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The International Writers Magazine: Review

LONDONSTANI by Gautam Malkani,
Harper Perennial, 2007
Paperback: 342 pp
ISBN 978-0-00-723176-8
Anna-Marie Dover

LONDONSTANI bursts with strong colours and fast action. Written in the first person, with a believable and strong dialogue, this novel’s vivid imagery jumps out of the page like a Roy Lichtenstein cartoon. Within the first few pages, the author immerses us in modern London-Asian patois, brash machismo and self-conscious fashion sense.

The world of middle-class suburban young Asians is, inevitably, divided into Hindu/Sikh and Muslim factions in which, designer clothes, expensive cars and hi-tech mobile phones are important factors. In amusing street language that can at the beginning be hard to understand, we follow the adventures of 19-year-old Jas and his band of desi friends. (Desi is the word used by the young generation of British born Asians to mean "countryman" but it is more cultural than ethnic, and compares with the term Latino as opposed to Hispanic.)

Malkani’s first novel comes recommended by his Oxbridge and Financial Times background as well as being short-listed for the Writer of the Year British Book Award 2007. A product of his degree dissertation research, this lively satire examines young male Asians’ dilemma in confronting not only their parents’ aspirational respectability and their obsession with tradition, but also the pressures of living in a consumerist society. Their answer is to create their own culture. This book examines London’s multiculturalism but is not afraid of laughing at its more absurd aspects.
The young protagonist has decided to embrace a lifestyle that borrows some of the worst aspects of black street culture, namely machismo, misogyny and homophobia. He follows the diktats of this thuggish culture and its mistrust of learning to the extent of subduing his own intellect. Every boy’s and particularly young Asian males’ terror of overbearing mothers and formidable "aunties" is neatly highlighted in Jas’s candid running commentary. However, despite the focus on youth culture, the author maintains that he did not write this work with any particular market in mind. A few chapters into the book the reader might agree, as this novel would appeal to anyone who wants to be provoked into taking a closer look at multiculturalism.

The author writes confidently and intimately, allowing the reader to get close to Jas’s feelings and schemes. Although only Jas is allowed to develop, the description of other characters’ perception of their world is both amusing and absorbing and offers us a revealing window into a new, suburban British Asian culture.

There are disturbing moments, such as the opening sequence, which starts with the vicious beating of a white boy and farcical ones, like the description of the cool, savvy ringleader, "cruising" in his BMW, playing loud music and intimidating other drivers, as he meekly accepts a telephone shopping list from his mum.

When Jas falls in love with a liberated Muslim girl and begins to assert himself to his friends, things very quickly go wrong. Towards the conclusion, black comedy develops into something more serious and the final (and unexpected) twist in the story kicks Jas into reality when he finds out that there is truth in the old adage about the non-existence of a free lunch.
A novel bursting with originality, insight and freshness.

© Anna-Marie Dover November 2007

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