White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  Irie approached the counter. A hugely fat woman in a sari was waddling to the cash till and back again to hand over twenty-five pounds to an Indian girl whose hair had been shorn haphazardly close to the scalp.

  “And please don’t be looking at me in that manner. Twenty-five is very reasonable price. I tell you I can’t do any more with all these split ends.”

  The girl objected in another language, picked up the bag of hair in question from the counter, and made as if to leave with it, but the elder woman snatched it away.

  “Please, don’t embarrass yourself further. We both have seen the ends. Twenty-five is all I can give you for it. You won’t get more some other place. Please now,” she said, looking over the girl’s shoulder to Irie, “other customers I have.”

  Irie saw hot tears, not unlike her own, spring to the girl’s eyes. She seemed to freeze for a moment, vibrating ever so slightly with anger; then she slammed her hand down on the counter, swept up her twenty-five pounds and headed for the door.

  The fat lady shook her chins in contempt after the disappearing girl. “Ungrateful, she is.”

  Then she unpeeled a sticky label from its brown-paper backing and slapped it on the bag of hair. It said: “6 Meters. Indian. Straight. Black/red.”

  “Yes, dear. What is it I can do?”

  Irie repeated Andrea’s instruction and handed over the card.

  “Eight packets? That is about six meters, no?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Yes, yes, it is. You want it straight or with a wave?”

  “Straight. Dead straight.”

  The fat lady did a silent calculation and then picked up the bag of hair that the girl had just left. “This is what you’re looking for. I haven’t been able to package it, you understand. But it is absolutely clean. You want?”

  Irie looked dubious.

  “Don’t worry about what I said. No split ends. Just silly girl trying to get more than she deserves. Some people got no understanding of simple economics . . . It hurts her to cut off her hair, so a million pounds she expects or something crazy. Beautiful hair, she has. When I was young, oh, mine was beautiful too, eh?” The fat lady erupted into high-pitched laughter, her busy upper lip making her mustache quiver. The laugh subsided.

  “Tell Andrea that will be thirty-seven fifty. We Indian women have the beautiful hair, hey? Everybody wants it!”

  A black woman with children in a twin buggy was waiting behind Irie with a packet of hairpins. She sucked her teeth. “You people think you’re all Mr. Bigstuff,” she muttered, half to herself. “Some of us are happy with our African hair, thank you very much. I don’t want to buy some poor Indian girl’s hair. And I wish to God I could buy black hair products from black people for once. How we going to make it in this country if we don’t make our own business?”

  The skin around the fat lady’s mouth became very tight. She began talking twelve to the dozen, putting Irie’s hair in a bag and writing her out a receipt, addressing all her comments to the woman via Irie, while doing her best to ignore the other woman’s interjections. “You don’t like shopping here, then please don’t be shopping here—is forcing you anybody? No, is anybody? It’s amazing: people, the rudeness, I am not a racist, but I can’t understand it, I’m just providing a service, a service. I don’t need abuse, just leave your money on the counter, if I am getting abuse, I’m not serving.”

  “No one’s givin’ you abuse. Jesus Christ!”

  “Is it my fault if they want the hair that is straight—and paler skin sometimes, like Michael Jackson, my fault he is too? They tell me not to sell the Dr. Peacock Whitener—local paper, my God, what a fuss!—and then they buy it—take that receipt to Andrea, will you, my dear, please? I’m just trying to make a living in this country like the rest of everybody. There you are, dear, there’s your hair.”

  The woman reached around Irie and delivered the right change to the counter with an angry smash. “For fuck’s sake!”

  “I can’t help it if that’s what they want—supply, demand. And bad language, I won’t tolerate! Simple economics—mind your step on the way out, dear—and you, no, don’t come back, please, I will call the police, I won’t be threatened, the police, I will call them.”

  “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

  Irie held the door open for the double buggy, and took one side to help carry it over the front step. Outside the woman put her hairpins in her pocket. She looked exhausted.

  “I hate that place,” she said. “But I need hairpins.”

  “I need hair,” said Irie.

  The woman shook her head. “You’ve got hair,” she said.

  Five and a half hours later, thanks to an arduous operation that involved attaching somebody else’s hair in small sections to Irie’s own two inches and sealing it with glue, Irie Jones had a full head of long, straight, reddish-black hair.

  “Is it straight?” she asked, disbelieving the evidence of her own eyes.

  “Straight as hell,” said Andrea, admiring her handiwork. “But honey, you’re going to have to braid it properly if you want it to stay in. Why won’t you let me do it? It won’t stay in if it’s loose like that.”

  “It will,” said Irie, bewitched by her own reflection. “It’s got to.”

  He—Millat—need only see it once, after all, just once. To ensure she reached him in pristine state, she walked all the way to the Iqbal house with her hands on her hair, terrified that the wind would displace it.

  Alsana answered the door. “Oh, hello. No, he’s not here. Out. Don’t ask me where, he doesn’t tell me a thing. I know where Magid is more of the time.”

  Irie walked into the hallway and caught a sneaky glance of herself in the mirror. Still there and all in the right place.

  “Can I wait in here?”

  “Of course. You look different, dearie. Lost weight?”

  Irie glowed. “New haircut.”

  “Oh yes . . . you look like a newsreader. Very nice. Now in the living room, please. Niece-of-Shame and her nasty friend are in there, but try not to let that bother you. I’m working in the kitchen and Samad is weeding, so keep the noise down.”

  Irie walked into the living room. “Bloody hell!” screeched Neena at the approaching vision. “What the fuck do you look like!”

  She looked beautiful. She looked straight, unkinky. Beautiful.

  “You look like a freak! Fuck me! Maxine, man, check this out. Jesus Christ, Irie. What exactly were you aiming for?”

  Wasn’t it obvious? Straight. Straightness. Flickability.

  “I mean, what was the grand plan? The Negro Meryl Streep?” Neena folded over like a duvet and laughed herself silly.

  “Niece-of-Shame!” came Alsana’s voice from the kitchen. “Sewing requires concentration. Shut it up, Miss Big-Mouth, please!”

  Neena’s “nasty friend,” otherwise known as Neena’s girlfriend, a sexy and slender girl called Maxine with a beautiful porcelain face, dark eyes, and a lot of curly brown hair, gave a pull to Irie’s peculiar bangs. “What have you done? You had beautiful hair, man. All curly and wild. It was gorgeous.”

  Irie couldn’t say anything for a moment. She had not considered the possibility that she looked anything less than terrific.

  “I just had a haircut. What’s the big deal?”

  “But that’s not your hair, for fuck’s sake, that’s some poor oppressed Pakistani woman who needs the cash for her kids,” said Neena, giving it a tug and being rewarded with a handful of it. “OH SHIT!”

  Neena and Maxine had a hysteria relapse.

  “Just get off it, OK?” Irie retreated to an armchair and tucked her knees up under her chin. Trying to sound offhand, she asked, “So . . . umm . . . where’s Millat?”

  “Is that what all this is in aid of?” asked Neena, astonished. “My shit-for-brains cousin-gee?”

  “No. Fuck off.”

  “Well, he’s not here. He’s got some new bird. Eastern-bloc gymnast with a stomach like a washboard. No
t unattractive, spectacular tits, but tight-assed as hell. Name . . . name?”

  “Stasia,” said Maxine, looking up briefly from Top of the Pops. “Or some such bollocks.”

  Irie sank deeper into the ruined springs of Samad’s favorite chair.

  “Irie, will you take some advice? Ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been following that boy around like a lost dog. And in that time he’s snogged everyone, everyone apart from you. He’s even snogged me, and I’m his first cousin, for fuck’s sake.”

  “And me,” said Maxine, “and I’m not that way inclined.”

  “Haven’t you ever wondered why he hasn’t snogged you?”

  “Because I’m ugly. And fat. With an Afro.”

  “No, fuckface, because you’re all he’s got. He needs you. You two have history. You really know him. Look how confused he is. One day he’s Allah this, Allah that. Next minute it’s big busty blondes, Russian gymnasts, and a smoke of the sinsemilla. He doesn’t know his arse from his elbow. Just like his father. He doesn’t know who he is. But you know him, at least a little, you’ve known all the sides of him. And he needs that. You’re different.”

  Irie rolled her eyes. Sometimes you want to be different. And sometimes you’d give the hair on your head to be the same as everybody else.

  “Look: you’re a smart cookie, Irie. But you’ve been taught all kinds of shit. You’ve got to reeducate yourself. Realize your value, stop the slavish devotion, and get a life, Irie. Get a girl, get a guy, but get a life.”

  “You’re a very sexy girl, Irie,” said Maxine sweetly.

  “Yeah. Right.”

  “Trust her, she’s a raving dyke,” said Neena, ruffling Maxine’s hair affectionately and giving her a kiss. “But the truth is the Barbra Streisand cut you’ve got there ain’t doing shit for you. The Afro was cool, man. It was wicked. It was yours.”

  Suddenly Alsana appeared at the doorway with an enormous plate of biscuits and a look of intense suspicion. Maxine blew her a kiss.

  “Biscuits, Irie? Come and have some biscuits. With me. In the kitchen.”

  Neena groaned. “Don’t panic, Auntie. We’re not enlisting her into the cult of Sappho.”

  “I don’t care what you’re doing. I don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t want to know such things.”

  “We’re watching television.”

  It was Madonna on the TV screen, working her hands around two conically shaped breasts.

  “Very nice, I’m sure,” sniped Alsana, glaring at Maxine. “Biscuits, Irie?”

  “I’d like some biscuits,” murmured Maxine with a flutter of her extravagant eyelashes.

  “I am certain,” said Alsana slowly and pointedly, translating code, “I don’t have the kind you like.”

  Neena and Maxine fell about all over again.

  “Irie?” said Alsana, indicating the kitchen with a grimace. Irie followed her out.

  “I’m as liberal as the next person,” complained Alsana, once they were alone. “But why do they always have to be laughing and making a song-and-dance about everything? I cannot believe homosexuality is that much fun. Heterosexuality certainly is not.”

  “I don’t think I want to hear that word in this house again,” said Samad deadpan, stepping in from the garden and laying his weeding gloves on the table.

  “Which one?”

  “Either. I am trying my level best to run a godly house.”

  Samad spotted a figure at his kitchen table, frowned, decided it was indeed Irie Jones and began on the little routine the two of them had going. “Hello, Miss Jones. And how is your father?”

  Irie shrugged on cue. “You see him more than we do. How’s God?”

  “Perfectly fine, thank you. Have you seen my good-for-nothing son recently?”

  “Not recently.”

  “What about my good son?”

  “Not for years.”

  “Will you tell the good-for-nothing he’s a good-for-nothing when you find him?”

  “I’ll do my best, Mr. Iqbal.”

  “God bless you.”


  “Now, if you will excuse me.” Samad reached for his prayer mat from the top of the fridge and left the room.

  “What’s the matter with him?” asked Irie, noticing that Samad had delivered his lines with less than enthusiasm. “He seems, I don’t know, sad.”

  Alsana sighed. “He is sad. He feels like he has screwed everything up. Of course, he has screwed everything up, but then again, who will cast the first stone, et cetera. He prays and prays. But he will not look straight at the facts: Millat hanging around with God knows what kind of people, always with the white girls, and Magid . . .”

  Irie remembered her first sweetheart encircled by a fuzzy halo of perfection, an illusion born of the disappointments Millat had afforded her over the years.

  “Why, what’s wrong with Magid?”

  Alsana frowned and reached up to the top kitchen shelf, where she collected a thin airmail envelope and passed it to Irie. Irie removed the letter and the photograph inside.

  The photo was of Magid, now a tall, distinguished-looking young man. His hair was the deep black of his brother’s, but it was not brushed forward on his face. It was parted on the left side, slicked down, and drawn behind the right ear. He was dressed in a tweed suit and what looked—though one couldn’t be sure, the photo was not good—like a cravat. He held a large sun hat in one hand. In the other he clasped the hand of the eminent Indian writer Sir R. V. Saraswati. Saraswati was dressed all in white, with his broad-brimmed hat on his head and an ostentatious cane in his free hand. The two of them were posed in a somewhat self-congratulatory manner, smiling broadly and looking for all the world as if they were about to pat each other roundly on the back or had just done so. The midday sun was out and bouncing off Dhaka University’s front steps, where the whole scene had been captured.

  Alsana inched a smear off the photo with her index finger. “You know Saraswati?”

  Irie nodded. Compulsory GCSE text: A Stitch in Time by R. V. Saraswati. A bittersweet tale of the last days of Empire.

  “Samad hates Saraswati, you understand. Calls him colonial-throwback, English licker-of-behinds.”

  Irie picked a paragraph at random from the letter and read aloud.

  As you can see, I was lucky enough to meet India’s very finest writer one bright day in March. After winning an essay competition (my title: “Bangladesh—To Whom May She Turn?”), I traveled to Dhaka to collect my prize (a certificate and a small cash reward) from the great man himself in a ceremony at the university. I am honored to say he took a liking to me and we spent a most pleasant afternoon together; a long, intimate tea followed by a stroll through Dhaka’s more appealing prospects. During our lengthy conversations Sir Saraswati commended my mind, and even went so far as to say (and I quote) that I was “a first-rate young man”—a comment I shall treasure! He suggested my future might lie in the law, the university, or even his own profession of the creative pen! I told him the first-mentioned vocation was closest to my heart and that it had long been my intention to make the Asian countries sensible places, where order prevailed, disaster was prepared for, and a young boy was in no danger from a falling vase (!) New laws, new stipulations, are required (I told him) to deal with our unlucky fate, the natural disaster. But then he corrected me: “Not fate,” he said. “Too often we Indians, we Bengalis, we Pakistanis, throw up our hands and cry ‘Fate!’ in the face of history. But many of us are uneducated, many of us do not understand the world. We must be more like the English. The English fight fate to the death. They do not listen to history unless it is telling them what they wish to hear. We say ‘It had to be!’ It does not have to be. Nothing does.” In one afternoon I learned more from this great man than—

  “He learns nothing!”

  Samad marched back into the kitchen in a fury and threw the kettle on the stove. “He learns nothing from a man who knows nothing! Where is his beard? Where is hi
s khamise? Where is his humility? If Allah says there will be storm, there will be storm. If he says earthquake, it will be earthquake. Of course it has to be! That is the very reason I sent the child there—to understand that essentially we are weak, that we are not in control. What does Islam mean? What does the word, the very word, mean? I surrender. I surrender to God. I surrender to him. This is not my life, this is his life. This life I call mine is his to do with what he will. Indeed, I shall be tossed and turned on the wave, and there shall be nothing to be done. Nothing! Nature itself is Muslim, because it obeys the laws the creator has ingrained in it.”

  “Don’t you preach in this house, Samad Miah! There are places for that sort of thing. Go to mosque, but don’t do it in the kitchen, people have to be eating in here—”

  “But we, we do not automatically obey. We are tricky, we are the tricky bastards, we humans. We have the evil inside us, the free will. We must learn to obey. That is what I sent the child Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal to discover. Tell me, did I send him to have his mind poisoned by a Rule-Britannia-worshiping Hindu old queen?”

  “Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe not.”

  “Don’t, Alsi, I warn you—”

  “Oh, go on, you old pot-boiler!” Alsana gathered her spare tires around her like a sumo wrestler. “You say we have no control, yet you always try to control everything! Let go, Samad Miah. Let the boy go. He is second generation—he was born here—naturally he will do things differently. You can’t plan everything. After all, what is so awful?—so he’s not training to be an Alim, but he’s educated, he’s clean!”

  “And is that all you ask of your son? That he be clean?”

  “Maybe, Samad Miah, maybe—”

  “And don’t speak to me of second generation! One generation! Indivisible! Eternal!”

  Somewhere in the midst of this argument, Irie slipped out of the kitchen and headed for the front door. She caught an unfortunate glimpse of herself in the scratch and stain of the hall mirror. She looked like the love child of Diana Ross and Engelbert Humperdinck.

  “You have to let them make their own mistakes . . .” came Alsana’s voice from the heat of battle, traveling through the cheap wood of the kitchen door and into the hallway, where Irie stood, facing her own reflection, busy tearing out somebody else’s hair with her bare hands.

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