If conflict is what drives a novel, Gautam Malkani’s debut, Londonstani, has plenty of fuel. Throw in a narrator who tells the story with perception and humor in an argot comprised of English, Punjabi and urban slang and you’re in for an intriguing ride, even if the payoff might leave you skeptical.
Londonstani addresses a variety of internal, generational, racial, religious and societal conflict. The story is told entirely from the viewpoint of Jas, who is in his late teens. He lives in the Hounslow district of London, an area bordering Heathrow Airport with a significant immigrant population, many from India and South Asia. They call themselves “desis,” a term stemming from the Indian diaspora. But there aren’t just desis. Jas and his cohorts watch out for their blud (blood/kin), bredren (brother), bruv (brother) and bhanjis (sisters). They scorn the goras (whites), coconuts (someone with brown skin who acts like they’re white), pendhus (fools) and spods (boring inferiors).
Jas’ language is such an admixture that Malkani provides a glossary. While somewhat cumbersome at first, the reader eventually picks up on the flow of the jargon, profanity and patter. And it is in this flow, most often when Jas is in a stream of consciousness, that we find the flashes of humor and insight that expose and explore the conflicts.
At heart, Jas is a perceptive and intelligent nerd. Yet he has quelched those attributes in a successful effort to join a small gang of “rudeboys,” the desi version of gangstas who pride themselves on their style and fashion. From the standpoint of his favorite teacher and parents — and perhaps himself at times — Jas is throwing away his talents and opportunities to immerse himself in this urban youth culture.
His rudeboy group is led by Hardjit, a Sikh body builder who loves to fight. The other two members are Armit, a Hindu nationalist, and Ravi, who brags about his sexual exploits, seemingly more imagined than real. While subordinate to Hardjit they clearly rank higher than Jas. Yet as tough and independent as they wish to appear, all four still live at home. The classy BMW they ride around in is owned by Ravi’s mom. They are part of “the informal economy,” reprogramming stolen mobile phones to earn some money here and there.
The rudeboys themselves are an amalgamation of conflicting cultural notions. Their independence leads them to distance themselves from some of their parents’ traditions. This inevitably leads to what Jas calls “complicated family-related shit.” At the same time, they are proud of their heritage and their “desiness.” One of the sad historical legacies they tend to embrace is detest for their Muslim counterparts. Thus, when Hardjit fights it is to stomp a gora for allegedly referring to them as “Pakis” and in a pre-arranged battle with his counterpart in a Muslim rudeboy group.
The latter scene leads an old school teacher to attempt to rescue Hardjit’s group, or at least Jas. He hooks the four up with Sanjay, a former desi student who studied economics at Cambridge. Sanjay introduces the group to “Bling Bling economics,” takes Jas in particular under his wing and the boys are soon living large as they them move from being menial cogs in the stolen phone trade to relatively significant players.
Sanjay also helps Jas achieve one of his dreams, dating Samira, the fittest (best looking) Muslim girl around. Jas has to hide that relationship from his friends, who believe it wrong to date a Muslim. Samira’s brothers take a similar view of Muslim girls going out with non-Muslims. The reelationship eventually becomes fraught with trouble for Jas, his friends and their burgeoning mobile phone enterprise.
Malkani adeptly combines the threads of each of these elemental struggles into a generally workable whole. Readers will undoubtedly have differeing opinions on a surprising plot twist at the end. Some may think it bolsters the novel’s impact. Others will see it as not much more than a highly improbable contrivance. I lean toward the former but freely admit there’s merit in the latter. Yet even if the end might ring hollow, it does not utterly invalidate Jas’ unique voice and perspective on life and conflict in a thoroughly multicultural environment.
Complicated family-related shit: the chemists should give it its own fuckin aisle.
Gautam Malkani, Londonstani