Hindustani. Pakistani. And now it’s Londonstani, where desis and goras fight for turf and for identity in a London suburb near Heathrow.
That’s Financial Times’ journalist Gautam Malkani’s debut novel, completed shortly after the London bombings last July, in which a bunch of second-generation South Asian gang members “knew exactly how to tell others that it was fundamentally wrong to describe all desi boys as Pakis.”
Londonstani is about many things: tribalism, aggressive masculinity, integration, cross-cultural interactive techniques, the urban scene seeping into the mainstream, economics, and “complicated family-related shit.” It is unique because it’s suffused with the language of an emerging South Asian gang culture in Britain.
Written in the unique patois of West London’s gang boys, and using the rich slang of the immigrant culture where the indigenous spoken language meshes with one or more imported tongues, as well as layers of U.S. influences and text-speak, the language can be seen as both an expression of identity within the second-generation immigrant community and as a code for disguising communication from institutions of social control, thus making it a powerful narrative tool.
This is also where the 29-year-old Malkani brilliantly evokes the life of immigrants who are not really immigrants, and in the process brings an entirely fresh perspective to contemporary fiction.
The very first chapter offers a violent but stylized scene of a gang leader beating up a white boy: “Shudn’t b callin us Pakis, innit, u dirrty gora.”
The main character, gang leader Hardjit has a warning: “Call me a Paki again n I whip yo ass wid it.” He further explains, “… It ain’t necessary for u 2 b a Pakistani to call a Pakistani a Paki, or for u 2 call any Paki a Paki for dat matter. But u gots 2 b call’d a Paki yourself. U gots 2 b, like, an honorary Paki or someshit. An dat’s da rule. Can’t be calling someone a Paki less u also call’d a Paki, innit. So if you hear Jas, Amit, Ravi or me callin anyone a Paki, dat don’t mean u can call him one also. We b honorary Pakis n u ain’t.”
Jas, a somewhat endearing comic character, tells us why he prefers to be called desi. “People’re always tryin to stick a label on our 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 but I still remember when we were happy with the word rudeboy.”
And it is mostly Jas who is in trouble. Because of who he is—an 18-year-old Punjabi living in London. Because of the gang he hangs out with. Because he has fallen into the schemes of his streetwise friends, their games and prejudices. And because of the girl he fancies, because she is, as his pals point out, not one of his own.
He’s in trouble because his education, never mind his career, is going nowhere. And without his parents’ aspirations to assimilate, without the gifts of his more academically accomplished contemporaries, Jas is a young man without a survival plan to get by in the big city.
But Jas’s main trouble is Jas himself. He is out of touch, an anachronism posing as a young man who is up-to-date, living freestyle, making things up as he goes along. He fails to make sense of what it is to be young and desi in a city that professes to be a melting pot but in reality is a city of racial and religious exclusion zones.
Already hailed as one of the biggest debut novels of 2006 (because of the six-digit advance paid after a massive bidding war), Malkani’s Londonstani reveals a Britain that has never before been explored in a novel: a country of young Asians and white boys (desis and goras) trying to carve out a place for themselves in the shadows of the divergent cultures of their parents’ generation.
Malkani shows us the lives of a gang of four young men: Hardjit the ring leader, a Sikh, violent, determined that his caste stay pure; Ravi, deliberately tactless, a sheep following the herd; Amit, whose brother Arun is struggling to win the approval of his mother for the Hindu girl he has chosen to marry; and Jas who tells us of his journey with these three, desperate to win their approval, desperate too for Samira, a Muslim girl, which in this context can only have dire consequences.
“With a plane roaring overhead every 60 seconds, it’s probably a good thing I decided to set Londonstani in Hounslow rather than write it there,” muses Malkani. More importantly, with its characters constantly negotiating their emotional place in society—how they might co-exist with white mainstream society rather than in opposition to it—the question of physical place was unavoidable. And, for Malkani, who grew up and researched the novel there, “Hounslow is arguably the hub of the ‘desi’ subculture to which the characters belong, just as Heathrow acts as a more obvious hub for temporary diasporas.”
In the end it is an extraordinarily comic novel that portrays second-generation young desi men—Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu—in the ethnically charged enclave of one of the biggest Western cities, London. A world usually (but wrongly) portrayed as the breeding ground for Islamic militants is, in actuality, a world of money (sometimes), flash cars (usually), cell phones (all the time), rap music and MTV, as well as rivalries and feuds, and the small-time crooks who exploit them.
Francis C. Assisi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a columnist for indolink.com. He is currently working on a book on Desi Americans.