Set close to the Heathrow airport feed roads of Hounslow, Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani plunges into a world of desis and goras. Both a classic coming-of-age story and a uniquely refreshing tale for our time, it follows Harjit, Ravi, Amit and Jas as they cruise the streets in Amit’s souped-up Beemer, making a little money changing the electronic fingerprints on stolen mobile phones, a scam that leads them into dangerous terrain when harsh reality supplants the fantasy of posh thug life.
Like Monica Ali, Malkani is largely dealing with the repercussions of ethnic diaspora once several generations have passed. You can hear it in the boys’ self-expressions; they call themselves “Desis,” a term that references their lives in perpetual exile, and the post-modernist “Coconut” – brown on the outside, white on the inside. Forced by culture, the British class system and sheer poverty, they struggle to survive in an environment that accepts them as neither British nor Gangsta.
But where Ali’s cultural anthropology is much more focused, Londonstani takes a shotgun approach, blending cultures and aphorisms and pop references at digital speed. The trouble is that it wants to be so many things that it’s a fractured reading experience.
For a while, though, they get to live the high life. Like their rap star heroes, they’re fully equipped with pimped-out rides, the latest Nokia tech, and enough bling to make Ali G give props. They also give the reader a detailed tour of London’s hippest hot spots.
Funny, crude, disturbing, written in the vibrant language of its protagonists – a mix of slang, Bollywood, texting, Panjabi and bastardized gangsta rap – Londonstani is a novel of new tribalism, aggressive masculinity, integration, bling-bling economics and the shadow of generations. Readers of Irvine Welsh, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali, and fans of movies like Trainspotting, Fight Club and Bollywood Hollywood will be drawn into this astounding narrative, one of the most surprising novels in years.