Sunday, 25 January 2009
Hilarious insights into Bengali-British, Afro-Carribean British and English life by a 25 year old Zadie Smith. Often would I break out into laughter on the underground reading this novel.
'He thought of his wife, Alsana, who was not as meek as he had assumed when they married, to whom he must deliver the bad news; Alsana, who was prone to moments, even fits - yes, fits was not too strong a word - of rage. Cousins, aunts, brothers, thought it a bad sign, they worried if there wasn't some 'funny mental history' in Alsana's family, they sympathised with him the way you sympathise with a man who has bought a stolen car with more mileage on it than first thought. In his naivety Samad had simply assumed a woman so young would be . . . easy. But Alsana was not . . . no, she was not easy. It was, he supposed, the way with these young women these days. Archie's bride . . . last Tuesday he had seen something in her eyes that wasn't easy either. It was the new way with these women.'
'Put your hand down.'
'I will not put it down.'
'Put it down, please.'
'Let go of me.'
'Samad, why are you so eager to mortify me? Put it down.'
'I have an opinion. I have a right to an opinion. And I have a right to express that opinion.'
'Yes, but do you have to express it so often?'
This was the hissed exchange between Samad and Alsana Iqbal, as they sat at the back of a Wednesday school governors meeting in early July '84, Alsana trying her best to force Samad's determined left arm back to his side.
'Get off, woman!'
Alsana put her two tiny hands to his wrist and tried applying a Chinese burn. 'Samad Miah, can't you understand that I am only trying to save you from yourself?'
As the covert wrestling continued, the chairwoman Katie Miniver, a lanky white divorcee with tight jeans [ . . . ] tried desperately to avoid Samad's eye. [ . . . ] In between nodding at Mrs Hanson, she snatched a surreptitious glance at the minutes which the secretary, Mrs Khilnani, was scribbling away on her left. She wanted to check that it was not her imagination, that she was not being unfair or undemocratic, or worse still racist. [ . . . ] Any random extract highlighted the problem:
13.0 Mrs Janet Trott wishes to propose a second climbing frame be built in the playground to accomodate the large number of children who enjoy the present climbing frame but unfortunately have made it a safety risk through dangerous overcrowding. Mrs Trott's husband, the architect Hanover Trott, is willing to design and oversee the building of such a frame at no cost to the school.
13.1 Chairwoman can see no objection. Moves to put the proposition to a vote.
13.2 Mr Iqbal wishes to know why the Western education system privileges activity of the body over activity of the mind and soul.
13.3 The chairwoman wonders if this is quite relevant.
13.4 Mr Iqbal demands the vote be delayed until he can present a paper detailing the main arguments and emphasises that his sons, Magid and Millat, get all the exercise they need via headstands that strengthen the muscles and send blood to stimulate the somatosensory cortex in the brain.
13.5 Mrs Wolfe asks whether Mr Iqbal expects her Susan to undertake compulsory headstands.
13.6 Mr Iqbal infers that, considering Susan's academic performance and weight problems, a headstand regime may be desirable.
[Samad Iqbal is recognised by Katie Miniver and asks to make a motion]
'It's just . . . it's Ms Miniver. All evening you've been . . . and it's umm . . . actually not Mrs. It's Ms. Ms.'
Samad looked quizzically at Katie Miniver, then at his papers as if to find the answer there, then at the beleagured chairwoman again.
'I'm sorry? You are not married?'
'Divorced, actually, yes, divorced. I'm keeping the name.'
'I see. You have my condolences, Miss Miniver. Now the matter I - '
'I'm sorry,' said Katie, pulling her fingers through her intractable hair. 'Umm, it's not Miss, either. I'm sorry. I have been married you see, so -'
Ellen Corcoran and Janine Lanzerano, two friends from the Women's Action Group, gave Katie a supportive smile. Ellen shook her head to indicate that Katie mustn't cry (because you're doing well, really well); Janine mouthed Go On and gave her a furtive thumbs up.
'I wouldn't feel comforta- I just feel marital status shouldn't be an issue - it's not that I want to embarass you, Mr Iqbal. I just would feel more - if you - it's Ms.'
'And this is some kind of linguistic conflation between the words Mrs and Miss?' asked Samad, genuinely curious and oblivious to the nether wobblings of Katie Miniver's bottom lip. 'Something to describe the woman who has either lost her husband or has no prospect of finding another?'
[ . . . Samad makes his motion and it is put to the vote.]
'Will anyone second it?'
Samad pressed Alsana's hand. She kicked him in the ankle. He stamped her on her toe. She pinched his flank. He bent back her little finger and she grudgingly raised her right arm while deftly elbowing him in the crotch with her left.
'Thank you, Mrs Iqbal,' said Mrs Owens, as Janice and Ellen looked over to her with the piteous, saddened smiles they reserved for subjagated Muslim women.
- - -
Masturbation recommenced in earnest. Those two months, between seeing the pretty red-haired music teacher once and seeing her again, were the longest, stickiest, smelliest, guiltiest fifty-six days of Samad's life. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he found himself suddenly accosted by some kind of synaesthetic fixation with the woman; hearing the colour of her hair in the mosque, smelling the touch of her hand on the tube, tasting her smile while innocently walking the streets on his way to work; and this in turn led to a knowledge of every public convenience in London, led to the kind of masturbation that even a fifteen-year-old boy living in the Shetlands might find excessive.
- - -Alibi done, three minutes were left for Samad to consider what an old man brings a young girl; something an old brown man brings a young white girl at the crossroads of four black streets; something suitable . . ."A coconut?"- -'OK, so Dateline wouldn't have matched our forms. So what?''What kind of phrase is this: "So what?" Is that English? That is not English. Only the immigrants can speak the Queen's English these days.'Poppy giggled. 'I still say: So-'But Samad covered her mouth with his hand, and looked for a moment almost as if he intended to hit her. 'So everything. So everything. There is nothing funny about this situation. There nothing good about it. I do not wish to discuss the rights or wrongs of this with you. Let us stick to what we are obviously here for,' he spat out. 'The physical, not the metaphysical.'Poppy moved to the other end of the bench and leant forward, her elbows resting on her knees. 'I know,' she began slowly, 'that this is no more than it is. But I won't be spoken to like that.''I am sorry. It was wrong of me - ''Just because you feel guilty, I've nothing to feel - ''Yes, I'm sorry. I have no - ''Because you can go if you - 'Half thoughts. Stick them all together and you have less than you began with.'I don't want to go. I want you.'Poppy brightened a bit and smiled her half-sad, half-goofy smile.'I want to spend the night . . . with you.''Good,' she replied. 'Because I bought this for you while you were next door buying those sugary sweets.''What is it?'[ . . . ]'A toothbrush.'- - -'No, Samad. Oh no. Oh no. I don't call myself anything. I don't make claims. You call yourself a Muslim. You make the deals with Allah. You are the one he will be talking to, come Mashar. You, Samad Miah. You, you, you.'Second round. Samad slapped Alsana. Alsana right hooked him in the stomach and then followed up with a blow to the left cheekbone. [Description of fight.] Around this time, the twins emerged half awake from their beds and stood at the long glass kitchen widow to watch the fight, while the neighbours' security lights came on, illuminating the Iqbal garden like a stadium.'Abba,' said Magid, after surveying the state of play for a moment. 'Definitely Abba.''Cha man. No way,' said Millat, blinking in the light. 'I bet you two orange lollies Amma's going to kick the shit out of him.''Oooooo!' cried the twins in unison, as if it were a firework display, and then, 'Aaaaaah!'Alsana had just ended the fight with a little help from the garden rake.'Now maybe some of us, who have to work in the morning can get a decent night's kip! Bloody Pakis,' shouted a neighbour.A few minutes later (because they always held each other after these fights, a hug somewhere between affection and collapse) Samad came in from the garden, still mildly concussed and said, 'Go to bed,' before brushing a hand through each son's thick black hair.- - -[ . . . ] but mainly their mission was to put the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaaaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani. People had fucked with Rajik back in the days when he was into chess and wore V-necks. People had fucked with Ranil, when he sat at the back of the class and carefully copied all teacher's comments into his book. People had fucked with Dipesh and Hifan when they wore traditional dress in the playground. People had even fucked with Millat, with his tight jeans and his white rock. But no one fucked with any of them any more becasue they looked like trouble [ . . . ] And they walked in a very particular way, the left side of their bodies assuming a kind of loose paralysis that needed carrying along by the right side [ . . . ]To be precise, Millat hadn't [Satanic Verses]. [ . . . ] But he knew other things. He knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelt of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people's jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state; or gave all the jobs to his relatives; that he could be a dentist or a shop-owner or a curry-shifter, but not a footballer or a film-maker; that he should go back to his own country; or stay here and earn his bloody keep; that he worshipped elephants and wore turbans; that no one who looked like Millat, or spoke like Millat, or felt like Millat was ever on the news unless they had recently been murdered. In short, he knew he had no face in this country, no voice in the country, until the week before last when suddenly people like Millat were on every channel and every radio and every newspaper and they were angry, and Millat recognised the anger, thought it recognised him, and grabbed it with both hands.- - -There have always been and always will be people who simply exude sex (who breathe it, who sweat it.) A few examples from thin air: the young Brando, Madonna, Cleopatra, Pam Grier, Valentino, a girl called Tamara who lives opposite the London Hippodrome, right slap in the middle of town; Imran Khan, Michaelangelo's David. You can't fight that kind of marvellous indiscriminate power, for it is not always symmetry or beauty per se that does it [ . . . ] and there are no means by which you can gain it. [ . . . ] And Millat had it. In spades.- - -'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.'- - -Joyce liked gay men. And they liked her. [ . . . ] So Joyce couldn't be homophobic. But gay women . . . something confused Joyce about gay women. It wasn't that she disliked them. She just couldn't comprehend them. Joyce understood why men would love men; she devoted her life to loving men, so she knew how it felt.- - -Joyce stood back for a minute, like an art critic in a gallery, and put her hands on her hips. 'I mean, after a while, you've got to suspect it's in the genes, haven't you? All these brains. I mean, nurture just won't explain it. I mean, will it?''Er, no,' agreed Clara. 'I guess not.''Now out of interest - I mean, I really am curious - which side do you think Irie gets it from, the Jamaican or the English?'Clara looked up and down the line of dead white men in starched collars, some monocled [ . . . ] They all reminded her a little of someone. Of her own grandfather, the dashing Captain Charlie Durham [ . . . ] The Bowden family called him Whitey. Djam fool bwoy taut he owned everyting he touched.'My side,' said Clara tentatively. 'I guess the English in my side. My grandfather was an Englishman, quite la di da, I've been told. [ . . . ]''Well, how fascinating! It's what I say to Marcus - it is the genes, whatever he says. He says I'm a simplifier, but he's just too theoretical. I'm proven right all the time!'As the front door closed behind her, Clara bit her own lip once more, this time in frustration and anger. Why had she said Captain Charlie Durham? That was a downright lie. False as her own white teeth. Clara was smarter than Captain Charlie Durham. Hortense was smarter than Captain Charlie Durham. Probably even Grandma Ambrosia was smarter than Captain Charlie Durham. Captain Charlie Durham wasn't smart. He had thought he was, but he wasn't. He sacrificed a thousand people because he wanted to save one woman he never really knew. Captain Charlie Durham was a no-good djam fool bwoy.- - -Marcus shrank back a little. His Chalfenist confidence was always less evident when he strayed abroad, away from the bosom of his family. He was a direct man who saw no point in asking anything other than the direction questions, but in recent years he had become aware that this directness did not always garner direct answers from strangers, as it did in his own small circle. In the outside world, outside of his college and home, one had to add things to speech. [ . . . ] You had to add things to your speech to make it more palatable. Niceties, throwaway phrases, pleases and thank yous.- - -' [ . . . ] who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil's pact . . . it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognisable, you belong nowhere.'- - -'Irie darling,' said Joyce, moving Irie along one chair and positioning herself next to the phone. 'What you never understand is that people are extreme. It would be wonderful if everyone was like your father, carrying on as normal even if the ceiling's coming down around his ears. But a lot of people can't do that.'- - -Involved. At least that was the right word, Alsana reflected, as she lifted her foot off the pedal, and let the wheel spin a few times alone before coming to a squeaky halt. Sometimes, here in England, especially at bus-stops and on the daytime soaps, you heard people say, 'We're involved with each other,' as if this were a most wonderful state to be in, as if one chose it and enjoyed it. Alsana never thought of it that way. Involved happened over a long period of time, pulling you in like quicksand. Involved is what behfell that moon-faced Alsana Begum and the handsome Samad Miah one week after they'd been pushed into a Delhi breakfast room together and informed they were to marry. Invovled was the result when Clara Bowden met Archie Jones at the bottom of some stairs. Invovled swallowed up a girl called Ambrosia and a boy called Charlie (yes, Clara had told her that sorry tale) the second they kissed in the larder of a guest house. Involved was neither good, nor bad. It is just a consequence of living, a consequence of occupation and immigration, of empires and expansion, of living in each other's pockets . . . one becomes involved and it is a long trek back to being uninvolved. And the woman was right, one didn't do it for one's health. Nothing this late in the century was done with health in mind. Alsana was no dummy when it came to teh Modern Condition. She watched the talk shows, all day long she watched the talk shows - My wife slept with my brother, My mother won't stay out of my boyfriend's life - and the microphone holder, whether it is a Tanned Man with White Teeth or Scary Married Couple, always asked the same damn silly question: But why do you feel the need . . . ? Wrong! Alsana had to explain it to them through the screen. You block-head; they are not wanting this, they are not willing it - they are just involved, see? They walk IN and they get trapped between the revolving doors of those two v's. Involved. The years pass, and the mess accumulates and here we are. Your brother's sleeping with my ex-wife's niece's second cousin. Involved. Just a tired, inevitable fact. Something in the way Joyce said it, involved - wearied, slightly acid - suggested to Alsana that the word meant the same thing to her. An enormous web you spin to catch yourself.- - -'[ . . . ] Really, these people exist. I'm telling you. The biggest traumas of their lives are things like recarpeting. Bill-paying. Gate-fixing. They don't mind what their kids do in life as long as they're reasonably, you know, healthy. Happy. And every single fucking day is not this huge battle between who they are and who they should be, what they were and what they will be. Go on, ask them. And they'll tell you. No mosque. Maybe a little church. Hardly any sin. Plenty of forgiveness. No attics. No shit in attics. No skeletons in cupboards. No great-grandfathers. I will put twenty quid down now that Samad is the only person in here who knows the inside bloody leg measurement of his great-grandfather. And you know why they don't know? Because it doesn't fucking matter. As far as they're concerned, it's the past. This is what it's like in other families. They're not self-indulgent. [ . . . ] They just get on with it. Lucky bastards. Lucky motherfuckers.'
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