White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “But Dawood is a plod!” Brother Hifan would argue vehemently. “I refer you to 52:44: If they saw a part of heaven falling down, they would still say: ‘It is but a mass of clouds!’ Mass of clouds? It is not a rock concert. At least with Rodwell there is some attempt to capture the poetry, the remarkable nature of the Arabic: And should they see a fragment of the heaven falling down, they would say, ‘It is only a dense cloud.’ Fragment, dense—the effect is far stronger, accha?”

  And then, haltingly, Mo Hussein-Ishmael: “I am just a butcher-stroke-cornershop-owner. I can’t claim to know much about it. But I like very much this last line; it is Rodwell . . . er, I think, yes, Rodwell. 52:49: And in the night-season: Praise him when the stars are setting. Night-season. I think that is a lovely phrase. It sounds like an Elvis ballad. Much better than the other one, the Pickthall one: And in the night-time also hymn His praise, and at the setting of the stars. Night-season is very much lovelier.”

  “And is this what we are here for?” Millat had yelled at all of them. “Is this what we joined KEVIN for? To take no action? To sit around on our arses playing with words?”

  But Plan B stuck, and here they were, whizzing past Finchley Road, heading to Trafalgar Square to carry it out. And this was why Millat was stoned. To give him enough guts to do something else.

  “I stand firm,” said Millat, in Shiva’s ear, slurring his words, “that is what we’re here for. To stand firm. That is why I joined. Why did you join?”

  Well, in fact Shiva had joined KEVIN for three reasons. First, because he was sick of the stick that comes with being the only Hindu in a Bengali Muslim restaurant. Second, because being Head of Internal Security for KEVIN beat the hell out of being second waiter at the Palace. And third, for the women. (Not the KEVIN women, who were beautiful but chaste in the extreme, but all the women on the outside who had despaired of his wild ways and were now hugely impressed by his new asceticism. They loved the beard, they dug the hat, and told Shiva that at thirty-eight he had finally ceased to be a boy. They were massively attracted by the fact that he had renounced women and the more he renounced them, the more successful he became. Of course this equation could only work so long, and now Shiva was getting more pussy than he ever had as a kaffir.) However, Shiva sensed that the truth was not what was required here, so he said: “To do my duty.”

  “Then we are on the same wavelength, Brother Shiva,” said Millat, going to pat Shiva’s knee but just missing it. “The only question is: will you do it?”

  “Pardon me, mate,” said Shiva, removing Millat’s arm from where it had fallen between his legs. “But I think, taking into account your . . . umm . . . present condition . . . the question is, will you?”

  Now there was a question. Millat was half sure that he was possibly maybe going to do something or not that would be correct and very silly and fine and un-good.

  “Mill, we’ve got a Plan B,” persisted Shiva, watching the clouds of doubt cross Millat’s face. “Let’s just go with Plan B, yeah? No point in causing trouble. Man. You are just like your dad. Classic Iqbal. Can’t let things go. Can’t let sleeping cats die or whatever the fuck the phrase is.”

  Millat turned from Shiva and looked at his feet. He had been more certain when he began, imagining the journey as one cold sure dart on the Jubilee Line: Willesden Green Æ Charing Cross, no changing of trains, not this higgledy-piggledy journey; just a straight line to Trafalgar, and then he would climb the stairs into the square, and come face-to-face with his great-great-grandfather’s enemy, Henry Havelock on his plinth of pigeon-shat stone. He would be emboldened by it; and he would enter the Perret Institute with revenge and revisionism in his mind and lost glory in his heart and he would and he would and he

  “I think,” said Millat, after a pause, “I am going to vomit.”

  “Baker Street!” cried Abdul-Jimmy. And with the discreet aid of Shiva, Millat crossed the platform to the connecting train.

  Twenty minutes later the Bakerloo Line delivered them into the icy cold of Trafalgar Square. In the distance, Big Ben. In the square, Nelson. Havelock. Napier. George IV. And then the National Gallery, back there near St. Martin’s. All the statues facing the clock.

  “They do love their false icons in this country,” said Abdul-Colin, with his odd mix of gravity and satire, unmoved by the considerable New Year crowd who were presently spitting at, dancing round, and crawling over the many lumps of gray stone. “Now, will somebody please tell me: what is it about the English that makes them build their statues with their backs to their culture and their eyes on the time?” He paused to let the shivering KEVIN Brothers contemplate the rhetorical question.

  “Because they look to their future to forget their past. Sometimes you almost feel sorry for them, you know?” he continued, turning full circle to look around at the inebriated crowd.

  “They have no faith, the English. They believe in what men make, but what men make crumbles. Look at their empire. This is all they have. Charles II Street and South Africa House and a lot of stupid-looking stone men on stone horses. The sun rises and sets on it in twelve hours, no trouble. This is what is left.”

  “I’m bloody cold,” complained Abdul-Jimmy, clapping his mittened hands together (he found his uncle’s speeches a big pain in the arse). “Let’s get going,” he said, as a huge beer-pregnant Englishman, wet from the fountains, collided into him, “out of this bloody madness. It’s on Chandos Street.”

  “Brother?” said Abdul-Colin to Millat, who was standing some distance from the rest of the group. “Are you ready?”

  “I’ll be along in a minute.” He shooed them away weakly. “Don’t worry, I’ll be there.”

  There were two things he wanted to see first. The first of which was a particular bench, that bench over there, by the far wall. He walked over to it, a long, stumbling journey, trying to avoid an unruly conga line (so much hashish in his head; lead weights on each foot); but he made it. He sat down. And there it was.

  Five-inch letters, between one leg of the bench and the other. iqbal. It wasn’t clear, and the color of it was a murky rust, but it was there. The story of it was old.

  A few months after his father arrived in England, he had sat on this bench nursing a bleeding thumb, the top sliced off by a careless, doddering stroke from one of the older waiters. When it first happened, in the restaurant, Samad couldn’t feel it because it was his dead hand. So he just wrapped it in a handkerchief to stem the flow and continued work. But the material had become soaked in blood, he was putting the customers off their food and eventually Ardashir sent him home. Samad took his open thumb out of the restaurant, past theaterland, and down St. Martin’s Lane. When he reached the square he stuck it in the fountain and watched his red insides spill out into the blue water. But he was making a mess and people were looking. He resolved instead to sit on the bench, gripping his thumb at the root until it stopped bleeding. But the blood kept on coming. After a while, he gave up holding his thumb upright and let it hang down to the floor like halal meat, hoping it would quicken the bleeding process. Then, with his head between his legs, and his thumb leaking onto the pavement, a primitive impulse had come over him. Slowly, with the dribbling blood, he wrote iqbal from one bench leg to the next. Then, in an attempt to make it more permanent, he had gone over it again with a penknife, scratching it into the stone.

  “A great shame washed over me the moment I finished,” he explained to his sons years later. “I ran from it into the night; I tried to run from myself. I knew I had been depressed in this country . . . but this was different. I ended up clinging on to the railings in Piccadilly Circus, kneeling and praying, weeping and praying, interrupting the buskers. Because I knew what it meant, this deed. It meant I wanted to write my name on the world. It meant I presumed. Like the Englishmen who named streets in Kerala after their wives, like the Americans who shoved their flag in the moon. It was a warning from Allah. He was saying: Iqbal, you are becoming like them. That’s what it meant.”
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  No, thought Millat, the first time he heard this, no, that’s not what it meant. It just meant you’re nothing. And looking at it now, Millat felt nothing but contempt. All his life he wanted a Godfather, and all he got was Samad. A faulty, broken, stupid, one-handed waiter of a man who had spent eighteen years in a strange land and made no more mark than this. It just means you’re nothing, repeated Millat, working his way through the premature vomit (girls drinking doubles since three o’clock) over to Havelock, to look Havelock in his stony eye. It means you’re nothing and he’s something. And that’s it. That’s why Pande hung from a tree while Havelock the executioner sat on a chaise longue in Delhi. Pande was no one and Havelock was someone. No need for library books and debates and reconstructions. Don’t you see, Abba? whispered Millat. That’s it. That’s the long, long history of us and them. That’s how it was. But no more.

  Because Millat was here to finish it. To revenge it. To turn that history around. He liked to think he had a different attitude, a second-generation attitude. If Marcus Chalfen was going to write his name all over the world, Millat was going to write his BIGGER. There would be no misspelling his name in the history books. There’d be no forgetting the dates and times. Where Pande misfooted he would step sure. Where Pande chose A, Millat would choose B.

  Yes, Millat was stoned. And it may be absurd to us that one Iqbal can believe the breadcrumbs laid down by another Iqbal, generations before him, have not yet blown away in the breeze. But it really doesn’t matter what we believe. It seems it won’t stop the man who thinks this life is guided by the life he thinks he had before, or the gypsy who swears by the queens in her tarot pack. And it’s hard to change the mind of the high-strung woman who lays responsibility for all her actions at the feet of her mother, or the lonely guy who sits in a folding chair on a hill in the dead of night waiting for the little green men. Amid the strange landscapes that have replaced our belief in the efficacy of the stars, Millat’s is not such odd terrain. He believes the decisions that are made, come back. He believes we live in circles. His is a simple, neat fatalism. What goes around comes around.

  “Ding, ding,” said Millat out loud, tapping Havelock’s foot, before turning on his heel to make his hazy way to Chandos Street. “Round two.”

  December 31, 1992

  He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow

  Eccles. ch. 1, v. 18

  When Ryan Topps was asked to assemble the Lambeth Kingdom Hall’s Thought for the Day desk calendar for 1992, he took especial care to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. Too often in the past, Ryan noted, when the assembler came to choose quotations for entirely fatuous, secular days, he let sentiment get the better of him, so that on Valentine’s Day 1991 we find there is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, I John 4:18, as if John were thinking of the paltry feeling that prompts people to send each other chocolates and cheap teddy bears rather than the love of Jesus Christ, which nothing surpasseth. Ryan took very much the opposite approach. On a day like New Year’s Eve, for example, when everybody was running around making their New Year resolutions, assessing their past year, and plotting their success for the next, he felt it necessary to bring them to earth with a bump. He wanted to offer a little reminder that the world is cruel and pointless, all human endeavor ultimately meaningless, and no advancement in this world worth making besides gaining God’s favor and an entry ticket into the better half of the afterlife. And having completed the calendar the previous year and forgotten much of what he’d done, he was pleasantly surprised—when he ripped off the thirtieth and looked at the crisp white page of the thirty-first—at just how effective the reminder was. No thought could have been more apt for the day ahead. No warning more propitious. He ripped it from the calendar, squeezed it into the tight leather of his trousers, and told Mrs. B. to get in the sidecar.

  “He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster!” sang Mrs. B. as they zipped along Lambeth Bridge, heading for Trafalgar Square. “Let ’im in constancy follow de Master!”

  Ryan made sure to signal a good minute before turning left so that the Kingdom ladies in the minibus behind wouldn’t get confused. He made a quick mental inventory of the things he’d put in the van: songbooks, instruments, banners, Watchtower leaflets. All present and correct. They had no actual tickets, but they would make their protest outside, in the cold, suffering like true Christians. Praise be to God! What a glorious day! All portents were good. He even had a dream last night that Marcus Chalfen was the devil himself and they were standing nose to nose. Ryan had said: myself and yourself are at war. There can be only one winner. Then he had quoted the same piece of scripture at him (he couldn’t recall precisely what it was now, but it was something from Revelation) over and over and over again, until the devil/Marcus had become smaller and smaller, grown ears and a long forked tail, and finally scurried away, a tiny satanic mouse. As in this vision, so it would be in life. Ryan would remain unbending, unmoving, absolutely constant, and, in the end, the sinner would repent.

  That was how Ryan approached all theological, practical, and personal conflicts. He didn’t move, not an inch. But then, that had always been his talent; he had a mono-intelligence, an ability to hold on to a single idea with phenomenal tenacity, and he never found anything that suited it as well as the church of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ryan thought in black and white. The problem with his antecedent passions—scootering and pop music—was there were always shades of gray (though possibly the two closest things in secular life to a Witness preacher are boys who send letters to the New Musical Express and those enthusiasts who pen articles for Scooters Today). There were always the difficult questions of whether one should dilute one’s appreciation of the Kinks with a little Small Faces, or whether Italy or Germany were the best manufacturers of spare engine parts. That life seemed so alien to him now he hardly remembered living it. He pitied those who suffered under the weight of such doubts and dilemmas. He pitied Parliament as he and Mrs. B. scooted past it; he pitied it because the laws made in there were provisional where his were eternal . . .

  “There’s no discouragement shall make ’im once relent, his first avowed intent, to be a pilgrim!” trilled Mrs. B. “Who so beset ’im round with dismal stories . . . do but themselves confound—’is strength the more is . . .”

  He relished it. He relished standing nose to nose with evil and saying, “You yourself: prove it to me. Go on, prove it.” He felt he needed no arguments like the Muslims or the Jews. No convoluted proofs or defenses. Just his faith. And nothing rational can fight faith. If Star Wars—secretly Ryan’s favorite film—The Good! The Evil! The Force! So simple. So true—is truly the sum of all archaic myths and the purest allegory of life (as Ryan believed it was), then faith, unadulterated, ignorant faith, is the biggest fuck-off light saber in the universe. Go on, prove it. He did that every Sunday on the doorsteps and he would do precisely the same to Marcus Chalfen. Prove to me that you are right. Prove to me that you are more right than God. Nothing on earth would do it. Because Ryan didn’t believe or care about anything on earth.

  “We almost there?”

  Ryan squeezed Mrs. B.’s frail hand and sped across the Strand, then wound his way round the back of the National Gallery.

  “No foes shall stay ’is might; though he with giants fight, he will make good ’is right to be a pilgrim!”

  Well said, Mrs. B.! The right to be a pilgrim! Who does not presume and yet inherits the earth! The right to be right, to teach others, to be just at all times because God has ordained that you will be, the right to go into strange lands and alien places and talk to the ignorant, confident that you speak nothing but the truth. The right to be always right. So much better than the rights he once held dear: the right to liberty, freedom of expression, sexual freedom, the right to smoke pot, the right to party, the right to ride a scooter sixty-five miles an hour on a main road without a helmet. So much more than all those, Ryan could claim. He exercised a right so rare, at thi
s the fag-end of the century, as to be practically obsolete. The most fundamental right of all. The right to be the good guy.

  On: 31/12/1992

  London Transport Buses

  Route 98

  From: Willesden Lane

  To: Trafalgar Square

  At: 17:35

  Fare: Adult Single £0.70

  Retain Ticket for Inspection

  Cor (thought Archie) they don’t make ’em like they used to. That’s not to say they make them any worse. They just make them very, very different. So much information. The minute you tore one from the perforation you felt stuffed and pinned down by some all-seeing taxidermist, you felt freeze-framed in time, you felt caught. Didn’t used to be, Archie remembered. Many years ago he had a cousin, Bill, who worked the old 32 route through Oxford Street. Good sort, Bill. Smile and a nice word for everyone. Used to tear off a ticket from one of those chug-chug big-handled mechanical things (and where have they gone? Where’s the smudgy ink?) on the sly, like; no money passed over; there you go, Arch. That was Bill, always helping you out. Anyway, those tickets, the old ones, they didn’t tell you where you were going, much less where you came from. He couldn’t remember seeing any dates on them either, and there was certainly no mention of time. It was all different now, of course. All this information. Archie wondered why that was. He tapped Samad on the shoulder. He was sitting directly ahead of him, in the front seat of the top deck. Samad turned round, glanced at the ticket he was being shown, listened to the question, and gave Archie a funny look.

  “What is it, precisely, that you want to know?”

  He looked a bit testy. Everyone was a little testy right now. There’d been a bit of a ding-dong earlier in the afternoon. Neena had demanded that they all go to the mouse thing, seeing as how Irie was involved and Magid was involved and the least they could do was go and support family because whatever they thought of it a lot of work had gone into it and young people need affirmation from their parents and she was going to go even if they weren’t and it was a pretty poor show if family couldn’t turn up for their big day and . . . well, it went on and on. And then the emotional fallout. Irie burst into tears (what was wrong with Irie? She was always a bit weepy these days), Clara accused Neena of emotional blackmail, Alsana said she’d go if Samad went, and Samad said he’d spent New Year’s Eve at O’Connell’s for eighteen years and he wasn’t going to stop now. Archie, for his part, said he was buggered if he was going to listen to this racket all evening—he’d rather sit on a quiet hill by himself. They’d all looked at him queerly when he said that. Little did they know he was taking prophetic advice he’d received from Ibelgaufts the day before:

 
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