Londonstani

Feb. 3rd, 2012 01:02 pm
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A few years back Gautam Malkani's novel Londonstani generated some controversy. A novel about desi culture (young people of Indian and Pakistani descent) in the UK, it was expected to be a big hit -- the advance paid for it was immense -- but it died a sad and lonely death on bookshelves.

Anyway, I saw a copy and thought it looked interesting, a mix of the familiar (part crime novel, part coming of age story, etc) with the not so familiar (desi culture). And now, having read it, well, I'm not sure what to think. At times the vernacular used by the characters,mixing UK slang, Jamaican slang, words in different Asian languages, put me in mind of a cross between Irvine Welsh's use of Scottish dialect and Anthony Burgess's nadsat slang in A Clockwork Orange, and I thought we were going somewhere with a bit of literary ambition. Then the plot started kicking in and it felt more like a gang crime thriller. Then the commentary on desi and immigrant culture issues made it seem like a work of social commentary. Then the romance and other elements made it seem like a YA problem novel.

And then the twist ending... well, I'm going to spoil it.


The narrator is a white kid of English ancestry, a desi wannabe. Which instantly casts all of the social commentary in a very different light. All of the stuff about how the young kids are making themselves much more Muslim, Sikh, or Hindu than their parents, how they're consciously rejecting the goal of integrating into society, all the stuff about how horribly sexist the young men are, all of that stuff -- it's all coming from white, English people. I was left wondering what Malkani meant me to think -- were those critiques still valid because the book was written by a member of the group being critiqued, or was he devaluing the critique by making it the view of outsiders?


Ultimately, it's hard to tell what the writer intended with this one. Was it just a big, ambitious book that got out of the author's control and didn't get the editing it needed? Did Malkani really know what he was trying to do and say with this novel?

Overall... it's often entertaining, it's interesting, but ultimately it's too much of a mess to really recommend.
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