During my PhD research at the University of Nottingham, I developed very close friendship with one bright man, Dr. Kunal Mukherjee. He is such a darling. I love him and I do miss him terribly- everything and everyday. I owe him so much, I must admit. Hauntingly, in almost every page of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, my mind could not put Kunal away. There are many reasons for that and am sure if three of my four siblings (Alilya, Amani, and Shiru) read the White Teeth, they will understand what I mean. But one big reason is, the book (I think) illustrates Kunal’s research of which we spent many hours discussing during our walks around the beautiful University Park or walking home by the canal.
Well, so Kunal’s research was measuring and comparing the possibility of radicalization in the Muslim majority country- Pakistan and Muslim minority country- Britain. If I remember well (and most likely he has published a paper on this), his findings showed that it is easier for people to be radicalized in a Muslim minority country because of issues such as identity, etc. Interestingly, the White Teeth clearly underlines this argument. When Samad decided to split his twin boys by taking one, Magid, back to Bengal so he can be a good Muslim away from the “corrupt” Britain, and left the other, Millat, in Britain as he was already not a very good boy, his expectations were shuttered at the end of 10 or so years. Magid who went to Bengal and attended Mosque etc, became even more “western” out of his deep love for knowledge and rationality. While Millat, who engaged in smoking and all what you can label as “bad, corrupt, western kids’” behaviors ended up joining a radical group known as KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation). Samad, who often defended Islam and its ideals did not approve of this group. In the book, it is clear that the reasons that led Millat to joining the group chauvinistically had to do with his identity crises and the desire to prove something in a “foreign” country. On the other side, Magid who went to Bengal came back rational and confident. He became a close friend to a Jewish scientist, Dr. Marcus, due to their same line of thinking and world view. His father was not impressed at all with Magid attitude and decisions. Magid pushed faith away to give knowledge and rationality more space. Magid even ate bacon (pork) in front of his father.
The book goes further to highlight Clint Eastwood statement mentioned above. Radicalization does not happen to the “right” (i.e. religious fundamentalists) neither to the Muslims only but it is also a possibility to other faiths. Hortense and Ryan who belonged to Jehovah Witnesses were very radical to their faith, so were the guys from the extreme liberal left group- FATE (Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation). All of these three groups (KEVIN, Jehovah Witness, and FATE) met together under the umbrella of a plan to destroy and kill Dr. Marcus’ scientific discovery of DNA. The reason for the two religious right groups (KEVIN and Jehovah Witnesses) were the same, that Dr. Marcus cannot challenge God’s creation, while the reason for FATE was that Dr. Marcus cannot torture the mouse (the experimental mouse). But they all met- the extreme right and extreme left idiots met in one spot with one aim- to destroy Dr. Marcus’ work.
Well, beyond issues of extremism/radicalization, White Teeth is comprehensive in its coverage of life in the multicultural Britain. It covers decades of Britain evolution from an empire to a multicultural society dealing with issues of immigration, race, class, family, friendship, and other socio-economic related matters such as teenage pregnancies (Ambrosia and Irie), marriages and domestic pressures, extra marital affairs, and various ongoing soul searching and conflicts and battles within human souls.
The genius of it is how Zadie Smith manages to capture all these life complexities in a coherent manner with lots of humor, laughter, and a force that keeps eyes alert and fingers ready to open another page. It is an unstoppable read that made me look forward to my tube rides to and fro work every morning and evening (that’s the only time I can read books of my personal choice). I even knew what time to take the tube when it’s not so crowded so I can comfortably read the book.
One thing though, I think my ability to understand the humor and laugh so much on many conversations in the book is due to my understanding of British culture and life style awarded by the 5 years I spent in Britain. I doubt if somebody who has never lived in Britain would understand or get it.
All in all, am so happy to have picked White Teeth out of many tempting books at the Shakespeare and Company in Paris. I cannot regret and tonight I will walk to the same bookshop and get some of her other books. If anything, she has further prompted my desire to be a creative writer, which has been burning in my heart since I read Chimamanda’s Americanah. One thing I’ve so far learnt with regards to creative novel writing is that, somehow…or rather the starting point of these novels is the reflection of one’s own life. Just like the character Ifemulu in Americanah could have been Chimamanda at one point of her life, I felt that the character Irie in White Teeth could have been Zadie. Well, creation of characters is yet the most challenging ability for me in my narrative mapping attempts.
And I love all characters in the White Teeth…I’ve been battling who’s my favourite one with a failure…because each one of them was unique and brought so much laughter to my face…may be one that I didn’t like much was Crispin…thanks to Zadie, he was only a minor character and didn’t appear much.