July 2006

Shaun Manning

fiction

Londonstani by Gautum Malkani

A book that begins with a chapter-long beating is going to have a certain tension about it, certain expectations, a tingle that things are going to get quite nasty if the hero doesn't behave himself. When that book is, in many ways, a comedy, that energy transforms, elevating the danger while at the same time shunting it off to the side. Londonstani is a touching and funny exploration of the contradictions of West Asian youth culture in London, with its hierarchy of alliances and rigid rules of conduct.

Jas is a reformed "coconut," an Indian-Brit who once was derided for being "brown on the outside but white on the inside," but who has now accepted his desi rudeboy culture. Mentored by fellow A-level retake student Hardjit and his friends Ravi and Amit, Jas learns how to be tough and how to conduct himself with style, taking cues from bhangra music and American gangsta rap. When Hardjit's crew graduate their cell phone unblocking business to full-scale trafficking in stolen mobiles thanks to an unexpected business connection, Jas takes full advantage of the bling lifestyle to court the girl of his dreams, a "fit" Muslim girl named Samira. Though united in desi heritage, Jas's Sikh and Hindu friends are in constant violent conflict with Hounslow's Muslim gangs, and Samira's three brothers are equally willing to mash non-Muslim boys coming around for their sister. Secret romances aren't exactly known for their high success rates, and Jas digs himself deeper by meddling in Amit's brother Arun's pre-wedding "complicated, family related shit."

In his first novel, Malkani, who is also the Creative Business editor at the Financial Times, displays an exacting ear for dialogue and a deftness for navigating the contradictions of a multicultural society. Londonstani is heavy with slang and dialect, and its characters are very conscious of how they speak. Jas comments several times in his narration on what is acceptable to say, and what will lead to branding as a "coconut." For "goras" and non-British readers, the author provides a brief glossary of terms at the back of the book, although most words can be sorted out by context. While the slang allows and, in fact, contributes to a lively read, the use of text-messaging abbreviations in dialogue is jarring. Malkani's intent in employing this device is clear, to portray the young men's communication exactly as they would envision it, with technology blurring the lines between speaking aloud and conveying short, sharp messages through mobile devices. But it doesn't work, because a reader's mind is not yet ready to accept abbreviations like "u'll," "b4," and "2morrow" as human speech -- we know the meaning, but the context is off. Thankfully, as Jas allows himself more and more of the spotlight in the second half of the book, numeric chimaeras and single-letter words dwindle to infrequent nuisances.

Aside from stylistic quirks, another striking aspect of Londonstani is how little Jas reveals about himself. He is embarrassed of his bookish past, he feels awkward in social situations, and he strives to live up to Hardjit's rudeboy role modeling. But whereas his friends' families and religions play significant roles in the story -- particularly in the case of Amit -- Malkani makes a point of obscuring Jas's own affiliations, relegating his father to an ambiguous and reviled presence who has damned his son to an embarrassingly long surname. Malkani is thus able to play with the reader's perceptions of Jas, using him as a cipher to comment on the culture through apparently neutral eyes. Of course, the truth is more complex, and the more Jas asserts independence the more he steps into perilous territory with the very friends he is trying to impress. The payoff is everything Jas has feared, though Malkani's big surprise leads more to puzzled suspicion than awestruck revelation.

Londonstani is great fun to read, a thoughtful and engaging look at masculinity in a world of "bling bling economics," and the irony of youth culture that transcends distinctions of race or nationality. In spite of the distractions of txt-text and self-referential parallels to Bollywood films -- Jas twice berates Indian movie conventions that could just as easily describe the events in his own life -- this is a novel that carries a reader quickly and happily through.

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani
Penguin Press
ISBN 1594200971
342 pages