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In Londonstani, one of the most original debuts of recent years, Gautam Malkani introduces us to the world of “rudeboys,” teenage boys of South Asian descent who live in a world of flash cars, name-brand clothes, and self-conscious attitude. In language that is utterly new, Malkani inspires equal parts shock and laughter as he writes about the antics, aspirations, and fresh approach to ethnic identity practiced by this comical, inept, dangerous, fearless gang.
Jas, the narrator, is a new addition to the gang, a sensitive follower whose intellectual gift is undermined by his lack of confidence. In spite of the efforts of his former mentor and teacher, Mr. Ashwood, he has hooked up with a group of underachieving, body- and brand-obsessed desis—young men who live in the tricky space between urban aspiration and oppressive family tradition. Yet Jas fails to fit in with the crew on account of his brains, his lack of brawn, and his infatuation with Samira Ahmed, a Muslim girl who his friends forbid him to date.
Rampant consumerism drives the desis, worst tendencies as the need for greater and more upscale commodities pushes the boys outside mainstream society. When they meet Sanjay, a Cambridge graduate who has dropped out of the traditional economy and lives a life of conspicuous decadence, he exploits their lack of morality and their obsessive need for up-market goods. With Sanjay’s theory of “Bling-Bling Economics” Malkani provides a new framework for understanding the motivation behind today’s educated malcontents. Obsessed with respect but unwilling to earn it on society’s terms, selfish and narcissistic yet guided by the outdated traditions of their parents, the lives of Jas and his friends are emblematic of contemporary dilemmas. As Malkani writes, “this is about a subculture that worships affluence becoming mainstream culture” (164).
Yet these rudeboys are as tied to their tradition-bound families as they are to their brand-name goods. And over the course of the novel Jas himself changes—morphing into an advocate for personal freedom and bending tradition and conventions—putting him at odds with his hardened and unimaginative friends. But even as he realizes that their relentless narcissism embodies the self-centeredness of children rather than the hubris of grown men, he is drawn further and further down the dangerous path that they have embarked upon.
This dazzling novel portrays the complexities of current-day market economics, South Asian tradition, Bollywood movies, and ineffectual liberalism with an ending that defies all expectations. Welcome to Londonstani, a place where past and present intermingle in chaotic multiculturalism, and where the future may just belong to the rudeboys.
Gautam Malkani was born in West London in 1976. He was educated at Cambridge University and was appointed director of the Financial Times’s Creative Business section in 2005. He completed Londonstani shortly after the bombings in London last July.
Q. You wrote a senior thesis on “rudeboys.” What are some differences between analyzing a subculture for academic purposes and writing a novel?
A. For one thing, writing a novel was much more fun. Especially after a knackering day at the office. But, I was also interested in the way young people increasingly fictionalize and perform new class, gender, and ethnic identities and so fiction seemed the natural form for this book.
In addition, it was easier to distill the central conclusions of my research into a novel than into a piece of academic work because I didn’t have to keep qualifying them. I just focused on characters for whom those conclusions applied most clearly and without qualification—their aggressive assertion of their ethnic identity is a straightforward proxy for the reaffirmation of their masculinity. Like many people I interviewed for my research, the main characters in Londonstani don’t face racial discrimination or economic deprivation, and so hopefully the thesis is more clearly distilled: their aggression is fueled not simply by a struggle against society but by a more complex struggle to be men against overbearing mothers who would rather their sons remain boys.
Strangely, writing Londonstani as a novel rather than an academic text felt a little like science or economics by allowing me to hold certain variables constant in order to explore those variables I was most interested in.
Q. Why did you choose to write in hybrid slang that mirrors speech and text messages rather than written conventions? Was it difficult to maintain?
A. The slang is important for many reasons. First, to write this novel in the official Queen’s English would just sound stupid and arcane. Second, I wanted to engage with the kind of people was writing about. Third, the London slang that the characters speak also draws on Jamaican patois, American hip-hop speak, and other Americanisms such as “feds” and “bucks,” and therefore illustrates how the new ethnic identity the characters have fashioned for themselves is much more complex than a simple fusion of British and South Asian identities. Fourth, for the characters in the book, “proper” English is a symbol for the mainstream society they are trying to reject—alongside the education system, public transport network, public institutions, and the taxation system that funds them. Just as the young men in the novel display a disregard for England’s official institutions, so too they display a disregard for the official English language. That meant I could give different characters a different degree of slang to illustrate their respective animosity toward all things “official” and “mainstream.” Hence, for example, the text message speak is only really employed by the two most hardcore characters—Hardjit and Davinder.
It’s important to note that the language isn’t an exact mirror of contemporary slang because slang changes all the time and I didn’t want it to sound dated by the time the book was published. So instead, I’ve selected only words and phrases that have stood the test of time over the past fifteen years to create a timeless version of the slang. It wasn’t particularly difficult because that’s how a lot of kids spoke at my school. Then, years later, my university research provided me with audio cassettes full of slang. And, finally, you can’t escape today’s slang because it’s so mainstream. So, effectively, I had three distinct points in time to help me decide what bits of the slang have endured the test of time and what bits haven’t. By creating a timeless version of the slang, I hoped to produce something that, while not an exact reflection of how young people speak today, is nevertheless as recognizable for twelve-year-old Londoners as it is for thirty-year-old Londoners.
Q. Your novel is set in a London suburb from which the young men only foray occasionally into the heart of the city. How typical are your characters of the people who live in and around London?
A. The particular West London suburb in which the characters live—a place called Hounslow—is home to more 45,000 South Asians, so clearly no characters can be reflective of the whole community. London’s wider South Asian community is even less homogenous. There are distinct differences between the British South Asian youth scene in East London and West London—which is more economically affluent, thereby reducing the role of class or racial struggle. That said, a lot of readers tell me they recognize the characters. The Times of London and the BBC both sent journalists to schools in Hounslow to test the book’s authenticity and on both occasions the interviewees claimed the book’s characters reminded of them people they knew. Again, there’s a difference between being representative and being recognizable. You can’t represent a small suburb of 45,000 people with one book.
Q. You make some surprising narrative decisions with Jas. Why did you choose to reveal aspects of his identity to us in stages?
A. I chose to reveal aspects of Jas’s identity in stages for three reasons. First, it seemed the best way to hammer home the conclusions of my university dissertation—that the assertion of an ethnic identity is often more usefully viewed as a proxy for the reaffirmation of masculinity. Second, I wanted to demonstrate for people who don’t normally read novels just what the novel can do that video games and DVDs can’t. Third, I was trying to compress fifteen years of the development of British South Asian youth culture into a period of fifteen months. By this I mean the progression of British South boys from victims (as represented by the word Paki) to aggressors who volunteer for segregation (as represented by gangs such as the Sher Punjab—which means lions or tigers of the Punjab) and finally the transformation of an ethnic identity into a youth subculture that exists in equilibrium with mainstream society and other subcultures (as represented by the word “Desi,” which is often used like the word “homeboy”). Indeed the difference between “Desi” and “South Asian” is similar to the difference between the words “Latino” and “Hispanic.” One is a subculture, the other an ethnicity.
That’s why the three parts of the book are called Paki, Sher, and Desi. Given the plot’s relatively short time frame of fifteen months, it would have been unrealistic to show the actual characters progress through those three stages, so I used plot twists to enable the reader’s experience of them to develop through these stages instead.
Q. Why did you have Jas reject his intellectual side? How would his life have been different if he had embraced it?
A. Jas suppresses his intellectual side because I wanted to show how in this hip-hop influenced, macho urban youth scene, intelligence, sensitivity, and depth of character are viewed as feminine traits. The hyper-masculinity that drives the characters—which is reinforced by traditional Indian culture as well as hip-hop culture—requires them to suppress such feminine traits.
If Jas had instead embraced his intellectual side, he would not have been accepted into this scene. That might not necessarily mean he would have done better academically—after all, the book alludes to how Jas was crippled by a chronic lack of confidence before he found himself and his new identity in this scene.
Q. Do you think that teens such as those in Jas’s gang are marginalized members of society? If so, is it societal conventions that keep them marginalized, or their own actions and ideas?
A. The important thing is that they choose to be marginalized. They certainly don’t have that forced upon them by society—after all, they have affluent parents, plentiful opportunities, and they are all smart even if they suppress it. But, by volunteering for segregation and marginalization, the boys get to define their own brand of Britishness, of manliness, and their own rules of conduct. All this gives them more self-esteem than if they were to just assimilate by acting like archetypal Englishmen—which is what British South Asian kids used to do in the 1980s. This whole project might look ugly and aggressive at the beginning, but I wanted to show that there is a positive side to it when the rudeboys develop a “Desi” youth subculture that is as British as punk rock and which is embraced as such by British institutions such as the BBC. It allows them eventually to reassimilate and reintegrate, but on their own terms. In a sense, just like the hip-hop scene before it, British Asians have created a youth scene on the margins of society that has ultimately been embraced by mainstream society. However, we needed self-esteem to do this—which cannot come from simple assimilation and so requires a degree of voluntary marginalization to start with.
Q. The Bling-Bling economic theory proposed by Sanjay is very persuasive. How did you come up with it?
A. I wanted to show that the wrong turn the characters take has nothing to do with their take on race relations or multiculturalism—after all, the reader ultimately sees how they have reintegrated. Instead, their wrong turn is when they express their machismo and our new Desi subculture through hyper-materialism and consumerism. That’s their undoing because it erodes their sense of morality. Sanjay’s theory of Bling-Bling Economics is what the characters use to legitimize that wrong turn so in a sense, the Bling-Bling theory embodied by Sanjay is the real villain in the book.
I came up with it because I was interested in the way hyper-materialism has become less stigmatized in Britain over the past fifteen years. People used to be slightly embarrassed about spoiling themselves with luxury and gaudy goods—in the 1980s those values and behaviors were the preserve of stockbrokers, yuppies, and rap stars. By contrast, mainstream youth cultures used to be opposed to these things—from the beatniks and hippies through to goths and acid house ravers. That’s why youth cultures were often called “countercultures.” But the Desi subculture is part of the wider “urban” youth scene that also encompasses hip-hop and R&B. The urban scene is the first youth culture to celebrate rather than counter rampant consumerism and I wanted the book to explore the ramifications of that. We already have so-called “super-inflation” when it comes to the wages of professional soccer players, for example—a sudden sense of entitlement to more money and more possessions. You don’t have to look very hard at society to realize those super-inflationary tendencies are becoming more widespread.
Q. The violence in the novel is very graphic at times. Why did you choose to give violence such prominence? Is this kind of aggression, particularly as displayed by Hardjit, common among rudeboys?
A. The violence is there to encourage readers to ask the question: what is fueling this aggression and hyper-masculinity? Economic deprivation? Racial discrimination? And of course the answer turns out to be much closer to their homes—their overbearing mothers who would rather these young men remain boys. But it’s important to realize the extent to which the violence in the book is just a front—Jas’s narration exaggerates the damage Hardjit does in the novel’s opening chapter, which explains why his victim is still able to talk afterward. Similarly, Jas’s narration during the big fight scene at the disused BMX track is almost a parody of sports commentary: he breaks down his description of the fight into a series of technical martial arts moves as if Hardjit is performing a complicated football or ballet formation. So the characters’ violence, like their language, their class identity and their ethnic identity, is just a performance.
Of course, that’s not to say the violence is purely metaphorical. The hyper-masculinity inherent in the early 1990s rudeboy scene was often expressed through violence—it’s the easiest way for guys to demonstrate both to others and to themselves how tough they are. But the rudeboy scene has chilled out a lot as the assertion of ethnicity and masculinity has morphed into a subculture. So not only is the West London rudeboy scene less violent now than that which Jas describes in the book, even that which remains on the page is much less violent than Jas’s narration implies because for Jas (and Hardjit) it’s more a performance than a reality.
Q. You write a lot about the oppressiveness of tradition. Do you see obeying traditions as always negative, or something that should be tempered? What would have been a better offering for the parents in the novel to give to their kids?
A. I don’t see traditions per se as negative, but there are negative traditions in every community and people have a responsibility to question them and tackle them. Most young people do question their parents’ traditions—it’s essential to progress. For example, that’s why it’s now illegal for a husband to rape his wife. People questioned it and realized that it was actually wrong. So I think it’s ridiculous to follow something just because it’s tradition. You have to question whether it’s the right thing to do. Often following tradition is the right thing to do, but equally it often isn’t. So you don’t just follow customs for the sake of it, you do so because you believe them to be right. That means it’s essential to question customs.
With Londonstani I specifically wanted to show how this healthy process of questioning traditions is frequently hampered by the adoption of the worst values of hip-hop culture. That’s because these exact same values happen to reinforce and be reinforced by the worst aspects of traditional South Asian values—namely the hyper-materialism, the chauvinism, and the tendency to view females as second-class citizens. The negatives in these two cultures happen to coincide. And when South Asian youngsters have negative traditions such as materialism and misogyny reinforced by contemporary hip-hop culture, that healthy process of questioning traditions and customs becomes more difficult.
In an ideal world, instead of forcing customs down their throats, it would have been more constructive if the characters’ parents instead taught them to question the wisdom of everything they’re told...I guess it would then be up to them to question whether or not they should be questioning stuff.
Q. This novel fills a gap in our understanding of contemporary culture in the UK. Do you worry about writing such an extreme portrayal of South Asian life during a time of terrorist threats and suspicion?
A. The book is ultimately positive about multiculturalism. As the book develops, you realize that the ethnic identity has morphed into a subcultural identity and, as such, the boundaries the characters erect are actually more porous than you first assume. This is particularly true at the level of popular culture—in the nightclubs and on the sports fields there is more integration now than ever. And so in the book, Sanjay takes them to a nightclub where they all get down to Arabic hip-hop.
So actually I think it’s important to see the world from this perspective at this time given that, in the current climate, many hysterical voices in the media would have you believe that every South Asian kid is a potential terrorist with no loyalty to Britain and no affinity for white people. That’s nonsense if you look at what’s really happening in the streets and in the clubs. The trouble is too many journalists just have no real feel for popular culture and are therefore unaware of how much integration there is at the level. The very last word from the novel’s narrator underlines the idea that this popular form of multiculturalism does work. While the opening words of the novel might suggest exactly the opposite, the point is that that aggression is just a performance—a performance of gender more than of race or ethnicity.
Q. Do you have experience as a rudeboy yourself, or among your friends and family? How close do you feel to this subculture and where do you see it going?
A. My obsession with understanding the whole rudeboy scene stems from the fact that, as I was growing up, more and more of my South Asian school friends would suddenly decide that they wanted to distance themselves from the 1980s stereotype of the British South Asian boy as untroubling, conscientious, somewhat subservient, and extremely studious. It was the rejection of the latter that bothered me—it felt like, as a community, we were shooting ourselves in the foot just to prove that we were tough and virile. So the study I conducted at university was prompted by that obsessive teenage angst. A lot of my initial interviewees were actually my friends. But whereas I was obsessed with watching the rudeboy scene, I’d like to think I’m part of the Desi subculture that sprang from it, simply because I’m a big fan of the music.
I’d like to think that the subculture will continue on the trajectory I finished the book with: in other words, more and more South Asians will wear not their absolute ethnic identity, but their porous popular culture. Of course Britain’s more recent foreign policy disasters have been a setback for social harmony, but I hope they don’t derail things altogether.
Q. What are you working on now? Will you continue to write about similar characters and settings?
A. I’m still toying around with things right now so I can’t really say yet.
- Londonstani revolves around the actions of four teenage boys—financially well-off and studying to retake their university entrance exams—who form a gang. Define the rules that the rudeboys live by. What is most important to their identity and what do they gain by their allegiance to each other? Describe the conventions they live by in language, attitude, dress, dating, and education.
- Jas, the narrator of the novel, is intellectually gifted, yet makes the choice to become part of a desi gang. Why does he make this choice? What does he gain or lose from it? How would his life be different if he had chosen to stay the course of his previous identity?
- Though this is a book about Londoners of many faiths and countries, the characters are not necessarily tolerant or respectful. Discuss some of the alliances and conflicts that result from cultural or ethnic similarities and differences in both Jas’s generation and his parents.’ Which is more important to Jas and his friends, race or personal beliefs? Is Londonstani a positive or negative portrayal of multiculturalism?
- The gang in Londonstani moves from petty lawbreaking to more dangerous actions, and along the way acts aggressively toward anyone they perceive as disrespectful. What motivates them to act outside of the law? Do you think the gang is pushed toward delinquency by society or their families, by racism or the breakdown in traditional values, or are their actions of their own free will—a lifestyle choice?
- Women in this novel, especially mothers, are disparaged, yet they often call the shots. The four friends at the center of this book seem to both love and hate women. They are misogynistic and obsessed with sex while at the same time bending to the demands of their mothers. What do they respect about the women in their lives, and what do they need from them? What is responsible for the conflicts and antagonism between men and women in Londonstani?
- Consider Jas’s relationship with the outspoken and beautiful Samira Ali. Why is he interested in her and how is she different from other women in the novel? What attracts her to him? Do you think that the feelings they have for each other are genuine, based on substance rather than surface traits?
- The deeply emotional and culturally complex conflict between Arun and his mother over his impending marriage runs throughout the novel. What is the basis of this conflict and how could it have been managed differently? What do we learn about intergenerational problems in the South Asian community, and about the very real cultural challenges the members of the gang face, from this window into an ultimately devastating family argument?
- Mr. Ashwood is the lone voice of authority that influences the world of the rudeboys. Why does he intervene in their lives and with what consequences? Imagine yourself in his position. What would you do to try to get through to Jas and his friends? How does Jas perceive Mr. Ashwood?
- Describe Sanjay and the world he lives in. Jas and his gang idolize him. Do you consider Sanjay’s life to be successful? He has elaborate theories about the world, but what does he accomplish by acting on them? How do you imagine his future?
- What does education mean to these boys? They disparage it yet they all plan on going to university. Jas has proven to be extremely smart, but he trains himself to avoid speaking in a way that will betray his knowledge. Why does he do this? Explore the role of education in this novel. When is knowledge successfully employed, and by whom?
- Details about Jas’s past are revealed to us in a series of surprising revelations. How does each new bit of knowledge change our understanding of his motivation, particularly the last fact we learn about him? Why do you think Malkani chose to hide this final detail until the end?