By Bill Kohlhaase
The alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners discovered recently in the United Kingdom focused negative attention on that country’s young Pakistanis. To believe the corporate media, they’re all frustrated Muslim fundamentalists who maintain questionable ties to their mother country, don’t care to assimilate, and harbor fantasies of attacking their adopted homeland and the Great Satan that dwells across the pond.
There’s a different notion of that demographic to be had in Gautam Malkani’s novel Londonstani. First, not all Pakistanis in Britain are Muslims. Thousands of them, like the central characters in this story, are Sikhs, something that complicates their relations with their fellow Pakistanis who are Muslims, not to mention their fellow Sikhs who are Indian, and the neighboring Indians who are Hindu. And while many harbor a dislike of traditional English society and institutions—they reject being “coconuts;” brown outside, white inside—they share the ideals of the global youth culture. British Pakistani guys don’t want to be Jihadists. They want to be rude boys.
Malkani, an editor at London’s Financial Times, uses this background to spin a tale that is part Romeo and Juliet,part Faust and part Mean Streets. He explores assimilation, marvels at the reach of pop culture and addresses social mores in the face of economic inequality. His young south Asian characters reject respectable society and ties to the mother country while trying to create a culture of their own. Their disenfranchisement is complicated by generational, racial and economic differences faced universally by all but privileged males. Then there’s “that complicated family-related shit,” as one character calls it. All boys, even rude ones, must answer to their mothers.
The novel opens and ends with a bloody good beating. “Shudn’t b callin us Pakis, innit, u dirty gora . . . Call me or any a ma bredens a paki again and I’ma mash u and yo family . . . In dat da truth, Pakis?” says the fit and violent Hardjit as he pummels a white student. The rhythms and dialect—part rap, part Cockney slang, part Punjabi and Urdu—seem a barrier to reading in the first few pages, but once we get the cadence and become familiar with bhanjis, bhanchods (can we say that in a respectable paper?), desis and khotas (there’s a glossary in the back of the book), they flow like thook. At some point, the phrases become so familiar that they infiltrate our own speech. Hahn ji?
The most conflicted of Hardjit’s crew is Jas, the book’s narrator. Jas has made a conscious decision to chuck his studies and become a gangsta like his friends. At 19, he has a lot to learn, and must overcome a self-conscious stammer to impress his clique and put chirps on the girls. A romantic, Jas has eyes for Samira, a Muslim girl. Her brothers and Jas’ friends have one thing in common: they’d mash his face if they discovered the two of them together.
The crew hocks stolen cell phones to pay for their designer-label clothes and not-so-luxurious lifestyle. That changes when they meet wealthy Sanjay, a Cambridge graduate who becomes mentor to the guys at the recommendation of a former instructor. What the well-meaning instructor doesn’t know is that Sanjay will open the door to more lucrative crime. Tempted by the rewards of what Sanjay calls “bling-bling economics,” the crew soon gets in over their heads.
Set to a soundtrack of desi beats, classic rap, bhangras and family arguments, Londonstani rebuts the current line on the U.K.’s South Asian immigrants. Like most males emerging from their teens, these men just want to find some respect and to achieve the material rewards they see others enjoying. Malkani finds proof of a teeming multicultural movement, one that combines Indians, British, Pakistanis and the occasional American, in the music and patrons of London’s ethnic clubs (he also sees it in the makeup of the British cricket team, as he relates in a recent New York Times opinion piece). He claims the desire for the clothes, cars and shiny baubles that decorate the global in-crowd is universal, as is the admiration they generate.
In the end, this is a morality tale with an ethnic twist, a twist that dilutes Malkani’s message. Those who like to cheer for the bad guys, especially those who start as innocents, will be disappointed in the stretch of the book’s conclusion. But there’s no denying the sizeable lessons Malkani pulls from niche culture. He sees the difficulties in finding identity in a global society, the on-going clash and mash of cultures, and the results of selling your soul to the temptations of materialism. Beneath its roiling surface, Londonstani is a comic, suspenseful, coming-of-age story, not just of individuals, but of a society. As the British might say, “brilliant.”
LONDONSTANI BY GAUTAM MALKANI; PENGUIN PRESS, 342 PAGES, $24.95.