by Zadie Smith
Samad Miah Iqbal
Coulda' Been A Contender
Samad is loud, dark-skinned, fiery-tempered, self-contradictory, Bangladeshi, insecure… and a whole host of other things that his best bud, Archie the Englishman, isn't. The two met back in WWII, and while Archie is completely satisfied with his career as a professional paper folder, Samad dreams of wearing a sign around his neck that clarifies who he really is.
Samad works as a waiter, but he wants his sign to read:
"I AM NOT A WAITER. I HAVE BEEN A STUDENT, A SCIENTIST, A SOLDIER, MY WIFE IS CALLED ALSANA, WE LIVE IN EAST LONDON BUT WE WOULD LIKE TO MOVE NORTH. I AM A MUSLIM BUT ALLAH HAS FORSAKEN ME OR I HAVE FORSAKEN ALLAH, I'M NOT SURE. I HAVE A FRIEND—ARCHIE—AND OTHERS. I AM FORTY-NINE BUT WOMEN STILL TURN IN THE STREET. SOMETIMES." (3.81)
A mite defensive, are we, Samad? Clearly, someone who feels the need to tell everyone about himself and that one famous guy in his family history can't be too confident in his own life choices. You know the type; Samad's like that dude you know who's always telling every single person he meets about how his dad was Mark Walhberg's chiropractor.
Samad defines himself principally by his relation to his great-grandfather, Mangal Pande, who shot the first bullet in the Indian Munity. Pande is, like, his one claim to fame, and he clings to that claim so hard his knuckles turn white.
One day, without prompting—dude does not need anyone to ask him to talk, he just does—Samad explains to his army regiment why he shouldn't be stuck with lame-ing it up with them, laying bridges and stuff:
"I mean, I am educated. I am trained. I should be soaring with the Royal Airborne Force, shelling from on high! I am an officer! […] My great-grandfather Mangal Pande […] was the great hero of the Indian Mutiny!" (5.31)
This speech sounds kind of like his sign that explains why he's not really a waiter—are you seeing a pattern here? Samad has got a real serious case of the "I'm not even supposed to be here today"s.
Also, there's actually plenty of historical evidence showing that Mangal Pande was more of a screw-up than a hero. But Samad needs him to be a hero. It's the only way he can feel significant, as an aging waiter in a crappy marriage with two children who have disappointed him. Samad's a classic example of one of those guys who is so unhappy with how his life turned out, that he tries to "fix" everyone around him.
Cheater, Cheater, Wife-Beater
First up on the list of people Samad tries to change is his wife, Alsana. Samad fights with her nonstop about their children, about her habits, about religion, about England… It's not pretty. He'd rather she just agree with everything he says.
Samad is a staunch traditionalist (cough cough misogynist cough cough) in that way. He says lots of awesome things to his wife like:
"Look at you, look at the state of you! Look how fat you are!" He grabbed a piece of her, and then released it as if it would infect him. "Look how you dress. Running shoes and a sari? And what is that?"
[…] "You do not even know what you are, where you come from. We never see family anymore—I am ashamed to show you to them." (8.155-157)
To boot, Samad attempts to resolve his arguments with Alsana by hitting her. No really. At least Alsana hits back, we guess?
Samad's twin sons, Millat and Magid, find these altercations hilarious. Especially when Alsana beats their father. But we don't think they're so funny. Samad's behavior towards his wife is another example of his overwhelming unhappiness. Though Samad's quite a talker, he isn't able to totally articulate his rage—so he resorts physical violence.
Then there's Millat and Magid, who get caught in the crossfire of Samad's guilt over his sexual indulgences. You know, Samad's dream sign's got that line about women stopping to look at him in the street. He's got such a poor sense of self-worth that he needs female attention like we need Netflix.
So, when Samad's sons' music teacher shows just a little interest in him, he goes out and has an affair with the gal. Then, his guilt over the whole thing makes him do something totally rash and crazy: kidnap Magid. And ship him over to Bangladesh. Why does he channel his guilt in this particular way? Strap on your seatbelts, kiddos, we're going for a ride.
Samad the Saver
See, Samad is obsessed by the idea that he is a terrible Muslim. By sending Magid to Bangladesh, he hopes to save him from Samad's fate as a failed war hero, husband, and Muslim. He tells Archie:
I looked at my boys, Archie… I looked at my beautiful boys… and my heart cracked—no, more than this—it shattered. It shattered into so many pieces and each piece stabbed me like a mortal wound. I kept thinking: how can I teach my boys anything, how can I show them the straight road when I have lost my own bearings?" (8.67)
Like any parent, Samad wants his sons to do better and be better than him. But he goes way overboard with these desires. He basically tries to control every little detail of his kids' lives in order to atone for his own sins. A little selfish, don't you think?
When Magid moves back to England, Samad has to face the fact that all his plans for his sons have failed. Magid is an atheist. Oh, and Millat is part of a Muslim fundamentalist group that's cool with acts of terrorism. Samad is less than pleased with alla this, to be sure. In fact:
If aunts and uncles phoned, he deflected questions or simply lied. Millat? He's in Birmingham, working in a mosque, yes, renewing his faith. Magid? Yes, he is marrying soon, yes, a very good young man, wants a lovely Bengali girl, yes, upholder of traditions, yes. (16.34)
Samad's so weak-willed that when things don't go his way, he lies about them. Sound like anyone we know? Like, Samad's one and only BFF, Archie Jones, perhaps?Samad's Timeline