Literature Gautam Malkani Londonstani

ISBN 13: 9780007231751

Londonstani

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9780007231751: Londonstani

A talented new writer whose portrayal of the serious business of assimilation and young masculinity is disturbing and hilarious

Hailed as one of the most surprising British novels in recent years, Gautam Malkani's electrifying debut reveals young South Asians struggling to distinguish themselves from their parents' generation in the vast urban sprawl that is contemporary London. Chronicling the lives of a gang of four young middle-class men-Hardjit, the violent enforcer; Ravi, the follower; Amit, who's struggling to come to terms with his mother's hypocrisy; and Jas, desperate to win the approval of the others despite lusting after Samira, a Muslim girl-Londonstani, funny, disturbing, and written in the exuberant language of its protagonists, is about tribalism, aggressive masculinity, integration, alienation, bling-bling economics, and "complicated family-related shit."

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About the Author:

Gautam Malkani was born in West London in 1976. He was educated at Cambridge University and was appointed director of the Financial Times's Creative Business section in 2005. He completed Londonstani shortly after the bombings in London last July.

From The Washington Post:

"Hear wat my bredren b sayin, sala kuta?"

Told in a dizzying patois that borrows from British street slang, Punjabi, text-messaging shorthand and American hip-hop, Gautam Malkani's debut novel displays all the bravado of his swaggering young protagonists. The in-your-face language of Londonstani promises that, despite its roots in the author's Cambridge dissertation, its portrait of British Asian youth will be anything but academic.

They call themselves "rudeboys," these Sikh and Hindu wannabe-hoodlums from the not-so-mean streets of West London. Or at least that's how Jas, our narrator and guide, refers to the gang who have recently befriended him. But naming is a tricky business within the quicksilver world of urban youth culture. As Jas explains, "First we was rudeboys, then we be Indian niggas, then rajamuffins, then raggastanis, Britasians, . . . Indobrits. These days we try an use our own word for homeboy an so we just call ourselves desis." Immersing us in the desi enclave of Hounslow, the suburb that is home to Heathrow Airport (and a borough recently exported to these shores in the film "Bend It Like Beckham"), Londonstani follows Jas and his mates as they beat up white boys, check out fit girls, reprogram stolen cell phones and ostensibly study to retake their A-level exams.

It's hard not to be dazzled by the way this novel hurtles us into the rudeboy scene. Jas initiates us into the manners and mores of the desi subculture, allowing us to learn its slang, hear its music and master the finer points of its etiquette. Like Jas, a former geek turned aspiring tough guy, we feel privileged that this off-limits world has opened its doors to us. And for a kid like Jas -- once stammering, shy, lonely and humiliated -- this world is all the more seductive for allowing him to completely reinvent himself. The rudeboy rulebook promises that if you trade in your tight pants for baggy ones, your mopey Radiohead songs for the thumping beats of Punjabi pop music, your assimilated "coconut" friends for a white-boy-bashing thug with a Sikh Khanda Sahib symbol tattooed on his arm, you too can become a new man.

"Man" being the operative word here. The novel's main interest lies in its characters' struggle to assert their masculinity in a community full of overbearing mothers and hen-pecked fathers. Though Jas and his friends -- Amit, Ravi and Hardjit -- put on a great show of embracing their ethnic identity, what really drives them toward desi culture is their fear of being perceived as spineless saps. As the book winkingly illustrates, the boys' worship of masculinity often verges on the homoerotic; with comic earnestness, Jas tells us that Hardjit's "designer desiness, with his perfectly built body, his perfectly shaped facial hair an his perfectly groomed garms" makes him the envy of Hounslow's rudeboys. But it's not only important to cultivate the right look; equally essential in this pursuit of desi manliness are tricked-out luxury cars, top-of-the-line cell phones and all the other hallmarks of conspicuous consumption. In short, you need bling (an "urban youth" term that we can now find, as one of Londonstani's characters notes, in the OED).

The book is at its strongest when Malkani demonstrates his sharp eye for the contradictions and absurdities of the pseudo-gangsta life these boys have fashioned for themselves. A chapter devoted to cars, and in particular the lilac Beemer they cruise around in (complete with spinners, under-chassis neon lights, chrome-plated gear stick, Sony three-way speakers and matching lilac windshield wipers), ends with the amusing revelation that the car actually belongs to Ravi's mum. Jas and his friends all still live at home; they use their sleek mobile phones to field calls from their parents; they conduct their illegal business in Hardjit's suburban bedroom as they snack on the samosas and Cokes that his mother has thoughtfully provided on a tray. Despite their posturing -- and the very real violence they engage in -- these rudeboys remain mama's boys at heart.

Malkani's gifts as a social observer, however, are ultimately eclipsed by his agenda as a social scientist. His insights about the desi obsession with masculinity and materialism could have served as a rich subtext for these characters' behavior, but Londonstani falls short of successfully transforming cultural anthropology into fiction. Over the course of the novel, the characters function more as ethnographic examples than fully imagined personalities. They begin to stagnate on the page as they ceaselessly rehearse Malkani's thesis. Without the momentum created by the choices and conflicts of fully formed characters, Malkani must insert showy plot devices (a secret interfaith romance, a secret international money-making scheme) to move the story forward.

But then, having taxed our credulity and interest with the romance/thriller plotlines, the novel repays us with a genuinely surprising ending that casts the entire story in a new light. It produces the same immediate thrill that the book's audacious language does. Once that frisson fades, however, one wonders if Londonstani might have been better served had this information not been hoarded until the end. Shock appeal would be lost, but depth would be gained -- an exchange that the author should have made more often throughout this story. One wishes that Malkani had trusted himself and his material more; his writing achieves moments of real verve and power that suggest he doesn't need all the bluster and flash on which his anxious rudeboys rely.

Reviewed by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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