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White Teeth: Zadie Smith
zeenext.com June 2000


Much has been made of this book. Much has been made even more of its author. Twenty-four years old when this epic tome hit the bookshops, that I am told, was double its length to start with. Salman Rushdie has blurbed it as a book with bite. Other reviewers taking their cues from Rushdie have gushed, oohed and aahed so profusely and in such purple passages that one begins reading the book with prejudice. Is it all that it is made out to be?

The first chapter grips. I read on almost holding my breath. This is stupendous, I think. And then it begins… The rambling, the self-indulgent ramblings, the completely unnecessary meanderings, the cuteness [that reviewers label as precocious] which is fun to read in small doses and tedious otherwise and you begin to think that what Zadie Smith's White Teeth needs is a good dentist. Someone who can floss it clean, spray out the debris, fill the cavities and cap the broken ends. Basically good editing which would have made the book tighter and that much more impressive.

The plot by itself is scintillating. It revolves around the Jones, Iqbals and the Chalfens in North London. Different colours. Different religions. Different social stratas. Different aspirations. Different histories. Different motivations all leading up to a great blow out on 31 December 1999. Perhaps it is this that is the book's greatest flaw. A host of exceptional characters, each one a perfect creation and yet together they lead up to almost nothing. I won't even attempt to try and describe the story line. Simply because there isn't one. At best, what I can come up with is that White Teeth has to do with the children and lives [separate and combined] of best friends; green eyed one armed Samad Iqbal [Bangladeshi by origin] who resembles Omar Sharif and chubby middle aged, short Archie Jones who decision making ability depends on a tossed coin. And the launch of FutureMouse© - a genetically engineered mouse by Professor Marcus Chalfen, writer and celebrated scientist and the mentor of Iqbal's brilliant anglophile son Magid and the employer of Ire, Archie Jones's daughter with the incredible bosom and the sweetest nature. If this is the skeleton, there is myriad of minor and major characters who flesh the pages with their individual angsts. And all have something do with the launch of the FutureMouse©. Rather like a movie where a wedding becomes the climax of the plot, the launch on 31st December 1999 is what the book leads up to. Except that when I had finished, here I am, still trying to understand the ending. Like Quentin Crisp said, "What is this all about?"

And then there is this spectre of Mangal Pande [Remember the man who triggered off the Sepoy Mutiny by refusing to bit on the lard smeared bullet] who flits in and out of the pages . A restless ghost in whose glory or its it non-glory Samad Iqbal [the Muslim great grandson of a caste Hindu who hails from Bangladesh! Come, come Ms Smith…], seeks his measure of worth in. Perhaps it is easier for a non-Indian reviewer to accept this distortion of fact at face value and even hail it as a sample of a wondrous imagination. But my history lessons have been too deeply ingrained in me and I can't help but wonder on how such silliness could go past a supposedly discerning editor. Zadie Smith is immensely talented. There is no doubt about that. Even by reading the first few paragraphs, you know that. Here is a distinct voice. Here is a style that is full of verve and vigour. Here is a writer who will someday find her place among the greats. But it is not to be with the White Teeth.

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