White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “You are Mr. Chalfen.”

  Meeting minds. Marcus lifted his head to look at the tall young man standing in front of him. It was Millat’s face, certainly, but it was cleaner cut, and somewhat younger in appearance. The eyes were not so violet, or at least not so violently violet. The hair was floppy in the English public school style, and brushed forward. The form was ever so thickly set and healthy. Marcus was no good on clothes, but he could say at least that they were entirely white and that the overall impression was of good materials, well made and soft. And he was handsome, even Marcus could see that. What he lacked in the Byronic charisma of his brother, he seemed to gain in nobility, with a sturdier chin and a dignified jaw. These were all needles in haystacks, however, these were the differences you notice only because the similarity is so striking. They were twins from their broken noses to their huge, ungainly feet. Marcus was conscious of a very faint feeling of disappointment that this was so. But superficial exteriors aside, there was no doubting, Marcus thought, who this boy Magid truly resembled. Hadn’t Magid spotted Marcus from a crowd of many? Hadn’t they recognized each other, just now, at a far deeper, fundamental level? Not twinned like cities or the two halves of a randomly split ovum, but twinned like each side of an equation: logically, essentially, inevitably. As rationalists are wont, Marcus abandoned rationalism for a moment in the face of the sheer wonder of the thing. This instinctive meeting at gate 32 (Magid had strode across the floor and walked directly to him), finding each other like this in a great swell of people, five hundred at least: what were the chances? It seemed as unlikely as the feat of the sperm who conquer the blind passage toward the egg. As magical as that egg splitting in two. Magid and Marcus. Marcus and Magid.

  “Yes! Magid! We finally meet! I feel as if I know you already—well, I do, but then again I don’t—but, bloody hell, how did you know it was me?”

  Magid’s face grew radiant and revealed a lopsided smile of much angelic charm. “Well, Marcus, my dear man, you are the only white fellow at gate 32.”

  The return of Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim shook the houses of Iqbal, Jones, and Chalfen considerably. “I don’t recognize him,” said Alsana to Clara in confidence, after he had spent a few days at home. “There is something peculiar about him. When I told him Millat was in Chester, he did not say a word. Just a stiff upper lip. He hasn’t seen his brother in eight years. But not a little squeak, not a whisperoo. Samad says this is some clone, this is not an Iqbal. One hardly likes to touch him. His teeth, he brushes them six times a day. His underwear, he irons them. It is like sitting down to breakfast with David Niven.”

  Joyce and Irie viewed the new arrival with equal suspicion. They had loved the one brother so well and thoroughly for so many years, and now suddenly this new, yet familiar face; like switching on your favorite TV soap only to find a beloved character slyly replaced by another actor with a similar haircut. For the first few weeks they simply did not know what to make of him. As for Samad, if he had had his way, he would have hidden the boy forever, locked him under the stairs or sent him to Greenland. He dreaded the inevitable visits of all his relatives (the ones he had boasted to, all the tribes who had worshiped at the altar of the framed photograph) when they caught an eye-load of this Iqbal the younger, with his bow ties and his Adam Smith and his E. M. bloody Forster and his atheism! The only upside was the change in Alsana. The A–Z? Yes, Samad Miah, it is in the top right-hand drawer, yes, that’s where it is, yes. The first time she did it, he almost jumped out of his skin. The curse was lifted. No more maybe, Samad Miah, no more possibly, Samad Miah. Yes, yes, yes. No, no, no. The fundamentals. It was a blessed relief, but it wasn’t enough. His sons had failed him. The pain was excruciating. He shuffled through the restaurant with his eyes to the ground. If aunts and uncles phoned, he deflected questions or simply lied. Millat? He is in Birmingham, working in the mosque, yes, renewing his faith. Magid? Yes, he is marrying soon, yes, a very good young man, wants a lovely Bengali girl, yes, upholder of traditions, yes.

  So. First came the musical chairs living arrangements, as everybody shifted one place to the right or left. Millat returned at the beginning of October. Thinner, fully bearded, and quietly determined not to see his twin on political, religious, and personal grounds. “If Magid stays,” said Millat (De Niro, this time), “I go.” And because Millat looked thin and tired and wild-eyed, Samad said Millat could stay, which left no other option but for Magid to stay with the Chalfens (much to Alsana’s chagrin) until the situation could be resolved. Joshua, furious at being displaced in his parents’ affections by yet another Iqbal, went to the Joneses’, while Irie, though ostensibly having returned to her family home (on the concession of a “year off”), spent all her time at the Chalfens’, organizing Marcus’s affairs so as to earn money for her two bank accounts (Amazon Jungle Summer ’93 and Jamaica 2000), often working deep into the night and sleeping on the couch.

  “The children have left us, they are abroad,” said Samad over the phone to Archie, in so melancholy a fashion that Archie suspected he was quoting poetry. “They are strangers in strange lands.”

  “They’ve run to the bloody hills, more like,” replied Archie grimly. “I tell you, if I had a penny for every time I’ve seen Irie in the past few months . . .”

  He’d have about ten pence. She was never home. Irie was stuck between a rock and a hard place, like Ireland, like Israel, like India. A no-win situation. If she stayed home, there was Joshua berating her about her involvement with Marcus’s mice. Arguments she had no answer for, nor any stomach: should living organisms be patented? Is it right to plant pathogens in animals? Irie didn’t know and so, with her father’s instincts, shut her mouth and kept her distance. But if she was at the Chalfens’, working away at what had become a full-time summer job, she had to deal with Magid. Here, the situation was impossible. Her work for Marcus, which had begun nine months earlier as a little light filing, had increased sevenfold; the recent interest in Marcus’s work meant she was required to deal with the calls of the media, sackfuls of post, organize appointments; her pay had likewise increased to that of a secretary. But that was the problem, she was a secretary, whereas Magid was a confidant, an apprentice and disciple, accompanying Marcus on trips, observing him in the laboratory. The golden child. The chosen one. Not only was he brilliant, but he was charming. Not only was he charming, but he was generous. For Marcus, he was an answer to prayers. Here was a boy who could weave the most beautiful moral defenses with a professionalism that belied his years, who helped Marcus formulate arguments he would not have had the patience to do alone. It was Magid who encouraged him out of the laboratory, taking him by the hand squinting into the sunlit world where people were calling for him. People wanted Marcus and his mouse, and Magid knew how to give it to them. If the New Statesman needed two thousand words on the patent debate, Magid would write while Marcus spoke, translating his words into elegant English, turning the bald statements of a scientist uninterested in moral debates into the polished arguments of a philosopher. If Channel 4 News wanted an interview, Magid explained how to sit, how to move one’s hands, how to incline one’s head. All this from a boy who had spent the greater proportion of his life in the Chittagong Hills, without television or newspaper. Marcus—even though he had a lifelong hatred of the word, even though he hadn’t used it since his own father clipped his ear for it when he was three—was tempted to call it a miracle. Or, at the very least, extremely fortuitous. The boy was changing his life and that was extremely fortuitous. For the first time in his life, Marcus was prepared to concede faults in himself—small ones, mind—but still . . . faults. He had been too insular, perhaps, perhaps. He had been aggressive toward public interest in his work, perhaps, perhaps. He saw room for change. And the genius of it, the masterstroke, was that Magid never for a moment let Marcus feel that Chalfenism was being compromised in any way whatsoever. His expressed his undying affection and admiration for it every day. All Magid wanted to do, he explai
ned to Marcus, was bring Chalfenism to the people. And you had to give the people what they wanted in a form they could understand. There was something so sublime in the way he said it, so soothing, so true, that Marcus, who would have spat on such an argument six months before, gave in without protest.

  “There’s room for one more chap this century,” Magid told him (this guy was a master in flattery), “Freud, Einstein, Crick and Watson . . . There is an empty seat, Marcus. The bus is not quite full capacity. Ding! Ding! Room for one more . . .”

  And you can’t beat that for an offer. You can’t fight it. Marcus and Magid. Magid and Marcus. Nothing else mattered. The two of them were oblivious to the upset they caused Irie, or to the widespread displacement, the strange seismic ripples, that their friendship had set off in everyone else. Marcus had pulled out, like Mountbatten from India, or a satiated teenage boy from his latest mate. He abrogated responsibility, for everything and everybody—Chalfens, Iqbals, and Joneses—everything and everyone bar Magid and his mice. All others were fanatics. And Irie bit her tongue because Magid was good, and Magid was kind, and Magid walked through the house in white. But like all manifestations of the Second Coming, all saints, saviors, and gurus, Magid Iqbal was also, in Neena’s eloquent words, a first-class, 100 percent, bona fide, total and utter pain in the arse. A typical conversation:

  “Irie, I am confused.”

  “Not right now, Magid, I’m on the phone.”

  “I don’t wish to take from your valuable time, but it is a matter of some urgency. I am confused.”

  “Magid, could you just—”

  “You see. Joyce very kindly bought me these jeans. They are called Levi’s.”

  “Look, could I call you back? Right . . . OK . . . Bye. What, Magid? That was an important call. What is it?”

  “So you see I have these beautiful American Levi jeans, white jeans, that Joyce’s sister brought back from a holiday in Chicago, the Windy City they call it, though I don’t believe there is anything particularly unusual about its climate, considering its proximity to Canada. My Chicago jeans. Such a thoughtful gift! I was overwhelmed to receive them. But then I was confused by this label in the inner lining that states that the jeans are apparently ‘shrink-to-fit.’ I asked myself, what can this mean: ‘shrink-to-fit’?”

  “They shrink until they fit, Magid. That would be my guess.”

  “But Joyce was percipient enough to buy them in precisely the right size, you see? A 32, 34.”

  “All right, Magid, I don’t want to see them. I believe you. So don’t shrink them.”

  “That was my original conclusion, also. But it appears there is no separate procedure for shrinking them. If one washes the jeans, they will simply shrink.”


  “And you appreciate at some juncture the jeans will require washing?”

  “What’s your point, Magid?”

  “Well, do they shrink by some precalculated amount, and if so, by how much? If the amount was not correct, they would open themselves up to a great deal of litigation, no? It is no good if they shrink-to-fit, after all, if they do not shrink-to-fit me. There is another possibility, as Jack suggested, that they shrink to the contours of the body. Yet how can such a thing be possible?”

  “Well, why don’t you get in the fucking bath with the fucking jeans on and see what happens?”

  But you couldn’t upset Magid with words. He turned the other cheek. Sometimes hundreds of times a day, like a lollipop lady on Ecstasy. He had this way of smiling at you, neither wounded nor angry, and then inclining his head (to the exact same angle his father did when taking an order for curried prawns) in a gesture of total forgiveness. He had absolute empathy for everybody, Magid. And it was an unbelievable pain in the arse.

  “Umm, I didn’t mean to . . . Oh shit. Sorry. Look . . . I don’t know . . . you’re just so . . . have you heard from Millat?”

  “My brother shuns me,” said Magid, that same expression of universal calm and forgiveness unchanged. “He marks me like Cain because I am a nonbeliever. At least not in his god or any others with a name. Because of this, he refuses to meet me, even to talk on the telephone.”

  “Oh, you know, he’ll probably come round. He always was a stubborn bastard.”

  “Of course, yes, you love him,” continued Magid, not giving Irie a chance to protest. “So you know his habits, his manners. You will understand, then, how fiercely he takes my conversion. I have converted to Life. I see his god in the millionth position of pi, in the arguments of the Phaedrus, in a perfect paradox. But that is not enough for Millat.”

  Irie looked him square in the face. There was something in there she had been unable to put her finger on these four months, because it was obscured by his youth, his looks, his clean clothes, and his personal hygiene. Now she saw it clearly. He was touched by it—the same as Mad Mary, the Indian with the white face and the blue lips, and the guy who carried his wig around on a piece of string. The same as those people who walk the Willesden streets with no intention of buying Black Label beer or stealing a stereo, collecting the dole or pissing in an alleyway. The ones with a wholly different business. Prophecy. And Magid had it in his face. He wanted to tell you and tell you and tell you.

  “Millat demands complete surrender.”

  “Sounds typical.”

  “He wants me to join Keepers of the Eternal and—”

  “Yeah, KEVIN, I know them. So you have spoken to him.”

  “I don’t need to speak to him to know what he thinks. He is my twin. I don’t wish to see him. I don’t need to. Do you understand the nature of twins? Do you understand the meaning of the word cleave? Or rather, the double meaning that—”

  “Magid. No offense, but I’ve got work to do.”

  Magid gave a little bow. “Naturally. You will excuse me, I have to go and submit my Chicago jeans to the experiment you proposed.”

  Irie gritted her teeth, picked up the phone, and redialed the number she had cut off. It was a journalist (it was always journalists these days), and she had something to read to him. She’d had a crash course in media relations since her exams, and dealing with them/it had taught her there was no point in trying to deal with each one separately. To give some unique point of view to the Financial Times and then to the Mirror and then to the Daily Mail was impossible. It was their job, not yours, to get the angle, to write their separate book of the huge media bible. Each to their own. Reporters were factional, fanatical, obsessively defending their own turf, propounding the same thing day after day. So it had always been. Who would have guessed that Luke and John would take such different angles on the scoop of the century, the death of the Lord? It just went to prove that you couldn’t trust these guys. Irie’s job, then, was to give the information as it stood, every time, verbatim from a piece of paper written by Marcus and Magid, stapled to the wall.

  “All right,” said the journo. “Tape’s running.”

  And here Irie stumbled at the first hurdle of PR: believing in what you sell. It wasn’t that she lacked the moral faith. It was more fundamental than that. She didn’t believe in it as a physical fact. She didn’t believe it existed. FutureMouse© was now such an enormous, spectacular, cartoon of an idea (in every paper’s column, agonized over by journos—Should it get a patent? Eulogized by hacks—Greatest achievement of the century?), one expected the damn mouse to stand up and speak by itself. Irie took a deep breath. Though she had repeated the words many times, they still seemed fantastical, absurd—fiction on the wings of fantasy—with more than a dash of Surrey T. Banks in them:


  Subject: Launch of FutureMouse©

  Professor Marcus Chalfen, writer, celebrated scientist, and leading figure of a group of research geneticists from St. Jude’s College, intends to “launch” his latest “design” in a public space; to increase understanding of transgenics and to raise interest and further investment in his work. The design will demonstrate the
sophistication of the work being done on gene manipulation and demystify this much-maligned branch of biological research. It will be accompanied by a full exhibition, a lecture hall, a multimedia area, and interactive games for children. It will be funded in part by the government’s Millennial Science Commission, with additional monies from business and industry.

  A two-week-old FutureMouse© is to be put on display at the Perret Institute in London on December 31, 1992. There it will remain on public display until December 31, 1999. This mouse is genetically normal except for a select group of novel genes that are added to the genome. A DNA clone of these genes is injected into the fertilized mouse egg, thus linking them to the chromosomal DNA in the zygote, which is subsequently inherited by cells of the resulting embryo. Before injection into the germ line, these genes are custom-designed so they can be “turned on” and expressed only in specific mouse tissue and along a predictable timetable. The mouse will be the site for an experiment into the aging of cells, the progression of cancer within cells, and a few other matters that will serve as surprises along the way!

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