Hindustani. Pakistani. And now it’s Londonstani, where “desis” and “goras” fight for turf and for identity.
FROM PAKIS TO DESIS
Gang leader Hardjit, the main character in Londonstani, has a warning: “Call me a paki again n I whip yo ass wid it.” Or else, he swears: “U bhanchod b callin us lot paki one more time an I swear we'll cut'chyu up, innit.” We are told that’s because he regards it “as some kind of civic duty to educate others in this basic social etiquette.”
So, according to Hardjit, “ A paki is someone who comes from Pakistan. Us bredrens who don't come from Pakistan can still b call'd paki by other bredrens if it means we can call dem paki in return. But u people ain't allow'd 2 join in, u get me?”
He further explains: “—It ain't necessary for u 2 b a Pakistani to call a Pakistani a paki, Hardjit explained—Or for u 2 call any paki a paki for dat matter. But u gots 2 b call'd a paki yourself. U gots 2 b, like, an honorary paki or someshit. An dat's da rule. You can't call someone a paki less u also call'd a paki, innit. So if you hear Jas, Amit, Ravi or me callin anyone a paki, dat don't mean u can call him one too. We b honorary pakis an u ain't.”
On another occasion he makes it clear: “ —We b four a us bredrens here. An out a us four bredrens, none a us got a mum an dad wat actually come from Pakistan, innit. So don't u b tellin any a us pakis dat we b pakis like our paki bredren from Pakistan, u get me.”
Jas, a somewhat endearing comic character, tells us why he prefers to be called desi: “People always tryin to stick a label on our scene…First we was rudeboys, then we be Indian niggas, then rajamuffins, then raggastanis, brit-asians, fuckin indo-brits. These days most of us try an use our own word for "homeboy" an so we just call ourselves desis but I still remember when we were happy with the word rudeboy. Anyway, whatever the fuck we are, Ravi an the others are better at being it than I am. I swear I watched as much MTV Base an downloaded as many DMX, Rishi Rich an Juggy D tracks as they have, but I still can't attain the right level of rudeboy finesse.”
He explains: “These days, lager louts had more to fear from people like us than people like us had to fear from them, honest to God. In pinds like Hounslow an Southall, they feared us desis even more than they feared black kids. Round some parts, even black kids feared people like us. Especially when people like us were people like Hardjit. Standin there in his designer desi garms, a Sikh khanda sahib symbol tattooed on his left shoulder an a Hindu om symbol tattooed on his right bicep”.
Already hailed as one of the biggest (because of the six digit advance paid after a massive bidding war) debut novels of 2006, Financial Times journalist Malkani has set it amongst the gangster desi boys who live in the shadow of Heathrow airport.
Written in the deep, rich slang of the immigrant culture where the indigenous spoken language meshes with one or more imported tongues, as well as layers of US influences and text-speak. Its a story about Britain’s second generation South Asian diaspora written in the unique patois of West London’s Asian gang boys and is described by the publisher as "a filthy, unflinching and politically incorrect take on modern Britain", with a cover to match.
Londonstani reveals a Britain that has never before been explored in a novel: a country of young Asians and white boys (desis and goras) trying to work out a place for themselves in the shadow of the divergent cultures of their parents' generation. Set close to the Heathrow feed roads of Hounslow, Malkani shows us the lives of a gang of four young men: Hardjit the ring leader, a Sikh, violent, determined his caste stay pure; Ravi, determinedly tactless, a sheep following the herd; Amit, whose brother Arun is struggling to win the approval of his mother for the Hindu girl he has chosen to marry; and Jas who tells us of his journey with these three, desperate to win their approval, desperate too for Samira, a Muslim girl, which in this story can only have bad consequences.
Mostly it is Jas who is in trouble. Because of who he is - an eighteen-year-old Punjabi living in London. Because of the gang he hangs out with. And because of the woman he fancies, who Jas shouldn't have taken a shining to because she is, as his pals point out, not one of his own. He's in trouble because his education, never mind his career, is going nowhere. And he's fallen into the schemes, games and prejudices of his friends on the streets of the big western city in which he lives. But Jas's main trouble is Jas himself, and he doesn't even know the trouble he's in, and try as hard as he does, he's failing to make sense of what it is to be young, male and what you might say is Indostani in a city that professes to be a melting pot but is a city of racial and religious exclusion zones. Without his parents' aspirations to assimilate, without the gifts of his more academically accomplished contemporaries, Jas is a young man without a survival plan to get by in the big city. He's out of touch, an anachronism posing as young man who's up-to-date, living free-style, making things up as he goes along in suburbs of West London.
Together the gangstas cruise the streets in their enhanced BMWs (Beemer), making a little money changing the electronic fingerprints on stolen mobile phones, a scam that leads them into more dangerous waters.
Londonstani may be one of several fascinating second-generation novels from Britain - ones set in a noticeably different milieu to their predecessor Zadies and Monicas. Funny, crude, disturbing, written in the vibrant language of its protagonists - a mix of slang, Bollywood, texting, Hindi and bastardised gangsta rap - "Londonstani" is about many things: tribalism, aggressive masculinity, integration, cross-cultural interactive techniques, the urban scene seeping into the mainstream, economics, 'complicated family-related shit'.
“With a plane roaring overhead every 60 seconds, it’s probably a good thing I decided to set ‘Londonstani’ in Hounslow rather than write it there. While it’s easy to exaggerate the effect of having Heathrow Airport in your borough’s back yard, most locals learn to press a kind of instinctive pause button during conversation and thought. Combine that with the fact that ethnic minorities make up more than 60 per cent of the population in some wards and the area soon gives new meaning to the phrase ‘broken English,’ ” says Malkani.
Malkani goes on to explain: “With its acres of plastic airport and concrete car parks, Hounslow was never going to inspire the same gritty romanticism as other urban jungles. I’m not even sure whether novels necessarily need a strong sense of locality. (The book is called ‘Londonstani’, after all, not ‘Londonstan’.) But with its characters constantly negotiating their emotional place in society – how they might co-exist with white mainstream society rather than in opposition to it – the question of physical place was unavoidable. And all roads led back to Hounslow. This was not simply because I grew up (and researched the novel) there. Hounslow is arguably the hub of the ‘desi’ subculture to which the characters belong, just as Heathrow acts as a more obvious hub for temporary diasporas.”
According to Malkani, for most British Asians the airport represents “one of two things: a gateway to India conveniently located just down the Great West Road, or the prospect of a shitty job loading other people’s luggage on to a rotating conveyor belt.” He adds, “to make the escapism even more oppressive, for some people it was the cheap flights granted to airport employees and their relatives that made possible trips to far-flung corners of the globe such as Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore.”
And somewhere along the line, the aircraft engines were drowned out by the sound of local kids mixing up bhangra, hip hop, R&B, Bollywood and UK garage to create a subculture as quintessentially British as punk rock or Britpop. Thus, Hounslow evolved into a kind of bridge between parallel movements in the Midlands and the British ‘mainstream’ represented by central London.
And it’s not just gangstas. Hounslow is also a hotbed of creativity in terms of theatre, comedy and also music with the first Asian soundsystem culture. And today’s big names in the mainstream stem from that. Names include Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jay Sean, Bobby Friction, and Markie Mark from the Panjabi Hit Squad. It’s also no coincidence that Gurinder Chadha set ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ there.
While it suits the machismo of the scene for kids to fashion Hounslow as a Bronx-style ’hood – and the borough does have its fair share of ghettoized estates and hardcore gang culture – the airport and the businesses it attracts also make for a comparatively healthy local economy. The characters in ‘Londonstani’ are therefore deliberately drawn as middle-class wannabe-hoodlums who drive around in BMWs and stop off at their private maths tutors on the way home.
In the end it is an extraordinarily comic novel that portrays the lives of second-generation young Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu men in the ethnically charged enclave of one of the biggest western cities, London. A world usually-but wrongly-portrayed as the breeding ground for Islamic militants is, in actuality, a world of money (sometimes), flash cars (usually), cell phones (all the time), rap music and MTV, as well as rivalries and feuds, and the small-time crooks who exploit them.
Meanwhile, Anne Louis Fisher of the Telegraph warns: “The world is littered with books that have failed to live up to often ridiculously unrealistic expectations. It will be interesting, for instance, to see what the sales success - or failure - of the soon-to-be-published Londonstani by Gautam Malkani will be. This novel was bought at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year by Fourth Estate (for a rumoured £380,000 as part of a two-book deal) as well as by a number of publishers in America and Europe. Written in the vernacular, which is notoriously difficult to translate, it is a remarkable story by a seriously talented young journalist and deserves to do well. It is just the money paid that is so scary.”