Friday 19 December 2014

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Twenty five years on from when Asian youths confronted skinheads on the streets of Britain’s cities, a new generation of teenagers are navigating ethnicity and identity in Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani.

The immediate threat of racism has receded. Hounslow is a comparatively prosperous London suburb, not an inner city ghetto, so just how far do Jas and his mates have to go to prove they are hard men, not ‘batty coconuts?’

The narrator, Jas, is an intelligent young man whose natural, liberal instincts keep poking through, before being swamped again by the need to prove his ‘rudeboy’ credentials. Like teenagers everywhere, he constantly contradicts himself.

It is increasingly clear that the only thing these boys really have to rebel against is their own families. The refrain that ‘you have to respect your elders, innit?’ clashes with Jas’s almost allergic reaction to his own parents, whom he can’t bear to be in the same room with. The world view of adults is compared to the plugged-in illusions of The Matrix. And there is a recurring metaphor about ‘family-related shit’ that is graphically exploited.

Malkani wrote his dissertation on race, gender and identity among teenage boys in his native Hounslow, and Londonstani is the fictionalised outcome of his studies. The book is dotted with episodes of shocking violence. And yet it is hard not to feel empathy for Jas, whose brain is constantly trying to escape from the narrow limitations of what Malkani, on his website, refers to as ‘hyper-masculinity.’

Londonstani is written in a dialect that is a mishmash of Punjabi, hiphop, West London slang and text-speak. As Malkani explains on his website, this is an invention of language that won’t date because no one has ever spoken exactly like this. He provides no glossary and though the meanings are mostly easy enough to work out, the book could be hard going if you have no familiarity with any of the elements that make it up.

As a portrayal of angsty teenage boyhood, this book belongs in the tradition of Josef Svorecki’s The Cowards and JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Oh, and there is a twist at the end that you won’t see coming.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Josef Svorecki’s The Cowards, Suhayl Saadi’s Psychoraag, Polly Courtney’s Feral Youth,

Avoid if you dislike: Graphic violence, bad language, books written in dialect

Perfect Accompaniment: Samosas with auntie’s napalm sauce

Genre: Lit fic, coming of age story

Available from Amazon.

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