Aug 22, 2006 - 12:00 AM
Review of Londonstani, a book by British author and journalist, Gautam Malkani.
Fuck. Yes mom, I said it. I don’t care what your friends are going to say when they learn your son is a foul-mouthed jerk. Just wanted to let you know that not all of us Indian kids are prim and proper IT geeks and pre-med students. Behind our respectful façade of touching our elders’ feet is the fact that, well, most of us would rather be Tony Montana than Mahatma Gandhi. And I figured it was time to come clean since Gautam Malkani, a British author and journalist, has exposed us in his first novel Londonstani.
Londonstani is set in London and based on a college dissertation examining youth culture, the 342 pages follow Jas (aka Jazzy Jas), a nerd who tries but never manages to fully fit in with his three newfound thuggish Indian friends or rudeboys as they administer beatdowns on goras (white boys) and “coconuts” –brown on the outside, white on the inside – who they see as disrespecting their heritage, cruise the strips in pimped-out BMWs trying to pull “fit” girls (only Desi girls of course), and pull cell “fone” scams.
Caught between trying to be Indian versions of 50 Cent and thugged-out versions of Bollywood heroes like Shah Rukh Khan, this gang of roughneck ruffians (yet borderline homo/metrosexual with their emphasis on their bodies, carefully-sculpted facial hair, and designer clothes) use their ethnicity as fodder for their masculinity. You had to be a proper Desi, a term referring to anyone originating from the Indian subcontinent, to be deemed down and you had to be a “rudeboy” to be hard. “People are always trying to stick a label on our scene. That’s the problem with havin a fuckin’ scene. First we was rudeboys, 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.”
Filled with references to American pop culture (bling, P. Diddy, J. Lo), South Asian culture and slang (bhangra, samosas, Zee TV, bhanchod, sala kutta), and British street speak (safe, innit, ponce, batty), the book captures the authentic urban youth culture of the region its set in but also remains relevant to both Indians and non-Indians outside of London.
The novel could have been set anywhere, focused on any minority race as we all have our own regional and cultural nuances. As an Indo-Fijian raised in the today’s American urban culture, I was able to relate on multiple levels. I’ve known plenty Indian thugs hopped up on ethnic pride who, not taken seriously due to the common stereotypes of Desis, try twice as hard in order to prove that they're just as tough. I used to laugh at the Muslim crew with their FBI (Fiji Born Indian) hats and tattoos. My cousins’ Fiji Tribe crew was a joke, but the hollow tips one of them fired from a 9mm into some dude’s house weren’t (don’t worry, no one was hurt).
But like Jas’ gang who front like ballers in their moms’ lilac BMWs, the wannabes I knew had to tuck their street persona between their legs when they wiped their feet, took off their shoes, bowed to the Hindu gods, and entered their home because, as you’ll find out after reading Londonstani, there’s no wrath like that of an Indian mother upset about you kicking dirt on her culture and traditions. Besides, it’s really hard out here for a pimp when you have to get an arranged marriage.
Like Jas, I was the only one in my group of friends with a decent GPA. And though I was never a wannabe gangbanger, I tried to be down with the thug types for a bit myself because no one wants to be a square bear. Ganesh knows I’ve pulled my own minor scams, run with the wrong crowd, vandalized a little here and there, and did everything else that comes with growing up. If my parents only knew…
I’m no literary critic. I can’t draw comparisons to contemporary authors. Shit, who has time to even read books these days? Critics knock his character development and the waning of key characters who disappear to no resolve at the book’s closing. They claim the main plot twist is weak, and though I admit it is a little lame, it’s unexpected. The writing takes some getting used to – “I did used 2 fink he was a sap. But since dat time he got shot he’s been getting mo respect. Respect 2 his shrapnel, innit.” But even this is cleverly done because the txt-speak is only used in the rudeboy dialogue, not when others speak.
With Londonstani’s comical commentary on Indian culture and assimilation/anti-assimilation, Malkani captures the essence of what it is to be an ethnic minority attempting to fit in and cling to your own roots all at once. And if you’re too much off a batty poncey pendhu to relate, then you’re likely to get brucked up, innit.
*This story originally appeared at www.newamericamedia.org.
Zoneil Maharaj is the editor-in-chief of OH DANG! Magazine. He is a afraid of heights, so he may never climb off his high horse. Send him love letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.