(Carried in The Indian Express, May 2006)
Fourth Estate, London
UK Price POUNDS 11.99, 343 pages
This is supposed to be The One: an “electrifying debut”, a searing look at masculinity, the Asian scene and the new tribes of London, topped off with the huge advance (POUNDS 300,000) without which no self-respecting first-time novelist today would get into the game.
Get past the patois the book’s written in—a blend of Asian street slang, txt spk and gangsta rap lyrics (think imitation Irvine Welsh with an updated Peter Sellers accent), and Londonstani is a smooth ride. Gautam Malkani takes you from the first line–“Serve him right he got his muthafuckin face fuck’d, shudn’t be callin me a Paki, innit”–to the last word–“Shukriya”—without too many speed bumps.
The narrator of Londonstani is Jas, who combines the attributes of class wimp and class nerd in one. He’s saved by an instinct that tells him to shut up about the books he furtively enjoys reading, and by his honorary membership in an Asian gang, where the other three rudeboys are easily defined. Hardjit’s muscles abet his obsession with racial purity; Amit has a domineering mother who’s trying to wreck his brother Arun’s engagement; and all you need to know about
Ravi is contained in two lines of dialogue: “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 fuckin beast.”
With three of them having failed their A-levels, their lives move in a predictable groove from fights to flash cars to fit women, until they get pulled into a complicated scam involving mobile phones that takes the rudeboys to a higher level of gangsterhood than they’re really capable of handling.
I’m not going to give away the rest of the plot, except to say that there’s a twist in the tail, delivered right at the end that’s supposed to land as hard as one of Hardjit’s punches. It works, forcing you to go back to the novel and read it again—which might have been Malkani’s biggest mistake.
Londonstani comes apart on second reading like a cheap clockwork toy, revealing that its closest literary cousins are more Tanuja Desai Hidier and Nick Hornby than Irvine Welsh and company. Two key plot points involve an Indian family imploding around a marriage where the groom’s mother feels “disrespected” by the lack of brownnosing by the bride’s family and the perils of a relationship with a Muslim girl whose three brothers would carry out the Hounslow equivalent of an honour killing if she went out with someone from another religion.
There are pages and pages of (very useful) shopping advice for men: this covers clothes, bling, mobile phones and cars (from the ones that resemble piranha fish to the ones that resemble Beyonce and Snoop Dogg). There’s a nicely done primer on how to get into
London’s hippest clubs and restaurants and what to do once you’re there. And behind all the gandah lines and the overuse of fuck as a punctuation mark until it makes you want to oolti, I was delighted to discover that this was, at heart, a story with several morals. If you want the Porsche and the posh flat with the latest Bang & Olufsen system, plus the company of soni kudhis, do your A levels, apply to
Cambridge, get an MBA. And if at the end of this you’ve turned into a corporate gangster in an Armani suit whose most terrifying weapon of choice is his ability to deliver long and tedious lectures on the complex workings of the black market and VAT rebates, get back to the basics: love your mom and dad, don’t disrespect your family.
Forget the stuff about Londonstani being a brilliantly subversive work and showcasing an “authentic”, raw, original voice; don’t even get into the debate over whether it’s the politics of race or gender that lie at the heart of this book. Gautam Malkani’s real achievement is that this cheerfully mongrel novel is the product of a successful mating between the contemporary clean-cut Bollywood family film and Hornby-style Lad Lit, with an Asian Dub track playing somewhere in the background. That’s what happens when you go chasing after the Great White Whales of literature; you find Moby Dick Lit instead.