"White Teeth"

An excerpt from one of Salon's 10 favorite books of 2000.


Zadie Smith
December 18, 2000 10:34PM (UTC)

Their final evening in the village was absolutely dark, silent. The muggy air made it unpleasant to smoke, so Archie and Samad tapped their fingers on the cold stone steps of a church, for lack of other hand-employment. For a moment, in the twilight, Archie forgot the war that had actually ceased to exist anyway. A past tense, future perfect kind of night.

It was while they were still innocent of peace, during this last night of ignorance, that Samad decided to cement his friendship with Archie. Often this is done by passing on a singular piece of information: some sexual peccadillo, some emotional secret or obscure hidden passion that the reticence of new acquaintance has prevented being spoken. But for Samad, nothing was closer or meant more to him than his blood. It was natural, then as they sat on holy ground, that he should speak of what was holy to him. And there was no stronger evocation of the blood that ran through him, and the ground which that blood had stained over the centuries, than the story of his great-grandfather. So Samad told Archie the much neglected, hundred-year-old, mildewed yarn of Mangal Pande.

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"So, he was your grandfather?" said Archie, after the tale had been told, the moon had passed behind the clouds, and he had been suitably impressed. "Your real, blood grandfather?"

"Great-grandfather."

"Well, that is something. Do you know: I remember it from school -- I do -- History of the Colonies, Mr. Juggs. Bald, bug-eyed, nasty old duffer -- Mr. Juggs, I mean, not your grandfather. Got the message through, though, even if it took a ruler to the back of your hand ... You know, you still hear people in the regiments calling each other Pandies, you know, if the bloke's a bit of a rebel ... I never thought where it came from ... . Pande was the rebel, didn't like the English, shot the first bullet of the Mutiny. I remember it now, clear as a bell. And that was your grandfather!"

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"Great-grandfather."

"Well, well. That's something, isn't it?" said Archie, placing his hands behind his head and lying back to look at the stars. "To have a bit of history in your blood like that. Motivates you, I'd imagine. I'm a Jones, you see. 'Slike a 'Smith.' We're nobody ... My father used to say: 'We're the chaff, boy, we're the chaff.' Not that I've ever been much bothered, mind. Proud all the same, you know. Good honest English stock. But in your family you had a hero!"

Samad puffed up with pride. "Yes, Archibald, that is exactly the word. Naturally, you will get these petty English academics trying to discredit him, because they cannot bear to give an Indian his due. But he was a hero and every act I have undertaken in this war has been in the shadow of his example."

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"That's true, you know," said Archie thoughtfully. "They don't speak well about Indians back home; they certainly wouldn't like it if you said an Indian was a hero ... everybody would look at you a bit funny."

Suddenly Samad grabbed his hand. It was hot, almost fevered, Archie thought. He'd never had another man grab his hand; his first instinct was to move or punch him or something, but then he reconsidered because Indians were emotional, weren't they? All that spicy food and that.

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"Please. Do me this one, great favor, Jones. If you ever hear anyone, when you are back home -- if you, if we, get back to our respective homes -- if ever you hear anyone speak of the East," and here his voice plummeted a register, and the tone was full and sad, "hold your judgment. If you are told 'they are all this' or 'they do this' or 'their opinions are these,' withhold your judgment until all the facts are upon you. Because that land they call 'India' goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same among that multitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight."

-- From "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith. ) 2000 Zadie Smith. Used by permission, all rights reserved.

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