(I wasn’t too keen to write this review. Not because the book wasn’t interesting – it was – but because I’d already read a few other reviews of it, and they seemed to have most bases covered. [When I know I’m going to be reviewing a particular book, I avoid reading other reviews until after I’m done with mine. But slipped up in this case.] Also, I figured out the twist early on – which slightly spoilt the reading experience.)
Gautam Malkani’s debut novel begins with a scene of visceral violence: four young British Asians are pummeling a white kid for calling them “Pakis” – a word that, like “nigga”, you’re allowed to use only if you’re on the inside (“Can’t be callin someone a Paki less you also call’d a Paki, innit”). The actual beating is being done by Hardjit, the brawny gangleader, but the others – Amit, Ravi and our narrator Jas (presumably short for Jaswinder) – are also participants in what is really an elaborate bit of role-playing. As it turns out, the white boy had never actually abused Hardjit and his gang, but that isn’t the point. The point is that our Asian “rudeboys” need a pretext to assert their identity and their machismo.
We follow Hardjit and the others as they cruise the streets of Hounslow, boast about their sexual prowess in such exaggerated terms that it seems almost deliberately farcical, deride “coconuts” (Asian kids who are brown on the surface but white inside, having integrated so completely with the British that no trace of their ethnicity remains) and make illegal money by unblocking stolen mobile phones for a client. They talk in a street lingo that mixes elements of gangsta rap with SMS shorthand – but just as vitally incorporates words like “khota”, “gandah” and “thapparh”, which they could only have learnt at home, from their first-generation NRI parents. (It’s incongruous, funny and tragic all at once when these gangsta kids turn into well-mannered Punjabi boys within the confines of their homes, but it also helps us understand their need for escapism, which manifests itself in these streetwise identities.)
Through all this, Jas is relatively subdued; he prefers to keep his mouth shut, for when he opens it he ends up saying something awkward and overwrought like “Yeh bredren, knock his fucking teeth out. Bruck his fucking face…well, you know…”. As the story progresses we get a better perspective on why he feels like a misfit, but for now it’s enough to know that he is a converted coconut himself – formerly a “desified, poncey khota”, now an aspiring member of Hardjit’s rudeboy gang.
Though Londonstani is largely a novel of vignettes, there are a few key plot-movers. The boys get involved with a sophisticated poncey named Sanjay who lectures them about “bling bling economics” and encourages them to take their illegal phone racket into the big league: the retail price index in the official economy has become outdated and irrelevant, he says, which means more and more people need to live outside the law. Once you’ve entered the world of consumerist aspiration, you can’t draw a line and say “okay, this is it”; you have to keep going.
Meanwhile, there is tension in Amit’s family over his brother’s engagement to a girl whose parents are not “showing enough respect” to the boy’s side. And Jas ill-advisedly acts on his infatuation for a Muslim girl.
If you’ve read about anything about Londonstani before this, you’ll know that one of the big talking points is the surprise ending. I’m going to be a considerate reviewer for once and resist the temptation to disclose it, but this makes it difficult to meaningfully discuss one of the most interesting things Malkani is trying to do in this book. I’ll say this much: as a concept the twist has potential, but its treatment is problematic. One sees glimpses of what Malkani has in mind – he’s commenting on the subtle workings of reverse-colonialisation and asking us to rethink some of the things we’ve taken for granted about the protagonists. But by planting the surprise in the book’s very last pages and by giving it the bated-breath treatment, he isolates it from the rest of the story. It becomes an end in itself, leaving us with just the fragment of an idea that is never seen all the way through, and the book seems gimmicky in retrospect.
But even if Londonstani doesn’t fulfil its author’s ambitions for it, I was content to enjoy it at a more superficial level: for the smartness of its writing, for a first-time novelist’s playfulness (e.g. the juxtaposing of two visits on consecutive nights by Jas to the same nightclub), for the observations about a constantly evolving subculture in modern Britain – and for the fun Malkani has with his protagonists’ speech. At its very best, the linguistic effect is comparable (though not in inventiveness and complexity) to the teen argot in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange – where after the initial bemusement, the reader realises that it’s possible to decipher what these lads are saying, and then slowly gets around to appreciating the rhythms and cadences of this new language. As in Burgess’s novel, the concentration required to constantly interpret what’s being said also provides a buffer from the unpleasantness of some of the content.
If you can get past the language barrier, you’re almost certain to have a lot of fun reading this book. Just try not to read too much about it beforehand. And don’t get influenced by the publicity machinery. If and when an Asian Ulysses does happen along, chances are it won’t be accompanied by pre-review blurbs saying “An Asian Ulysses!”