surely as there are deep wounds that draw no blood?

  “Of course, I see your point of view, Archie, I do. But my point is, and has always been, from the very first time we discussed the subject; my point is that this is not the full story. And, yes, I realize that we have several times thoroughly investigated the matter, but the fact remains: full stories are as rare as honesty, precious as diamonds. If you are lucky enough to uncover one, a full story will sit on your brain like lead. They are difficult. They are long-winded. They are epic. They are like the stories God tells: full of impossibly particular information. You don’t find them in the dictionary.”

  “All right, all right, Professor. Let’s hear your version.”

  Often you see old men in the corner of dark pubs, discussing and gesticulating, using beer mugs and salt cellars to represent long-dead people and far-off places. At that moment they display a vitality missing in every other area of their lives. They light up. Unpacking a full story onto the table—here is Churchill-fork, over there is Czechoslovakia-napkin, here we find the accumulation of German troops represented by a collection of cold peas—they are reborn. But when Archie and Samad had these table-top debates during the eighties, knives and forks were not enough. The whole of the steamy Indian summer of 1857, the whole of that year of mutiny and massacre would be hauled into O’Connell’s and brought to semiconsciousness by these two makeshift historians. The area stretching from the jukebox to the fruit machine became Delhi; Viv Richards silently complied as Pande’s English superior, Captain Hearsay; Clarence and Denzel continued to play dominoes while simultaneously being cast as the restless sepoy hordes of the British army. Each man brought the pieces of his argument, laid them out, and assembled them for the other to see. Scenes were set. Paths of bullets traced. Disagreement reigned.

  According to the legend, during the spring of 1857 in a factory in Dum-Dum, a new kind of British bullet went into production. Designed to be used in English guns by Indian soldiers, like most bullets at the time they had a casing that must be bitten in order to fit the barrel. There seemed nothing exceptional about them, until it was discovered by some canny factory worker that they were covered with grease—a grease made from the fat of pigs, monstrous to Muslims, and the fat of cows, sacred to Hindus. It was an innocent mistake—as far as anything is innocent on stolen land—an infamous British blunder. But what a feverish turmoil must have engulfed the people on first hearing the news! Under the specious pretext of new weaponry, the English were intending to destroy their caste, their honor, their standing in the eyes of gods and men—everything, in short, that made life worth living. A rumor like this could not be kept secret; it spread like wildfire through the dry lands of India that summer, down the production line, out onto the streets, through town houses and country shacks, through barrack after barrack, until the whole country was ablaze with the desire for a mutiny. The rumor reached the large unsightly ears of Mangal Pande, an unknown sepoy in the small town of Barrackpore, who swaggered into his parade ground—March 29, 1857—stepping forward from the throng to make a certain kind of history. “Make a fool of himself, more like,” Archie will say (for these days he does not swallow Pandyology as gullibly as he once did).

  “You totally misunderstand his sacrifice,” Samad will reply.

  “What sacrifice? He couldn’t even kill himself properly! The problem with you, Sam, is you won’t listen to the evidence. I’ve read up on it all. The truth is the truth, no matter how nasty it may taste.”

  “Really. Well, please, my friend, since you are apparently an expert in the doings of my family, please, enlighten me. Let us hear your version.”

  Now, the average school student today is aware of the complex forces, movements, and deep currents that motivate wars and spark revolutions. But when Archie was in school the world seemed far more open to its own fictionalization. History was a different business then: taught with one eye on narrative, the other on drama, no matter how unlikely or chronologically inaccurate. According to this schema, the Russian Revolution began because everyone hated Rasputin. The Roman Empire declined and fell because Antony was having it off with Cleopatra. Henry V triumphed at Agincourt because the French were too busy admiring their own outfits. And the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 began when a drunken fool called Mangal Pande shot a bullet. Despite Samad’s opposition, each time Archie read the following he found himself more convinced:

  The scene is Barrackpore, the date 29 March 1857. It is Sunday afternoon; but on the dusty floor of the parade ground a drama is being enacted which is suggestive of anything but Sabbath peace. There chatters and sways and eddies a confused mass of Sepoys, in all stages of dress and undress; some armed, some unarmed; but all fermenting with excitement. Some thirty yards in front of the line of the 34th swaggers to and fro a Sepoy named Mangal Pande. He is half drunk with bhang, and wholly drunk with religious fanaticism. Chin in air, loaded musket in hand, he struts backwards and forwards, at a sort of half dance, shouting in shrill and nasal monotone, “Come out, you blackguards! Turn out, all of you! The English are upon us. Through biting these cartridges we shall all be made infidels!”

  The man, in fact, is in that condition of mingled bhang and “nerves” which makes a Malay run amok; and every shout from his lips runs like a sudden flame through the brains and along the nerves of the listening crowd of fellow Sepoys, as the crowd gets bigger, the excitement more intense. A human powder magazine, in a word, is about to explode.

  And explode it did. Pande shot at his lieutenant and missed him. Then he took out a large sword, a tulwar, and cowardly lunged while his lieu-tenant’s back was turned, catching him on the shoulder. A sepoy tried to restrain him, but Pande battled on. Then came reinforcements: one Captain Hearsay rushed forward, his son at his side, both armed and honorable and prepared to die for their country. (“Hearsay is precisely what it is! Rubbish. Fabrication!”) At which point Pande saw the game was up, pointed his enormous gun at his own head, and dramatically pulled the trigger with his left foot. He missed. A few days later, Pande stood trial and was found guilty. From the
other side of the country, on a chaise longue in Delhi, his execution was ordered by one General Henry Havelock (a man honored, much to Samad’s fury, by a statue just outside the Palace Restaurant, near Trafalgar Square, to the right of Nelson), who added—in a postscript to his written instruction—that he did hope that this would put an end to all the rash talk of mutiny one kept hearing recently. But it was too late. As Pande swung in the sultry breeze, hanging from a makeshift gallows, his disbanded comrades from the 34th were heading for Delhi, determined to join the rebel forces of what was to become one of the bloodiest failed mutinies of this or any century.

  This version of events—by a contemporary historian named Fitchett—was enough to send Samad into spasms of fury. When a man has nothing but his blood to commend him, each drop of it matters, matters terribly; it must be jealously defended. It must be protected against assailants and detractors. It must be fought for. But like a Chinese whisper, Fitchett’s intoxicated, incompetent Pande had passed down a line of subsequent historians, the truth mutating, bending, receding as the whisper continued. It didn’t matter that bhang, a hemp drink taken in small doses for medicinal purposes, was extremely unlikely to cause intoxication of this kind or that Pande, a strict Hindu, was extremely unlikely to drink it. It didn’t matter that Samad could find not one piece of corroborating evidence that Pande had taken bhang that morning. The story still clung, like a gigantic misquote, to the Iqbal reputation, as solid and seemingly irremovable as the misconception that Hamlet ever said he knew Yorick “well.”

  “Enough! It makes no difference how many times you read these things to me, Archibald.” (Archie usually came armed with a plastic bag full of library books, anti-Pande propaganda, misquotes galore.) “It is like a gang of children caught with their hands in an enormous honey jar: they are all going to tell me the same lie. I am not interested in this kind of slander. I am not interested in puppet theater or tragic farce. Action interests me, friend.” And here Samad would mime the final zipping up of his lips, the throwing away of a key. “True action. Not words. I tell you, Archibald, Mangal Pande sacrificed his life in the name of justice for India, not because he was intoxicated or insane. Pass me the ketchup.”

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