Boys in the 'hood (London, that is)
A glimpse of the scared kid inside London's rough-and-tumble South Asian 'rudeboys'.
Here's what makes Londonstani a difficult read: "Yeh, blud, safe ... Gora ain't seein double, innit."
Fortunately, for American readers, the US edition comes with a glossary to help decode the West London, South Asian, rudeboy street slang. Translation of the above passage? Something along the lines of "Yes, brother, okay. The white male isn't seeing double, right?"
The novel's language is also rough in another sense: throughout the book's dialogue, obscenities abound.
But that said, deciphering the multiple layers of this first novel by Gautam Malkani, wunderkind and creative business editor of the Financial Times, offers a worthy reward, both in its delicious surprise ending (pages 13 and 240 have innocuous clues, but I'll say no more), and in the deeper meaning it imparts to easy catchwords such as "assimilation" and "multiculturalism."
British ethnic literature is currently bling (read: "flashy," as in desirable), with latest Orange Prize-winning Zadie Smith as its reigning queen. Malkani, together with Tarun Tejpal (whose "Alchemy of Desire" is scheduled to make its US debut this December) are two of the British publishing industry's brightest stars this season. With its favorable reviews on the other side of the Pond, the buzz around "Londonstani" is quickly traveling Stateside.
Language aside, the story is a simple one. At its core, "Londonstani" is the coming-of-age tale of Jas, once a good-boy social misfit who now inhabits the back seat of a "phat" lilac BMW. In his recent rudeboy incarnation, Jas completes a cool South Asian quartet that cruises the streets of the far-West London neighborhood of Hounslow.
The unchallenged leader is narcissistic Hardjit, formerly Harjit – that extra 'd' is for hardbody – who's not above using violence to maintain social control. Ravi, whose mother owns the BMW (yes, they're really just kids still), is a would-be red-hot lover, if only anyone would take him up on his offer. Amit, the younger son of a traditional Hindu family, is embroiled in complicated family matters surrounding his brother's upcoming wedding.
Together, the four participate in a small-time cellphone scam which eventually leads to larger involvement with a wealthy young South Asian businessman (who lives in a central London flat with glass floors under which tropical fish swim).
Not surprisingly, the lucrative arrangement turns awry – but not before Jas has a chance to woo the girl of his dreams, thanks to a borrowed Porsche and exclusive club entrances.
While the story of an outcast youth with cool new friends learning life lessons may seem familiar, what makes "Londonstani" a standout is the detailed depiction of how these young men think, feel, and act.
Their inside/outside identities are incongruous at best. From glimpses of the immutable boundaries circumscribed by "traditions" at home, to the money-driven promise of unlimited access to the good life, these still-impressionable boys are at a crossroads.
In forging their hybrid identities, they live by their own "Rudeboy Rules" that include telling good lies with "lots a detail in it," having "the blingest mobile fone in the house," staying out of trouble from the police, and "know[ing] when 2 shut yo mouth."
In addition to proper rudeboy conduct are the walls between "us" and "them" – the gaps between South Asians and Caucasian "goras," Hindus and Muslims, and Indians and Pakistanis.
These groups do not mix, much less mate. To ignore such rules leads to ostracism at the very least.
Yet, despite their complicated social order, unrealistic expectations, and irresponsible behavior, Malkani's characters remain boys we know all too well: They're a bunch of kids trying to find their place, just like any other kids anywhere.
Timing speaks volumes – Malkani completed "Londonstani" just after the July 7, 2005 London bombings, and the book made its US debut just before the one-year anniversary of that tragedy.
In both the US and Britain, Muslims face increasing scrutiny and fear. As a neighbor was heard to say last month when two Muslim brothers, British citizens of South Asian descent, were wrongly arrested (and one shot) during an anti-terror raid in east London, "If you grow a beard, then you are a terrorist."
Yes, merely looking like the enemy can prove deadly. But as "Londonstani" so aptly demonstrates, looking like the enemy can also mean being just like everyone else.
• Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.