When I started with the first page of text brilliantly and ruthlessly compiled by Gautam Malkani in his book ‘Londonstani’, I was wondering what I was upto and why I was taking myself through the very process of reading those pages… The publisher has hailed the book as “a filthy, unflinching and politically incorrect take on modern Britain”. So why did I go on??
The book intro goes thus - Set close to the Heathrow feed roads of Hounslow, Malkani shows us the lives of a gang of four young men: Hardjit the ring leader, a Sikh, violent, determined his caste stay pure; Ravi, determinedly tactless, a sheep following the herd; Amit, whose brother Arun is struggling to win the approval of his mother for the Hindu girl he has chosen to marry; and Jas, who tells us of his journey with these three, desperate to win their approval, desperate too for Samira, a Muslim girl, which in this story can only have bad consequences. Together they cruise the streets in Amit’s enhanced Beemer, making a little money changing the electronic fingerprints on stolen mobile phones, a scam that leads them into more dangerous waters.
UK is not just home to gentlemanly cricket, lush lawn tennis courts, dreamy cows ambling through green meadows with a drizzle keeping company, or affable people like Tim Henman or David Gower, the queen or Salman Rushdie – but also a growing ‘Desi’ population who not only spread the curry culture, Shilpa Shetty and Bollywood in Britain, but also the growing ‘Rudeboy’ clan in pockets like London, Birmingham and Bradford.
This book will take you into the minds of four teenage ‘Desi’ youngsters (punks) ganging the streets of Hounslow near Heathrow. They are not ghetto boys, but are as Gautam says - middle class mummy's boys pretending to be ghetto kids. Theirs is a special world, different from the white and black punks about whom we have all read and seen in countless books & movies. We have the goras, the ‘desis’ and coconuts, and we have ‘desi’ rudeboys there. This one is the Desi rudeboy world in UK, neither white nor black, but brown, neither Brit nor Indian and very very far from the docile head nodding (hair parted neatly on the left), introvert-ish breed that we once were. They are the ‘rudeboys’, a Desi version of the Gangsta culture of the US.
Starting with smashing up the mug and re-education of a Poncey ‘gora’ kid who supposedly called the gang leader a ‘paki’, the book takes you into their lives, of their prim parents, who are mostly ‘’coconuts’ - white on the inside and brown on the outside, into the minds of youngsters who still have pin ups of Bollywood actresses like Kareena Kapoor in their bedroom, though they are replicating the lives of their heroes like Ali G, talking singing hip hop and roaming the streets of London in their souped up beamer (BMW), sporting outlandish attires and demeanor, cool dude looks and slouches…They talk Desi cockney (sometimes a little difficult for the reader, when accosted with words like ‘innit’ (isn’t it?)) but respecting their parents in true Desi way (“Gotta respect your elders, innit”).
Take a look at how Hardjit educates the Poncey ‘Gora’ well punctuated with kicks on his face – “A paki is someone who comes from Pakistan. Us bredrens who don't come from Pakistan can still b call'd paki by other bredrens if it means we can call dem paki in return. But u people ain't allow'd 2 join in, u get me?”
Jas the guy, who sometimes sees sense, is the protagonist. He is the one who joins the gang under building peer pressure to learn tough lessons like “Ladies judge how you’re gonna handle their bodies by how you handle a car”. Just listen to Jas’s explanation here about his nerdish days: “I didn’t get an E or a D in GCSE History, you see. I got me a muthaf&^%in A ….class, innit.” Their method of making pocket change is to unlock or recode stolen cell phones delivered by Sanjay. Sanjay is the Cambridge returned guy who introduces them to the Bling Bling ‘informal’ economics of making money reprogramming and unlocking stolen cell phones.
Jas explains his ambitions to be a pilot – “Wat’s fu&*%in’ wrong wid dat?” in defence of his aspirations to a career at Heathrow airport. “I’ll be a pilot Top Gun-stylee, innit.”
Aron Jacobs concludes well– What makes Malkani's novel engrossingly inventive is that, for all their petty criminal bona fides, these characters are mama’s boys deep down. Though it may seem hard to read that through their pompous jargon: “People are always trying to stick a label on our scene. That’s the problem with havin a fuc&*in’ scene. First we was rudeboys, then we be Indian niggas, then rajamuffins, then raggastanis, Britasians, fu^&in’ Indobrits. These days we try an’ use our own word for homeboy an so we just call ourselves desis."
But Londonstani is something special and it is very funny. There is comedy in Jas’s narration, comprised of English, Punjabi and urban slang: "I jus mouthin off cos I got me a high sex drive, dat's all, man. I can't help it if I is a wild fu^&in beast."
To a certain extent, you should have lived in UK to really feel the book, but well, it is an interesting read…helps you understand the youth of today and the alienation they face with cross cultures, backgrounds, the vicious racial pressures that alternatively hold them or push them in varying directions. To take a peek into the Hounslow world, check out the Londonstani ‘Youtube’ trailer
It is an interesting, electrifying and compelling though not overtly satisfying a read. But well, in my mind, if you want to understand what is happening out there, read books like this – if only to see the effects of action and reaction, of racial and identity conflicts, results of chasing a good life and resettling families in worlds far away from ones own…
Gautam Malkani was born in 1976 and grew up in Hounslow (West London). His mother came to London from Uganda and worked as a radiographer while bringing up Gautam and his his brother. Gautam went to Isleworth & Syon comprehensive and got into Cambridge Universtity by being clever and working hard. As part of his SPS (social and political sciences) degree, he wrote a dissertation on rude-boy culture which enabled him to rationalise his frequent visits home to see his mates as "field trips." Londonstani grew out of his abortive attempts to convert his dissertation into a non-fiction book.
Malkani is currently a journalist for The Financial Times and head of the Creative Business section. He has worked on the UK news desk in London as well as in the Washington bureau. He and his wife live in London, England
Gautam says - Hounslow is arguably the hub of the ‘desi’ subculture to which the characters belong, just as Heathrow acts as a more obvious hub for temporary diasporas. For most of us, the airport represented one of two things: a gateway to India conveniently located just down the Great West Road, or the prospect of a shitty job loading other people’s luggage on to a rotating conveyor belt. To make the escapism even more oppressive, for some people it was the cheap flights granted to airport employees and their relatives that made possible trips to far-flung corners of the globe such as Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore
BBC video interview here or at youtube here
Pic of the four in the beamer – from the NYT review of the book
Gautam pic from AIM magazine