Millat Iqbal (A Character Study): White Teeth by Zadie Smith

“What had gone wrong with these first descendants of the first great ocean crossing experiment? Was there not a substantial garden area, regular meals, clean clothes from Marks ‘n’ Sparks, A class top-notch education?”

These are the telling words of White Teeth by Zadie Smith. It’s not only a riotous panorama of multicultural England, but also a must-have for any 21st century reading experience.

Disclaimer: My analysis does not intend to make or encourage making any generalisations about what third culture kids, immigrants or other groups are like in reality. 


Before this comes across as yet another of my multicultural rants, let me explain that this is a theme I have been going back to because of my EPQ – a 5000 word short story project in which I explore the tension and misunderstanding in the relationships of third culture kids and their parents (well, it’s a unique update to my multicultural rants). Schoolwork being as much as it is, I am hoping for this to become an ongoing series that will help with my EPQ and work as a compelling topic to blog about – exploring the echoes of the globalised times we live in. So segue to Millat Iqbal, the son of Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi immigrant to the UK. I felt that his character, from a child to a young adult, genuinely reflected not only my experiences here but also captured darker problems that afflict third culture kids but go largely misunderstood in society. Plus, I hope that analysing his character will help me to develop my own characterisation of a third culture kid for my creative writing EPQ:

Smith’s introduction to Millat through the focaliser of his father, Samad Iqbal: 

“As for the son who he could see…well, it is best not to get Samad started up on that subject, the subject of The Trouble With Millat, but here goes: he is the second son, late like a bus, late like cheap postage…and now simply a follower by genetic predisposition, by the intricate design of Allah…the loser of two vital minutes that he would never make up, not in the glassy globes of the godhead, not in his father’s eyes.

Free indirect discourse works remarkably here to illustrate the flustered conclusions Samad comes to about his son, Millat Iqbal. We can almost hear his rant at full force combined with the fact that this sentence runs what feels like a mile long on the page, echoing something like a stereotypically demanding Asian patriarch character. The exaggeration evident in “here goes:” and capitalised ‘The Trouble With Millat’ creates the humorously (to the reader) lecture-like tone, although it is apparent that to Samad, these are all extremely valid reasons to disapprove of Millat. Samad’s personality also means that he aspires for his own idealistic definitions of honour, religious and cultural aspects of his Bangladeshi origins, whether that is reflected in his blunt similes ‘late like cheap postage'(!) or the aggrandisized metaphors he perceives in the late birth of Millat.

Now, Millat of course, is a compelling, modern contrast to his father’s demands:

“In the language of the street, Millat was a rudeboy, a badman, changing image as often as shoes; sweet-as, safe, wicked, leading kids up hills to play football, downhill to rifle fruit machines.”

I love how Smith slots in the slang here to emphasise Millat’s rapidly growing efforts to define his identity in the multicultural streets of London. The simile adds to this effect too: suave, popular and street smart, Smith’s dynamic phrasing (“uphill…downhill”) appears to make a point about the youth taking charge of who they are and want to be. Although in a different form, this is not a far cry from Samad’s pride in his identity.

Once more, through free indirect discourse, we hear Millat’s bold interjection that “you don’t need to live under flood, under cyclone, to get a little danger…” You could see this statement as a crack in his ‘bad boy’ facade, as you could read ‘flood’ and ‘cyclone’ as allusions to his Bangladeshi past. The life he could have had he not been brought up in ‘Willesden Green’. His going out to ‘look for [danger]’ further could show his alienation from his father’s moralistic way of life to a dramatic search for his own definition, a surprising parallel to Gatsby, one of my A level set texts for this year. Instead of following his father’s morals, the tone Smith uses reveals that perhaps these confident statements are Millat’s own set of rules. Interestingly, this whole section is subordinate clauses and run-on sentences galore – possibly to show the second generation (Millat) put up their own fight with their parents’ lectures, or the chaos of coming-of-age.

Smith then adds the heart-breaking realisation that Millat thinks he “really learns about fathers” from black-market movies from the shop “Rocky Video”; perhaps because third culture kids, displaced from their parent’s cultures, seem to feel no urge to follow their behaviour either, if not completely reject it. He instead chooses to be “The Pied Piper of Willesden Green, smitten girls trailing behind him, tongues out…falling into pools of heartbreak…and all because he was the BIGGEST and the BADDEST: he smoked first, he drank first, he even lost it – IT! – aged thirteen.” I can imagine this is his coping mechanism against the constant disapproval of his father. The quick and rewarding effect of rebelling against the expectations of society perhaps gives Millat a longed-for place to “fit in” while being himself – something which would be denied if he behaved ‘respectably’ according to his parents or simply suffered the nuanced societal prejudice against confused Anglo-Indians in silence.

Can we really blame them when Smith shows their parent’s mentalities, as questioning “…not just [The Trouble With] Millat but all the children: Mujib (14, criminal record for joyriding), Khandakar (sixteen, white girlfriend, wore mascara in the evenings)…Bimal (nineteen, doing a diploma in Drama)?”. To a contemporary “Westernised” reader, this list of “crimes” is anything but. The emotional wants of the second generation are drastically different from those of the first, and it’s quite possible that this lack of understanding from the older generation leads young people into a darker way of living. New influences of other cultures further heighten the discord between children, their values, and that of their parents. The divide is bitter and hard to resolve, but thanks to Smith’s constantly humorous caricatures, the situation has comedic effect in its own way.

Hope this was interesting, although there is a lot more to talk about! What do you think about Zadie Smith’s depiction of third culture kids?

Keep reading and readjoicing,


Categories: Reading, Writing

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