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Londonstani, by Gautam Malkani
A taste of gangsta Sikh
Friday 21 April 2006
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.
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