Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

U hear wot the critix b chattin?
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The Independent Culture

Yet bumps aside, Londonstani is an enthralling book. It tells the story of Hardjit, Ravi, Amit and Jas, four mates who bum around the suburbs of Hounslow in a BMW supplementing their income with a haphazard business unlocking mobile phone handsets. But the Beemer belongs to someone's mother and they do business out of their bedrooms, where samosas, cups of tea and bollockings about homework arrive at regular intervals from mums or aunties.

When the young entrepreneurs make the mistake of snatching a mobile from one of their teachers, he turns up agreeably pinko about it and sends them off to one of his old pupils, now a banker in the City, for some career advice. After showing the boys the kingdoms of the earth (or rather, a few flash nightclubs, a bling apartment and a Porsche) this banker, who is of course not what he seems, employs the neophytes in a shadowy scheme that leads to Terrible Consequences.

But plot doesn't really matter. Where Malkani really scores in Londonstani is with his narrator, Jas, an A-grade student and former geek adopted by the tough-talking posse he hangs with. Jas's engaging banter provides the crucial lightness of touch for such an issue-laden novel, allowing Malkani to negotiate with skill and acuity the clashes between personal, parental and cultural ideology in the lives of characters for whom even a name is a problem. "First we was rudeboys," Jas writes, "then we be Indian niggas, then rajamuffins, then raggastanis, Britasians, fuckin Indobrits. These days we try an' use our own word for homeboy an so we just call ourselves desis."

The addictive exuberance of Jas's patter is also a form of literary prestidigitation. Under its influence, the reader ceases to care about the supporting cast, who either remain ciphers (the girls) or spring out of the woodwork with wearisome speeches about economics and social duty. About midway through the book Malkani jump-starts a rather threadbare thriller plot to move things on a bit, but such is the charisma in the writing that one ceases for long periods to mind how plausible this all is or whether the loose ends tie up. And the real surprise comes with the final pages, in which the author deploys a shattering twist that maintains total narrative cogency while turning the entire book upside down. A bold and vigorous debut.

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