By Jill Lawless
Gautam Malkani had the title before he wrote the book - Londonstani.
The term - a label of pride used by South Asian kids in the British capital - fit the story he wanted to tell of teenagers loafing, fighting and searching for identity in the shadow of Heathrow Airport.
After last summer's London transit bombings, which killed 52 commuters and four bombers - three of them British men of Pakistani descent - he feared the word might fall into the wrong hands. "I was worried that in the post-July 7 world, that word would be hijacked" as a term of criticism, he said. "Originally, I heard it as a celebration of London's multiculturalism. It was a positive term rather than a negative term."
That fear prompted the 29-year-old journalist to seek an agent for the novel he'd been crafting on the quiet for four years. It's the story of would-be "rude boy" Jas and his mates as they prowl the streets of Hounslow, a London suburb defined by its proximity to Heathrow, the vast international airport that provides both employment for many residents and a constant rumbling of low-flying jets.
Malkani was not expecting the frenzy that ensued. Londonstani was the talk of last fall's Frankfurt Book Fair and was scooped up by Britain's Fourth Estate after a bidding war. Malkani says he's not allowed to discuss the amount of his two-book deal, widely reported at between US$550,000 and US$740,000 (€432,000 and €581,000).
|The author of Londonstani, Gautam Malkani|
Grappling with issues of ethnic identity, masculinity and family and told in a punchy argot that mixes Punjabi, hip-hop slang, English idioms and text message shorthand, Londonstani has been described as doing for South Asian teenagers what Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting did for Scottish junkies.
But Malkani had a different role model in mind. He was inspired by S.E. Hinton, author of such teen classics as The Outsiders and Rumble Fish.
"I loved those books," said Malkani, stylishly turned out in designer denim and a sharp haircut at a riverside London cafe. He especially loved Hinton's ability to create tough-but-tender characters who appealed to kids - not the brainy ones who lug around thick Harry Potter tomes, but the majority who rarely read books. Malkani said his goal "was to write for kids who would normally play their Playstation - to pull them back from the Playstation." Londonstani originated in Malkani's undergraduate sociology thesis, which looked at teenagers in Hounslow, where he had grown up - an excuse, he has said, to make visits to his friends double as research.
"I was really keen on studying that whole new kind of assertive ethnicity going on amongst British Asian kids back home," he said. "It happened quite suddenly in the early '90s that Asian kids started going from untroubling, conscientious kids to very assertive, sometimes aggressive."
Londonstani's central figures - wannabe Jas, hard man Hardjit, sheeplike Ravi and Amit, who has family problems - are definitely aggressive, quick to deliver a beating to any white kid they accuse of disrespect, or a Muslim who dates a Sikh or Hindu girl. They reject their parents' passive assimilation and scorn the advice of a well-meaning teacher.
It sounds grim, but Malkani finds considerable humour in the gap between the characters' thug aspirations and their middle-class reality.
|The cover of Londonstani|
Jas - formerly a diligent pupil with a fondness for Coldplay - worries constantly about attaining "the right level rude boy finesse."
"If I could, I wouldn't be using poncey words like attain and finesse," he says.
The gang is all too aware that the phat BMW they cruise around in - "slick side gills, wider wheel arches, curved roof and four chrome exhaust pipes stickin' out from under the rear skirt" - belongs to Ravi's mum.
"It reminded me of the kids I grew up with," said Amanprit Sandhu, 27, who as a Hounslow schoolgirl helped Malkani with his university research. "Some of the references are so right on - like guys checking out the fit girls in Boots (pharmacy) in Hounslow, because everyone goes there."
Malkani is surprised, then, that some sections of the British press have questioned the book's authenticity. He grew up in Hounslow and went to a local school. But because he attended elite Cambridge University and works as an editor for the Financial Times, he says he has been accused of being "a Cambridge-educated FT journalist trying to be 'street."'
"That's what the kids in the book are doing!" he said in exasperation. "These are not ghetto street kids. These are middle-class mama's boys. They talk about Hounslow as if it's the ghetto, but they live in five-bedroom houses in an affluent suburb. "I think people have read the language and thought, 'Oh, it's an Indian Trainspotting, so it must be about heroin needle-strewn council estates.' It's clearly not."
Malkani is aware that most discussion about teenagers in the British media focuses on drugs, crime and violence. His characters are drug-free, but they're not averse to fights and dabble on the fringes of crime, reprogramming stolen mobile phones. They are, in the eyes of many adults, worryingly insular. Jas' relationship with the beautiful Samira is threatened because she is Muslim, and he is not - neither his friends nor her brothers approve.
But Malkani says he's not painting a bleak picture. He says that over the last 10 or 15 years, teens' militant Asian identity has softened and seeped into the cultural mainstream to produce the inclusive "desi" subculture of the south Asian Diaspora. "You've gone from this kind of anti-assimilation ethic to this much more chilled-out situation where the ethnicity is almost eclipsed by a subculture," he said.
He recalls attending a recent concert in central London by up-and-coming Asian DJs.
"Ten years ago ... a gig like that wouldn't have been in the centre of London, and would have been exclusively Asian. Last night it was completely brilliant. It was just a complete mix of people, not only in the audience but onstage."