FOURTH ESTATE £12.99 (352pp). £11.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Londonstani, by Gautam Malkani

A taste of gangsta Sikh

This book narrates in the first person the adventures of Jas, who recently has joined a gang of Sikh and Hindu youths, led by "Hard-jit" (real name Harjit), in the "little India" of west London. The aspirational gangsta swirls us into a bhuna of gang-fights, inter-faith romance and organised crime, and the dizzy humour that underpins his voice is sharp, clever and convincing.

The novel centres on a critique of the patriarchal oppressiveness, hypocrisy, power-freakery, super-materialism and general neurotic misery of South Asian extended-family psychodrama and it works best as a satire aimed at the teenage market. London is defined by a highly flammable mixture of pre-modern tribalism, post- modern subculture and late capitalist individualism.

In a linguistic politics redolent of Sam Selvon, Victor Headley and Irvine Welsh, Malkani conveys with élan and expertise, through a suburban "desi-dialect", the absurdity of adolescence and the complex self-deceptions of contemporary cultural dynamics in the UK. "Here lies Jas, My surname too fuckin long an too fuckin shameful to fit on my own fuckin gravestone". Non-Standard English words are neither italicised nor glossed. The powerful, sometimes homoerotic, depiction of violence and sexual frustration parallels a harnessing of living thought-speech which allows Malkani to break away from the stultifying rigidity of "Home Counties" narrative style, and this frees his protagonist to express high-order thought in a fluid demotic.

However, Londonstani is best described as a competent early effort. The author's fear of being off message dilutes the novel's power, reaffirms liberal bourgeois boundaries and marks the book down as teen blaxploitation.

If it is to be real, redemption has to be hard-fought, not delivered through platitudes. Like too much British Asian drama and fiction, far from challenging the reader, the book is full of restaurants and (arranged) marriages - the easy drippings of South Asian culture, the types of paradigm through which white elites perceive the "other". Worthy societal discussions and interminable economics tutorials represent a tedious and insufficiently fictionalised attempt to provide broader historical context. Gaffes are rare, but astounding: "How often you hear bout female Islamic fundamentalists?" Quite a lot, actually.

Reading Londonstani is like watching 500 episodes of Goodness Gracious Me. There is a serious lack of depth. Empathy is created for South Asians only if they speak with a British accent. First-generation South Asian immigrants are not accorded the same linguistic breath, back-story or vision as British Asians or whites: "Don't give me stupid question. Their daughter is becoming our daughter and you give me stupid question. Vot kind of man you are? And today my friends ask me vot I'm wearing on Saturday. Wearing to vot? How shameful this is, I not even know." Why is it, in so many novels and dramas, a South Asian, Scottish, Welsh or Yorkshire accent is portrayed as clownish while a south-eastern English accent is depicted as "cool"?

The slick, young business sadist with whom the Indo-Brit rudeboys get in cahoots seems painfully generic. This type of dialogue and characterisation may have seemed revolutionary in 1985, when spun through the chic punkery of My Beautiful Launderette, but now it sounds lazy, stereotypical and worst of all for a "street-cred" novel, passé. All this represents imperial caricature from the "long 19th century" upon which, it seems, the sun has never really set.

The white people in the novel, whose worst sin seems to be naïveté, seem balanced, human, and sensitive, whereas most of the Asians seem vain, devious, hysterical, and violent. One of the prime functions of a writer is to bear witness to truth. The aftertaste of Londonstani is that the state of "Asian-ness" is irredeemably primitive, destructive and existentially separate from the redemptive state of "White-ness". This is a shabby, 21st-century, Orientalism and is not dissimilar from the mentality via which the Middle East is being re-colonised.

Books matter. Novels are not written in a vacuum and all things have never ever been equal. Londonstani tells upper-middle-class white elites what they want to hear. It reinforces the structures of power in the world of information to which the novel as an art-form belongs.

There is death in this novel, but no despair. This, and the main plot twist, seem contrived and unconvincing, even in satirical terms. Comedy should be etched in darkness and Londonstani has none. Consequently, we never really care what happens to any of the characters.

Towards the end, this multicultural cult novel degenerates into melodrama, a satire on Bollywood, but, as with the plot, the joints are visible, clunky. The over-complicated mobile "fone" scam which delivers the climax rings tame and flat. Hard-jit and the "raggastanis" vanish two-thirds of the way through, leaving no trace on the consciousness of either protagonist or reader. Londonstani is an illustration of the fact that writing a book in demotic in itself does not make a novel ground-breaking, singular or vital.

As with Brick Lane, the hype is unwarranted and artistically does the author no favours. Too often the latest groovy writer of South Asian origin comes to be worshipped by the (white) gatekeepers of the literary salons as a (bogus) cipher for colonial redemption. Nonetheless, Londonstani marks a competent debut by a talented writer.

Suhayl Saadi's novel 'Psychoraag' (Black and White Publishing) won a PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power