‘Desi’: The newfangled Rudeboy

DEFINITION : Paki [noun] ˈpaki/:

  • Short for “Pakistani”  (offensive, racial slur)
  • Referring to “Pakistani” , or, more generally and incorrectly used, a person who is perceived to be from South Asian or the  “Indian”  subcontinent origin which is still considered offensive.
  • “It ain’t necessary for u 2 b a Pakistani to call a Pakistani a paki…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.” [Londonstani, p.6]

And so begins Gautam Malkani’s tumultuous but promising debut novel, Londonstani, which follows the journey of the protagonist Jas as he searches for acceptance amongst his peers. Cleverly reworking the backdrop of middle-class Hounslow to transform it into a Bronx-style ’hood and interspersing it with economy and business, Malkani provides a comical commentary on Asian culture and assimilation. It is this which captures the essence of what it is to be an ethnic minority; attempting to fit in and cling to your own roots all at once.

Acting as ringleader of Jas’ friends is ‘Hardjit’, a bigoted and often violent Sikh, whose obsession with bodybuilding and racial purity reflects a mania for maintaining cultural and racial divisions which borders on urban tribalism. Also in the gang is tactless sheep Ravi, whose wannabe-hardcore image is undermined by his lilac Beemer and the embarrassing demands of his mother. Equally, Amit, like the others, is as tied to his tradition-bound family as the boys are bound to their brand-name goods. Also thrown into the mix is the cross-cultural ‘chirpsing’ with sexy femme-fatale Samira, a Muslim girl acting as the proverbial forbidden fruit, which only heightens racial tensions. Yet Malkani is careful to handle race issues well, asserting that the problem at hand is not their ethnicity, but a more universal concept of social identity.

The changing labels which categorise the boys; “Pakis. Rajamuffins. Britasians. Rudeboys”, are overturned and inverted through the boys’ own stereotypes of ‘gora’ (white boy) and ‘coconut’. Guided by the unspoken ‘Rudeboy Rules’ (including such gems as “Having the blingiest mobile phone in the house is a rudeboy’s right”), the boys create their own norms through these pretexts which assert their underlying codes of aggressive masculinity. Thus the boys demonstrate their unwillingness to assimilate, maintaining their high-profiles, unlike their deferential immigrant parents. The theories of ‘bling-bling economics’, which may appear absurd at first, reveals to be a shrewd tactic applied by Jas to an urban scene seeping into the mainstream. Also ever-resounding through the novel is the concept of “complicated family-related shit”, best epitomising diverse family relationships.

Filled with indications to American pop-culture (bling, P. Diddy, J. Lo); South-Asian traditions (bhangra, Bollywood, samosas, bhanchod); and British street slang (safe, innit, ponce, batty), Malkani shows a fascinating experimentation with language. By creating a dialect that combines street-slang, business-speak, Punjabi and text-speak, the boys are able to articulate their own interpretation of a ‘desi’ identity. Although this technique may be off-putting to some, the author successfully paces the slang to make it comprehensible to the readers, allowing the novel to capture the authentic urban youth-culture of the region its set in, whilst remaining relevant to both Asians and non-Asians.

Admittedly, the allocation of women in the novel are limited either to the seemingly caricatured mothers or the exaggerated femme fatale figure of Samira. It is almost as if the women are characterised only in terms of their relationships to the boys in the novel. In contrast, Malkani in this way indicates an emphasis on a macho, exaggerated masculinity and the idea of aspiring to an unrealistic male ideal. Further manipulating this idea, the author uses his protagonist’s imagination to distort these aspirations; such as exaggerating an ordinary schoolyard scuffle into an elaborate  ‘jujitsu’ battle to rival Bruce Lee’s own moves, using a technique to show how immature, almost child-like their notions of being a ‘man’ are.

The twist at the end of the novel jolts the reader out of their notions of race and identity, urging us to “wake up and smell the garam masala tea”, to think out of the box regarding norms of cultural identity and masculinity. Some may find the ‘accent’ of the novel a little irksome; at times the reader may feel like they are listening to aimless banter overheard behind the bike shed in their local comprehensive school. But there are sparks of genuine wit which are cleverly hidden in the scenes, softly making fun out of itself but ultimately celebrating the diversity that we see around us in today’s east London.
And if you’re too much of a batty poncey pendhu to relate, then you’re gonna get bruck up, innit.

Gautam Malkani, Londonstani (Harper Perennial: London 2007) pp.362 £7.99

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