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Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Review: Londonstani, Gautam Malkani (2006)

This engrossing novel is largely written in a patois, along lines firmly established by American author Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) but which have in fact been employed by fiction writers for centuries for comic effect in their works. The novels of Walter Scott come readily to mind on this point. In the acid vein of humour those great writers established, this novel gives the reader a satirical peep behind the ethnic lines demarcated through British society in London following the 7 July 2005 bombings, which were carried out by four young men - three of Pakistani descent and one of Jamaican descent - and which resulted in 52 deaths.

A wave of xenophobia followed the attacks and blossomed in the media. Gautam Malkani is a Financial Times journalist with a background in political sciences, so he had a bird's-eye view of the public spectacle and the qualifications to understand the social underpinnings of the terrorists' motivations. He understands the problems that beset young British men of non-Anglo descent, and he leverages the prejudices of their parents in the book to illustrate how globalisation and policies such as multiculturalism - a cultural pluralism where equal value is ostensibly granted to the values of each component of the city's ethnic matrix - lead people living in society to behave in distinctive ways.

At one point the book's hero, Jas, is seen giving advice to Arun, his mate's brother, who is in the process of organising his own wedding. The demands made by the Indian culture of Arun's parents - respect your elders, the bride's parents should give especial consideration to the groom's parents - harken back to a day when different social realities prevailed. Reena, the bride, is actually a surgeon, which makes the assumption that she will become a burden on the groom's family a nonsense, and the dowry a sham. And the two young people are marrying for love, not according to the wishes of their parents, which makes a mockery of the superior airs of Arun's parents, who are of the Brahmin caste. Jas, Amit, Ravi and Harjit watch these dramas unfold and wonder how the values that so disturbingly energise the sometimes violent struggle between Arun and his mother should apply to them. So they make their own values, based on the rules of the street and those of conspicuous consumption.

At the beginning of the book the four are just failed high-school drop-outs who have been forced to retake their exams in order to matriculate. They hoon around the streets of an outer-London suburb in Ravi's mother's BMW looking for action. Their main business prospect involves unlocking stolen mobile phones, but when they try to steal the phone of Mr Atwood - a teacher in their old school - they find themselves bailed up in his office listening to a lecture about their dissipated ways. Mr Atwood is especially disappointed in Jas. He decides to hook them up with a successful ex-student, Sanjay, in order to help them understand what can be achieved in life without crime and through education.

Sanjay, it turns out, just wants more of the stolen phones, and pays handsomely for them, so the boys' business continues apace. The older man also helps Jas in his romantic quest for the attention of Samira, a Muslim girl, by loaning him his Porsche and instructing him in the secrets of London's tony nightlife. Suddenly, Jas has everything that he covets: the esteem of his mates, a pretty girlfriend and money.

It can't last, though. In the tradition of 18th- and 19th-Century novels the hero must suffer. Several things happen at once. Arun is blamed for a tragedy in Arun and Amit's family, leading to his mates ostracising him. Then he is seen by someone in an intimate moment with Samira and rumours race around the district that he is thick with a Muslim girl. Their supplier of stolen phones subsequently stops doing business with them, angering Sanjay, who turns out to be less illustrious and more corrupt than Mr Atwood could ever have imagined. Finally, Jas has a serious run-in with the law due to what he carries out at Sanjay's urging. Bereft of all his friends, Jas is forced to turn to the people he likes least for company: his parents. The final, hilarious secret is revealed at the end of the book but even without it - and it's very, very funny - the novel is a great read.

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