Angry young men roam London, this time with subcontinental angst

Review Novel

July 09, 2006|By VICTORIA BROWNWORTH | VICTORIA BROWNWORTH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Londonstani

Gautam Malkani

Penguin / 352 pages / $24.95

One of the world's most complex, beautiful, rich and mesmerizing cities, London is also surprisingly prosaic: a city of neighborhoods and rivalries, of ponderous feuds and lines that can't be crossed or bridged. Toss 21st century multiculturalism into that simmering mix, and you have a melting pot ready to boil over in a nonce.

That heady (and heavy) world provides the backdrop for Gautam Malkani's debut novel about young Asian men in London's Indian and Pakistani Houndslow section of North London, where immigration and assimilation are powder-keg issues and roving youths who discount their parents' assimilationist aspirations are looking for something, anything, to jump-start their stagnant lives.

Assimilation is hardly new fictional territory for 21st century writers: Zadie Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri have addressed these issues in their award-winning books in recent years. Where Malkani diverges from them is in his wit - Londonstani is often thigh-slappingly funny - and focus. The troubled youths of Londonstani are boys-to-men scrabbling to create lives for themselves while avoiding the harsh realities of assimilation. Part thuggery, part hooliganism, part intense desire to fit in, their approach to life is wild and wily, slash-and-burn coming of age in a less-than-subtly racist society.

Malkani also re-enters territory charted by writers like John Brain in the 1950s and Martin Amis in the 1980s: Where do angry, young men go in Britain to vent or channel their inchoate rage? To the streets or to the City (London's Wall Street)?

In Londonstani, Jas, Malkani's protagonist, goes to his mates, a gang of small-time hoods: Hardjit, Ravi and Amit. Led by Hardjit, the toughest of the lot (he's also a bodybuilder), they cruise London in - what else? - a Beamer, operate a black-market business in stolen cell phones and pursue aimlessness as if it were a calling, looking way cooler than they actually are.

Jas doesn't quite fit with this gangsta-lite group, with his jarringly nonstreet references (declared "poncey" - queer - by his fellows) and his budding love/lust for Samira, a young Muslim whose brothers hardly fancy her hooked up with a Hindu Desi wannabe. (It's Romeo and Juliet in yet another neighborhood; Jas could get himself killed if Samira's brothers catch the two.)

The ache for money, power and most of all recognition grind the guts of Jas and his motley "rudeboy" crew. Their illegal cell phone exploits lead them to Sanjay, a posh Londoner who seems to want to help them better themselves but is more interested in skimming money by organizing their thievery while they take all the risks.

Londonstani is told through the authentic voice of 19-year-old Jas: It's a cryptic roux of British, Asian and hip-hop slang with a soupcon of e-mail and text-message code (y spell out a word if u can shorten it and b done with it?). Readers might find this heavy-going at first, but the rhythm quickly overtakes the possible ponderousness. More than the authenticity of Jas and his friends' actual voices, however, Malkani succeeds in replicating the authenticity of the experience of these rudeboys. They can't escape their trappings, be it speech or heritage. (As one exchange explains it: "When people say you should always Respect Your Elders, what they're really saying is you should always agree with them.")

These rudeboys might be way cool with their cell phone biz and their Beamer and their Desi aspirations that shrug the gora (white) world off, but high-pitched Bollywood musicals are always playing in the background, and the rift between what they want (Western materialist glitz and bling with some "fit" girls tossed in for love and sex) and what they have (rigid family structures in which the Old World is omnipresent, the worst aspects of assimilation press in on them and they know they will forever be "wogs") seems unbridgeable.

Malkani propels the plot along with intense wit in counterpoint to inescapable street violence; a series of escalating events leads to a not-so-unexpected twist of an ending. The strength of Londonstani, a coming-of-age story with some Shakespearean romance tossed in, lies in its authentic voice, superb humor, true pathos and sharp irony. Jas proves not so different from the angry young men of gritty 1950s British fiction, which illumines how the players may change, but London doesn't; London provides the counterpoint and counterpunch to assimilation, no matter what the context.

Londonstani is a strong and engaging debut, with Jas no less compelling than wild child anti-heroes from Dickens to Smith.

Victoria A. Brownworth teaches writing, literature and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and is the author and editor of more than 20 books. Her work has most recently been anthologized in "Love, Bourbon Street: Essays on New Orleans," edited by Greg Herren and Paul Willis, to be published in September.

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