White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  It was the 1989 New Year’s Eve shift in O’Connell’s, and the debate was in full swing.

  “True, he was not a hero in the way you in the West like your heroes—he did not succeed except in the manner of his honorable death. But imagine it: there he sat.” Samad pointed to Denzel, about to play his winning domino. “At the trial, knowing death was upon him, refusing ever to reveal the names of his fellow conspirators—”

  “Now, that,” said Archie, patting his pile of skeptics, Michael Edwardes, P. J. O. Taylor, Syed Moinul Haq, and the rest, “depends what you read.”

  “No, Archie. That is a common mistake. The truth does not depend on what you read. Please let us not get into the nature of truth. Then you do not have to draw with my cheese and I can avoid eating your chalk.”

  “All right, then: Pande. What did he achieve? Nothing! All he did was start a mutiny—too early, mind, before the agreed date—and excuse my French, but that’s a fucking disaster in military terms. You plan, you don’t act on instinct. He caused unnecessary casualties. English and Indian.”

  “With respect, I don’t believe that to be the case.”

  “Well, you’re wrong.”

  “With respect, I believe I am right.”

  “It’s like this, Sam: imagine here”—he gathered a pile of dirty plates that Mickey was about to put in the dishwasher—“are all the people who have written about your Pande in the last hundred-and-whatever years. Now: here’s the ones that agree with me.” He placed ten plates on his side of the table and pushed one over to Samad. “And that’s the madman on your side.”

  “A. S. Misra. Respected Indian civil servant. Not a madman.”

  “Right. Well, it would take you at least another hundred-and-whatever years to get as many plates as I have, even if you were going to make them all yourself, and the likelihood is, once you had them, no bugger would want to eat off them anyway. Metaphorically speaking. Know what I mean?”

  Which left only A. S. Misra. One of Samad’s nephews, Rajnu, had written to him in the spring of ’81 from his Cambridge college, mentioning casually that he had found a book that might be of some interest to his uncle. In it, he said, could be found an eloquent defense of their shared ancestor, one Mangal Pande. The only surviving copy was in his college library, it was by a man named Misra. Had he heard of it already? If not, might it not serve (Rajnu added in a cautious P. S.) as a pleasant excuse to see his uncle again?

  Samad arrived on the train the very next day and stood on the platform, warmly greeting his soft-spoken nephew in the pouring rain, shaking his hand several times and talking as if it were going out of fashion.

  “A great day,” he repeated over and over, until both men were soaked to the skin. “A great day for our family, Rajnu, a great day for the truth.”

  Wet men not being allowed in college libraries, they spent the morning drying off in a stuffy upstairs café, full of the right type of ladies having the right type of tea. Rajnu, ever the good listener, sat patiently as his uncle babbled wildly—Oh, the importance of the discovery, Oh, how long he had waited for this moment—nodding in all the right places and smiling sweetly as Samad brushed tears from the corners of his eyes. “It is a great book, isn’t it, Rajnu?” asked Samad pleadingly, as his nephew left a generous tip for the sour-faced waitresses who did not appreciate overexcited Indians spending three hours over one cream tea and leaving wet prints all over the furniture. “It is recognized, isn’t it?”

  Rajnu knew in his heart that the book was an inferior, insignificant, forgotten piece of scholarship, but he loved his uncle, so he smiled, nodded, and smiled firmly again.

  Once in the library, Samad was asked to fill in the visitors’ book:

  Name: Samad Miah Iqbal

  College: Educated elsewhere (Delhi)

  Research project: Truth

  Rajnu, tickled by this last entry, picked up the pen, adding “and Tragedy.”

  “Truth and Tragedy,” said a deadpan librarian, turning the book back round. “Any particular kind?”

  “Don’t worry,” said Samad genially. “We’ll find it.”

  It took a stepladder to reach it but it was well worth the stretch. When Rajnu passed the book to his uncle, Samad felt his fingers tingle and, looking at its cover, shape, and color, saw that it was all he had dreamed of. It was heavy, many-paged, bound in a tan leather and covered in the light dust that denotes something incredibly precious, something rarely touched.

  “I left a marker in it. There is much to read but there is something I thought you’d like to see first,” said Rajnu, laying the book down on a desk. The heavy thud of one side of it hit the table, and Samad looked at the appointed page. It was more than he could have hoped for.

  “It’s only an artist’s impression, but the similarity between—”

  “Don’t speak,” said Samad, tracing his fingers across the picture. “This is our blood, Rajnu. I never thought I would see . . . What eyebrows! What a nose! I have his nose!”

  “You have his face, Uncle, More dashing, naturally.”

  “And what—what does it say underneath. Damn! Where are my reading glasses . . . read it for me, Rajnu, it is too small.”

  “The caption? Mangal Pande fired the first bullet of the 1857 movement. His self-sacrifice gave the siren to the nation to take up arms against an alien ruler, culminating in a mass uprising with no parallel in world history. Though the effort failed in its immediate consequences, it succeeded in laying the foundations of the Independence to be won in 1947. For his patriotism he paid with his life. But until his last breath he refused to disclose the names of those who were preparing for, and instigating, the great uprising.”

  Samad sat down on the bottom rung of the stepladder and wept.

  “So. Let me get this straight. Now you’re telling me that without Pande there’d be no Gandhi. That without your mad grandad there’d be no bloody Independence—”


  “No, let me finish, Sam. Is that what you’re seriously asking us”—Archie clapped an uninterested Clarence and Denzel on the back—“to believe? Do you believe it?” he asked Clarence.

  “Me kyan believe dat!” said Clarence, having no idea of the topic.

  Denzel blew his nose into a napkin. “Troof be tol, me nah like to believe any ting. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Dat my motto.”

  “He was the tickle in the sneeze, Archibald. It is as simple as that. I do believe that.”

  There was quiet for a minute. Archibald watched three sugar cubes dissolve in his teacup. Then, rather tentatively, he said, “I’ve got my own theory, you know. Separate from the books, I mean.”

  Samad bowed. “Please enlighten us.”

  “Don’t get angry, now . . . But just think for a minute. Why is a strict religious man like Pande drinking bhang? Seriously, I know I tease you about it. But why is he?”

  “You know my opinion on that. He isn’t. He didn’t. It was English propaganda.”

  “And he was a good shot . . .”

  “No doubt about it. A. S. Misra produces a copy of a record stating that Pande trained in a special guard for one year, specially trained in the use of muskets.”

  “O.K. So: why does he miss? Why?”

  “It is my belief that the only possible explanation is that the gun was faulty.”

  “Yes . . . there is that. But, maybe, maybe something else. Maybe he was being bullied into going out there and making a row, you know, goaded, by the other guys. And he didn’t want to kill anyone in the first place, you know. So he pretended to be drunk, so the boys in the barracks room would believe he missed the shot.”

  “That is quite the stupidest theory I have ever heard,” sighed Samad, as the second hand of Mickey’s egg-stained clock started the thirty-second countdown to midnight. “The kind only you could come up with. It’s absurd.”


  “Why? Archibald, these Englishmen, these Captain Hearsays, Havelocks, and the r
est, were every Indian’s mortal enemy. Why should he spare lives he despised?”

  “Maybe he just couldn’t do it. Maybe he wasn’t the type.”

  “Do you really believe there is a type of man who kills and a type of man who doesn’t?”

  “Maybe, Sam, maybe not.”

  “You sound like my wife,” groaned Samad, mopping up a final piece of egg. “Let me tell you something, Archibald. A man is a man is a man. His family threatened, his beliefs attacked, his way of life destroyed, his whole world coming to an end—he will kill. Make no mistake. He won’t let the new order roll over him without a struggle. There will be people he will kill.”

  “And there will be people he will save,” said Archie Jones, with a cryptic look his friend would have thought an impossible feat for those sagging, chubby features. “Trust me.”

  “Five! Four! Tree! Two! One! Jamaica Irie!” said Denzel and Clarence, raising hot Irish coffees to each other in a toast, then immediately resuming round nine of the dominoes.

  “HAPPY FUCKING NEW YEAR!” bellowed Mickey, from behind the counter.


  1990, 1907

  In this wrought-iron world of criss-cross cause and effect, could it be that the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future?

  —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita


  The Miseducation of Irie Jones

  There was a lamppost, equidistant from the Jones house and Glenard Oak Comprehensive, that had begun to appear in Irie’s dreams. Not the lamppost exactly, but a small, handmade ad that was taped round its girth at eye level. It said:


  081 555 6752

  Now, Irie Jones, aged fifteen, was big. The European proportions of Clara’s figure had skipped a generation, and she was landed instead with Hortense’s substantial Jamaican frame, loaded with pineapples, mangoes, and guavas; the girl had weight; big tits, big butt, big hips, big thighs, big teeth. She was 182 pounds and had thirteen pounds in her savings account. She knew she was the target audience (if ever there was one), she knew full well, as she trudged schoolward, mouth full of doughnut, hugging her spare tires, that the ad was speaking to her. It was speaking to her. lose weight (it was saying) to earn money. You, you, you, Miss Jones, with your strategically placed arms and cardigan, tied around the arse (the endless mystery: how to diminish that swollen enormity, the Jamaican posterior?), with your belly-reducing panties and breast-reducing bra, with your meticulous Lycra corseting—the much-lauded nineties answer to whalebone—with your elasticized waists. She knew the ad was talking to her. But she didn’t know quite what it was saying. What were we talking about here? Sponsored slim? The earning capacity of thin people? Or something altogether more Jacobean, the brainchild of some sordid Willesden Shylock, a pound of flesh for a pound of gold: meat for money?

  Rapid. Eye. Movement. Sometimes she’d be walking through school in a bikini with the lamppost enigma written in chalk over her brown bulges, over her various ledges (shelf space for books, cups of tea, baskets, or, more to the point, children, bags of fruit, buckets of water), ledges genetically designed with another country in mind, another climate. Other times, the sponsored slim dream: knocking on door after door, butt-naked with a clipboard, drenched in sunlight, trying to encourage old men to pinch-an-inch and pledge-a-pound. Worst times? Tearing off loose, white-flecked flesh and packing it into those old curvaceous Coke bottles; she is carrying them to the corner shop, passing them over a counter; and Millat is the bindi-wearing, V-necked shopkeeper, he is adding them up, grudgingly opening the till with blood-stained paws, handing over the cash. A little Caribbean flesh for a little English change.

  Irie Jones was obsessed. Occasionally her worried mother cornered her in the hallway before she slunk out of the door, picked at her elaborate corsetry, asked, “What’s up with you? What in the Lord’s name are you wearing? How can you breathe? Irie, my love, you’re fine—you’re just built like an honest-to-God Bowden—don’t you know you’re fine?”

  But Irie didn’t know she was fine. There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection. A stranger in a stranger land.

  Nightmares and daydreams, on the bus, in the bath, in class. Before. After. Before. After. Before. After. The mantra of the makeover junkie, sucking it in, letting it out; unwilling to settle for genetic fate; waiting instead for her transformation from Jamaican hourglass heavy with the sands that gather round Dunns River Falls, to English Rose—oh, you know her—she’s a slender, delicate thing not made for the hot sun, a surfboard rippled by the wave:

  Before: After:

  Mrs. Olive Roody, English teacher and expert doodle-spotter at distances of up to twenty yards, reached over her desk to Irie’s notebook and tore out the piece of paper in question. Looked dubiously at it. Then inquired with melodious Scottish emphasis, “Before and after what?”

  “Er . . . what?”

  “Before and after what?”

  “Oh. Nothing, miss.”

  “Nothing? Oh, come now, Ms. Jones. No need for modesty. It is obviously more interesting than Sonnet 127.”

  “Nothing. It’s nothing.”

  “Absolutely certain? You don’t wish to delay the class anymore? Because . . . some of the class need to listen to—are even a wee bit interested in—what I have to say. So if you could spare some time from your doooodling—”

  No one but no one said “doodling” like Olive Roody.

  “—and join the rest of us, we’ll continue. Well?”

  “Well what?”

  “Can you? Spare the time?”

  “Yes, Mrs. Roody.”

  “Oh, good. That’s cheered me up. Sonnet 127, please.”

  “In the old age black was not counted fair,” continued Francis Stone in the catatonic drone with which students read Elizabethan verse. “Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.”

  Irie put her right hand on her stomach, sucked in, and tried to catch Millat’s eye. But Millat was busy showing pretty Nikki Tyler how he could manipulate his tongue into a narrow roll, a flute. Nikki Tyler was showing him how the lobes of her ears were attached to the side of her head rather than loose. Flirtatious remnants of this morning’s science lesson: Inherited characteristics. Part One (a). Loose. Attached. Rolled. Flat. Blue eye. Brown eye. Before. After.

  “Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black, her brows so suited, and they mourners seem . . . My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips’ red. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun . . .”

  Puberty, real full-blown puberty (not the slight mound of a breast, or the shadowy emergence of fuzz), had separated these old friends, Irie Jones and Millat Iqbal. Different sides of the school fence. Irie believed she had been dealt the dodgy cards: mountainous curves, buckteeth and thick metal retainer, impossible Afro hair, and to top it off mole-ish eyesight that in turn required Coke-bottle spectacles in a light shade of pink. (Even those blue eyes—the eyes Archie had been so excited about—lasted two weeks only. She had been born with them, yes, but one day Clara looked again and there were brown eyes staring up at her, like the transition between a closed bud and an open flower, the exact moment of which the naked, waiting eye can never detect.) And this belief in her ugliness, in her wrongness, had subdued her; she kept her smart-ass comments to herself these days, she kept her right hand on her stomach. She was all wrong.

  Whereas Millat was like youth remembered in the nostalgic eyeglass of old age, beauty parodying itself: broken Roman nose, tall, thin; lightly veined, smoothly muscled; chocolate eyes with a reflective green sheen like moonlight bouncing off a dark sea; irresistible smile, big white teeth. In Glenard Oak Comprehensive, black, Pakistani, Greek, Irish—these were races. But those with sex appeal lapped the other runners. They were a species all of their own.

  “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head . . .”

  She loved him, of course. But he u
sed to say to her: “Thing is, people rely on me. They need me to be Millat. Good old Millat. Wicked Millat. Safe, sweet-as, Millat. They need me to be cool. It’s practically a responsibility.”

  And it practically was. Ringo Starr once said of the Beatles that they were never bigger than they were in Liverpool, late 1962. They just got more countries. And that’s how it was for Millat. He was so big in Cricklewood, in Willesden, in West Hampstead, the summer of 1990, that nothing he did later in his life could top it. From his first Raggastani crowd, he had expanded and developed tribes throughout the school, throughout North London. He was simply too big to remain merely the object of Irie’s affection, leader of the Raggastanis, or the son of Samad and Alsana Iqbal. He had to please all of the people all of the time. To the Cockney wide-boys in the white jeans and the colored shirts he was the joker, the risk-taker, respected lady-killer. To the black kids he was fellow weed-smoker and valued customer. To the Asian kids, hero and spokesman. Social chameleon. And underneath it all, there remained an ever-present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere. It was this soft underbelly that made him most beloved, most adored by Irie and the nice oboe-playing, long-skirted middle-class girls, most treasured by these hair-flicking and fugue-singing females; he was their dark prince, occasional lover or impossible crush, the subject of sweaty fantasy and ardent dreams . . .

  And he was also their project: what was to be done about Millat? He simply must stop smoking weed. We have to try and stop him walking out of class. They worried about his “attitude” at sleep-overs, discussed his education hypothetically with their parents (Just say there was this Indian boy, yeah, who was always getting into . . . ), even wrote poems on the subject. Girls either wanted him or wanted to improve him, but most often a combination of the two. They wanted to improve him until he justified the amount they wanted him. Everybody’s bit of rough, Millat Iqbal.

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