4cd33b42b739a82a3ae63f5f720522d0-2Gautam Malkani readily admits he’s no “rudeboy.” Though he grew up in the Hounslow area of London where his novel Londonstani is set, Malkani says he probably falls somewhere between a “boffin” (someone overly studious) and a “geek.” Some might look at him with his job at the Financial Times, his Cambridge degree, and even dub him a “coconut”—brown outside and white within. But Malkani, a wiry young man with a soul patch definitely doesn’t fit his own tongue-in-cheek description of a rudeboy—”wanna be gangsta rappers with big muscles and designer facial hair pumping out the bhangra or hip hop in a kind of souped up sport car with low suspension.”

So is Malkani a writer with no real street cred? Well, no one is really authentic in the world Malkani writes about. His gang of four—Jas, Amit, Ravi and Hardjit (once Harjit)—might talk tough, even beat up goras, but they ride around in Ravi’s mom’s lilac BMW E46 (license plate K4V1TA) and in between their clockwork-orange anti-social moments and cell phone scams they politely take calls from their moms about what to pick up at the supermarket.

That, says Malkani, is precisely the dynamic he wanted to explore. These are not ghetto kids born into the mean streets of London. These are middle-class boys who once fit the British Asian stereotype—“skinny, geeky, conscientious, studious, and quite subservient.” Sunny Hundal, who edits Asians in Media in the United Kingdom, agrees that “there is almost this pretense that they live in the ghetto, when in reality they live in well-off suburbs that are not very crime prone and they all aspire to BMWs and bling.”

Then in the early 1990s the subservient middle-class Asians suddenly morphed into rudeboys. Malkani remembers that during that time it seemed as if “almost on a weekly basis a new friend would decide to throw away the traditional British stereotype and adopt the rudeboy identity,” which was much more Tupac Shakur and hardcore bhangra than Talvin Singh and the Asian Underground.

Intrigued by this identity morphing, he proposed studying the reasons behind it for his undergraduate thesis at Cambridge. He admits with a grin that his tutor caught on to the fact that he was basically “proposing to go back home and study [his] mates and call it [his] undergraduate thesis.” His tutor agreed but on the condition that instead of looking at the phenomenon through the obvious racial lens, he submitted his thesis under the gender relations paper.

4cd33b42b739a82a3ae63f5f720522d0-3He did just that. Malkani started to explore “basic theories of hypermasculinity—ideas about how boys overshoot their machismo if they try to be more manly than their mothers rather than as manly as their fathers.” It started off as nonfiction over eight years ago before it morphed into a novel. He interviewed dozens of kids about their relationship with their parents, exploring whether there was “an emotional disconnect between fathers and sons” and whether “overbearing domineering mothers ruled the household.” Of course, he started off with friends and branched out to friends of friends because he realized he couldn’t quite walk up to strange rudeboys on the street and quiz them about their relationship with their parents or how puberty changed them.

But what is interesting about this new aggressive attitude is that while it borrows heavily from hip hop and gangsta rap, it’s just as much desi-identified. Malkani’s rudeboys discuss Devdas and have Kareena Kapoor posters in their bedrooms. Their street slang is a mash up of Caribbean patois, hip hop, text messaging, and Punjabi swear words.

“Hear wat my bredren b sayin, sala kutta?”

In fact, the language of the book is what has drawn the most attention sometimes “overshadowing some of the important socio-psychological points I was trying to get across,” admits Malkani ruefully. The main point being that “ethnic identity is being looked at as a proxy or a tool to bolster a masculine identity.” Or to put it another way, says Malkani, “this is a way of walking taller.”

It would be easy to posit this ethnic bravado as a reaction to racism and skinhead taunts. But the Britain Jas and his friends occupy is rather different from the one their parents came to. In London’s predominantly Bangladeshi Brick Lane area, Aftab Ali, a textile worker, was killed in a racist attack in 1978. Three people were killed and 110 injured in nail-bomb blasts in Soho, Brixton and Brick Lane in 1999, attacks that targeted gay pubs and Asian businesses. But last July when the bombs went off in the London subway, Brick Lane was quiet. Ansar Ahmed with the Shadinata Trust in Brick Lane said he didn’t worry about going into a pub filled with white people like he would have 10 years ago. “Now we are the majority, I think the skinheads of the BNP (British National Party) have unwillingly accepted that reality,” said Ahmed. “I don’t worry about just walking around. Perhaps whites might be more afraid to come here now.”

This new reality is quite evident in the opening pages of Londonstani. The book opens with the boys beating up a white former schoolmate. “Shudn’t b callin us Pakis, innit, u dirrty gora,” Hadjit says as he kicks the white kid in the face though taking care not to get any blood on his Nike Air Force Ones. “Call me or any a ma bredrens a paki again an I’ma mash u an yo family.”

Of course, Daniel, the white boy in question, protests he didn’t call anybody a Paki. That’s precisely the point, emphasizes Malkani. The racist taunt Paki has been obliterated at least in desi-heavy neighborhoods like Hounslow. But Jas and his friends use “the imagined enemy” as “an excuse to act hard.” It’s not just the Paki taunt that can provoke fisticuffs. They even latch on to the conflicts of their parents and grandparents, keeping alive 1947-vintage Hindu-Muslim-Sikh Partition fights even though, as Malkani puts it, “a lot of us were not even awake during the history lessons when we would talk about this.” But it’s still a potent conflict to latch on to. When Jas falls in love with a Muslim girl he is more afraid of his mates’ reactions than he is of his parents. “She Muslim, innit. We best all stick to our own kinds, boy, don’t b playin wid fire.”

Malkani, who says he escaped becoming a rudeboy because he had “a very politically conscious mom” and because he was too narrowly focused on his grades so he could make it to university and become a journalist, nevertheless recognizes the sexiness in the rudeboy swagger. The good Asian boy who got good grades in school and high-paying jobs did well in Britain but “lacked the kind of virility that comes with the rudeboy scene that our Afro-Caribbean brothers had.” The rudeboys changed all that. Not only were they not ashamed of being Asian, not only were they not ashamed of their culture, Bollywood and all, “they were potent in their own right.”

4cd33b42b739a82a3ae63f5f720522d0-4Hypermasculinity is nothing if not sexual even if it’s more talk than action.

“Yeh, bruv, if I didn’t use a rubber, she’d probly have twins or triplets or four babies altogether or someshit.”
“Yeh you know it, Ravi. Back when I boned Mandeep I was jus using a large size. Now I need extra large, you get me?”

At the same time, all this testosterone comes with its own problems. When Malkani quizzed the boys (and girls) about terms like “coconut” he was surprised to find that “coconut was seen as more effeminate or gay rather than British or white.” The homophobic tinge is queer given that Hardjit with his black Dolce & Gabbana vest, the dog tags in the deep groove between his pecs, his endless pumping at the gym, and preening his facial hair would fit right in with manicured gay boys in Castro or Chelsea.

While Malkani does have fun showing up the hypermasculine strutting of momma’s boys, he says he believes the rudeboy phenomenon is overall a good thing and hopes his book in the end demonstrates that. Some would take look at Hardjit’s gora-bashing rhetoric and despair that multiculturalism has produced the ultimate anti-assimilationist. But Malkani doesn’t think so. Citing the work of the University of Leicester’s Tareque Masud, he says the anti-integration muscle-flexing is a temporary stop that allows an “ethnic group to re-integrate but from a position of greater self-esteem with their own notion of Britishness.”

For example, now BBC programming regularly appends the word desi to many of its programs. The Desibeats club scene is a lot more chilled about drawing people of all races to the music. “This could not have happened without that really assertive, really aggressive rudeboys front all those years ago,” asserts Malkani. The rudeboys themselves, says Asians in Media’s Sunny Hundal, will probably eventually go on to get good jobs in mainstream companies. “Remember, they are middle-class kids with good education after all.”

And that’s not a sellout but more a journey of finding one’s place in the world. That is why Malkani sets his book in three parts—Paki, Shera, and Desi. “Paki clearly stands for British Asian as victim, Shera stands for British Asian boy as aggressor, Desi symbolizes British Asian boy coexisting in equilibrium with mainstream society,” explains Malkani.

Not everyone has bought his thesis, however. Some reviews have been less than kind, especially in light of the reported $675,000 two-book deal for Malkani. “In Borders or Waterstone’s, Londonstani is already being airbrushed from history,” carped The Observer, saying its hefty advance built it up to be “the literary novel of the year.” The San Francisco Chronicle dismissed it as “a pulpy gangster novel masquerading as a literary text.” But The New Yorker commended its “captivating” language and The Washington Post admits, “It’s hard not to be dazzled by the way this novel hurtles us into the rudeboy scene.”

But whatever the reviews, if the book does one thing, it should show that the diaspora is not one homogeneous bunch, hopes Malkani. What he hopes the reader will take away from the book is not the dizzying colorful linguistic acrobatics with its zingy Punjabi epithets that describe unspeakable acts on everyone’s mothers and sisters, but a vision of a really cosmopolitan London.

In fact, that is where the title Londonstani came from. Years ago he heard the word used as something positive—“It was a celebration, I am British, I am Asian, I am proud, and more importantly, I am part of this multicultural project that is London.” As he was putting the finishing touches to his novel, July 7, 2005 happened and bombs went off in London buses and the Tube. Suddenly a new negative word entered the mainstream—Londonistan, “a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.” Melanie Phillips even published a book called Londonistan on that very topic.

For awhile Malkani thought of changing his title, afraid it would be too confusing. But in the end he says he refused to give up on its positivity, chronicling a vibrant desi culture that is “so potent, so attractive, and so porous that anyone can be a part of it.” And he says he just couldn’t do it to his central character Jas. “He is the archetypal Londonstani. There is no other word that really describes him better,” says Malkani.

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.

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