35 pages • 1 hour readZadie Smith
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“The Waiter’s Wife,” by the British author Zadie Smith, is a short story that uses various forms of irony and characterization to explore the themes of Modernity Versus Tradition, The Search for Identity, Past Versus Future, and Gender Roles and Expectations. The short story takes place in Britain in 1975 and follows two couples—Samad and Alsana Iqbal and Archie and Clara Jones—as they tackle the trials of immigration, marriage, and creating an identity in an unfamiliar place. The third-person, omniscient narrator interjects the narration with sarcastic asides and commentary, highlighting the story’s humorous tone.
This short story, originally published in Granta in 1999, is an excerpt from Smith’s debut novel White Teeth, published in 2000. White Teeth is widely considered to be one of the best contemporary British novels. The novel follows Samad, Archie, Alsana, and Clara as they navigate life in Britain, adding their children Magid, Millat, and Irie, to the story.
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This guide refers to the version of the text that is freely available on Granta’s website.
Content Warning: The source material includes instances of racial prejudice and domestic violence.
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“The Waiter’s Wife” opens with Samad and his much younger wife Alsana immigrating from Bangladesh to Britain in 1975. They meet up at Heathrow Airport with Samad’s friend Archie. The two have been friends since the Second World War, when they piloted a tank together. Samad is thrilled to see his old friend and immediately converts Archie’s proffered handshake into a hug, commenting “Long time no bloody smell,” a reference to the close quarters they shared in the tank (Paragraph 1).
Archie brings his much younger wife Clara, a “tall, striking […] black girl with a winning smile” with him to meet the Iqbals at the airport (Paragraph 2). Clara is wearing hot pants, which shocks Alsana. The women are initially awkward around each other, which Archie acknowledges by commenting sarcastically, “The wives get on like a house on fire” (Paragraph 4)—a quip that only makes things more awkward.
However, Alsana’s first impression of Clara makes her rethink some of her racial prejudices: “So some black people are friendly, thought Alsana after that first meeting was over” (Paragraph 5). As Archie and Samad spend more time with each other and the Iqbals move closer to the Joneses, the women begin seeing each other more often and become good friends.
It takes the Iqbals a year to move to a better neighborhood, and they both work to finance the move: Alsana sews costumes for a BDSM shop, reacting with perplexed disapproval to the things she makes, and Samad works as a waiter—a job that offends his sense of identity, since he occupied a higher social position in Bangladesh before immigrating to England. He works at The Palace, which is owned by his distant cousin Ardashir Mukhul, who keeps “one benevolent eye on the customers, one ever-watchful eye on the staff” (Paragraph 9). Ardashir hired Samad because they are family, and he enjoys the fact that his “older, cleverer, handsomer cousin could get no work as a food inspector in England” (Paragraph 11). He enjoys having power over Samad and expects Samad to show him extreme deference.
Samad is frustrated that he cannot keep his tips but must instead put them in a communal tip jar called “The Piss-Pot” (Paragraph 14). Samad is not the only person upset by this; Shiva, a Hindu man considered to be the restaurant’s best waiter, hates putting his money into the pot because he makes more tips than any of the other men and resents having to split them. Shiva accuses the men of taking advantage of his skills and mocks Samad for being a terrible waiter who constantly speaks about his past life before he immigrated to Britain. Samad spends most nights taking “abuse from Shiva and others; condescension from Ardashir; never seeing Alsana; never seeing the sun; clutching fifteen pence and then releasing it” (Paragraph 24).
Samad has an internal monologue where he imagines he could wear a sign that would show all of his different identities, so he can remind people that he is “NOT JUST A WAITER” (Paragraph 25). He ultimately realizes that trying to claim his multifaceted identity is futile, and he should focus on being a good waiter instead.
When Samad buys his new flat in Willesden, he asks Ardashir for a raise “to help me finance the move. To make things a little easier as we settle in. And Alsana, well, she is pregnant” (Paragraph 37). Ardashir realizes the delicacy of the situation but has no intention of being generous to Samad. As he launches into a long monologue about why he cannot give Samad a raise, Samad zones out and considers his marriage to Alsana. Even though she is younger than he is, he finds her to be difficult and “prone to moments, even fits—yes, fits was not too strong a word—of rage” (Paragraph 42). He assumes that this is just the way young women are today.
When he goes home, he and Alsana get into an explosive fight. Alsana doesn’t understand why they moved to the new flat and complains that there is not enough money to buy food. When Samad explains that they moved to Willesden to be closer to Archie and Clara, Alsana screams, “I don’t know them! You fight in an old, forgotten war with some Englishman…” (Paragraph 48). She angrily maligns Samad’s friends in racist terms, complaining that her children will have to grow up around this interracial couple with their mixed-race children. Returning to the topic of food, she begins to smash plates on the floor, dramatically asking Archie if she can eat them. Archie responds by pulling a “mountain of meat” from the freezer and piling it up on the floor (Paragraph 51). He tells Alsana that his mother cooked homemade meals instead of buying prepared meals like Alsana does. Alsana becomes even more enraged. To her, cooking her own meals is archaic—she might as well “squat in the street over a bucket and wash clothes” (Paragraph 52). She punches Samad in the stomach and tears off all her clothes, asking theatrically if they are edible, before grabbing a coat and storming out of the house.
As she walks, she ponders the new neighborhood, which she decides will be good for the child because there’s a pleasant park nearby, and she is happy that she no longer has to deal with National Front Gang members destroying the houses of immigrants in her new neighborhood.
Alsana goes to a shoe repair store to pick up a pair of Samad’s shoes and to visit her niece, Neena, who works at the store. Neena is shocked at how worn down Samad’s shoes are and wonders what he does in them. Alsana tells her that he works and prays in them “for she liked to make a point of her respectability, and besides she was really very traditional, very religious, lacking nothing except the faith” (Paragraph 60). Alsana, who is only two years older than Neena, repeatedly calls Neena by a nickname she has invented for her—Niece-Of-Shame—emphasizing that Neena’s more modern lifestyle is shameful. Alsana leaves the shop without saying goodbye to her niece and secretly switches into Samad’s more comfortable shoes after leaving the shop.
Clara is also pregnant, and she and Alsana sometimes meet for lunch in Kilburn Park, where they discuss their pregnancies. Neena sometimes joins them. It is revealed that Clara is having a girl, while Alsana is having twin boys.
Alsana says that she wouldn’t allow Samad into her ultrasound appointment because “a husband needn’t be involved in body-business” (Paragraph 75). This annoys Neena, who changes the subject to ask what names the women are considering. Alsana has decided on “Magid and Millat. Ems are good. Ems are strong,” while Clara likes the name Irie—a word from Jamaican patois that means “everyting OK, cool, peaceful, you know?” (Paragraph 80). Alsana disparages the name Irie, implying that it would be ridiculous to name a child after such a seemingly mundane expression. Clara explains that Archie wants to name the child Sarah, and Alsana supports Archie’s preference: The name is more anglicized and thus more respectable, and it will make Archie happy, thus giving Clara some peace.
Neena bristles at the idea that Clara has to make Archie happy and accuses Alsana of being “the little submissive Indian woman” (Paragraph 87). It’s 1975, she says, and husbands and wives should communicate honestly with each other. She characterizes Alsana and Samad’s marriage as an old-fashioned one in which the husband does whatever he wants while the wife asks no questions. Alsana mocks the “modern” idea of open communication in marriage. It’s better, she implies, for husbands and wives to keep some secrets from each other, to maintain some mystery. Clara does not object to Alsana’s view of marriage.
Neena then brings up the fact that Alsana and Samad have an arranged marriage, which is one of her favorite things to fight with Alsana about. Alsana argues that arranged marriages are the best kind. The less you know about your husband, the better. She met Samad hours before the wedding, and he made a good impression on her. Now, she says, the more she learns about Samad, the less she likes him.
Alsana tries to end the conversation on that note, feeling that she has won the debate, but Neena is not satisfied. She tells Alsana that it’s unfortunate she’s having twin boys and that she herself would “seriously consider abortion” if she was pregnant with boys (Paragraph 105). Alsana is appalled by this statement and screams, while Clara finds the remark hysterical. The screaming and laughing draw the attention of Sol Jozefowicz, the park keeper, who is worried something is wrong with the women. They assure him they are fine, and he hands his handkerchief to Clara, who can’t tell whether her tears are from crying or laughing. Alsana asks him, “The murder of innocents—is this funny?” (Paragraph 114). He says, “Not in my experience,” which causes the women to realize, based on his age and Polish-Jewish surname, what his experience might have been. They stop laughing and feel embarrassed.
Sol walks away, and Neena apologizes to Alsana, saying “What more do you want?” (Paragraph 117) Alsana becomes suddenly vulnerable, answering Neena’s rhetorical question, explaining that she wants the world to be made clear to her, admitting that, despite her pretended certainties, she really feels that she doesn’t understand anything. Still, she says, the compromises she’s made are the ones she’s had to make. She doesn’t want to know the whole truth about her husband—only “the truth that can be lived with” (Paragraph 121). She and Clara have both married men much older than themselves, men who must have done terrible things in the war, men with one foot in the modern world and one in the blood-soaked past. She worries for her children and Clara’s, as “they will always have Daddy-long-legs for fathers. One leg in the present, one in the past. No talking will change this. Their roots will always be tangled” (Paragraph 121).
As Sol reaches the gate, he waves back toward the woman. Clara waves his handkerchief back at him, feeling “a little theatrical […] as if she is seeing someone off on a train journey which crosses the border of two countries” (Paragraph 122).
By Zadie Smith