Many moons ago, in a now nostalgically-remembered era when cell phones and iPods were a rarity, when people wrote and spoke in full sentences and looked each other in the eye, when food was merely food, when men and women could agree to disagree politely without shouting each other down and when human beings walked around being themselves and were not defined by a thicket of labels, in that long-ago time, I was a pawn in a corporate American arena.
I am glad that that life is well behind me now, but it did have its advantages and even the odd moments of humor. My company, ever earnest and diligent in its efforts to keep its employees well-informed and up-to-date on matters beyond the corporate and commercial, would, every now and then, invite speakers to enlighten us on a variety of topics and issues. There was the Corporate Grief Counselor (I’m not making this up) who specialized in identifying, describing, assessing, measuring, dealing with, and assuaging that fragile yet powerful entity, Corporate Grief, and in how to contain its power to shatter that most precious and essential of Corporate virtues, Productivity. We were told how to Care for Aging Parents and how to rein in our Out of Control Teens. We were educated about Fighting Diabetes and Making Time to Exercise.
And then, one day, there came a woman, deadly serious in her mission to reveal the secrets of Managing Life. She was tall, gaunt and pale, and proceeded to grimly and solemnly tell us how to Manage our Lives no matter what horrible things were happening in them. Her voice was low and sad, and in that low, sad, voice, she told us the story of her Life, her cheerless, dreary, bleak Life, and how she Managed it.
It was a tragedy and misery filled life. In an airless conference room, darkened by shades that were drawn to block out the afternoon sun, we listened to her story. That her husband had cheated on her. And on the day that she found this out, she also found out that she had cancer. And then the husband walked out on her leaving her to cope with the cancer and the treatment and all the side effects and the medical payments while holding down three jobs and looking after her two children (one of whom had ADD, and the other, a learning disability) as well as her widowed mother who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the middle of this her house caught fire and everything burned down. And just when they were settling into a new home, there was a burglary as a result of which they suffered a fresh round of losses.
She went on for a good deal longer in this vein. At first I listened, shocked and saddened, then, as the litany of tragedies continued, grimly, relentlessly, I was seized with an urge to laugh. This was getting more and more ridiculous and seemed completely unreal. I sneaked a glance at my favorite colleague, my soul twin, Eva, who was sitting next to me. Her face was bright red, her eyes shone with suppressed laughter. Our eyes met, and wordlessly, we scraped back our chairs and fled from that dark, stuffy, sad, humorless room. Once outside, we laughed till all that sadness drained out of us.
And we never learned how to Manage our Lives.
And this is why I do not have a new Tales of South India post to offer you, dear readers. I could blame it on the wildly see-sawing weather that is so destructive to nurturing that delicate, fragile entity, the writing muse. Or I could point a finger at the preparations for an upcoming journey (more on that shortly) that, were I to honestly reflect upon it, really take up much less time than I like to pretend they do.
But the truth is that I am not very good at Managing my Life. I was given the opportunity to learn, and I ran away from it.
So, what I am offering you instead is old stuff, a book review I wrote a few years back. It might seem to you that there is a theme that runs through the books that I read, but this is not the case at all. Yes, this book, Londonstani, and In Hanuman’s Hands, are both about disaffected young Indians living abroad, but that is purely a coincidence. Enough of this mad rambling. Onto the book review:
Serve him right he got his muthafuckin face fuck’d, shudn’t b callin me a Paki, innit.
Without any preamble, any introductory stage-setting, any warning, this volley of profanities jump-starts Londonstani, Gautam Malkani’s debut novel. Set in the dreary, lower-middle class London neighborhood of Hounslow, it provides a completely conflicting, contradictory view of the stereotypical hard-working, academically focused, family-loving Indian immigrant. It follows the lives of four young men who are supposedly studying in a drab and cheerless school for those who have failed their A-Level (high school) exams. Supposedly, because they spend most of their time as “rudeboys”, in a life of petty crime, running a cell-phone reprogramming operation, and not-so-petty violence, beating up those whom they imagine have slighted them – and in their world, it takes very little to incur their wrath.
The book’s narrator is Jas, a former straight-A student and teacher’s pet, someone with a genuine love of books and learning, but who is painfully shy and lonely, and completely lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem. Willy-nilly, he is adopted by Hardjit (Harjit in his pre-thug days; the added D is to emphasize his hardness and toughness, both of body and temperament), the vain, foul-mouthed leader of this gang of four. Ravi, a sex-obsessed eager-to-please type who has the knack of usually saying the wrong thing, and Amit, who is embroiled in “complicated family-related shit”, are the other two members of the group.
Jas learns very quickly to drop any hint of academic ambition, and his stammering and painful silences vanish as he adopts the patois of his new friends. This patois, an often cringe-inducing mixture of profane and violent street-slang, SMS text-ese and Punjabi, constitutes the bulk of the book. This is in some ways the book’s greatest strength, but it is also, I think, its greatest shortcoming. It is a strength, because it conjures up the rudeboy, gangsta-villain image that the boys want to portray better than any description could, since it suffuses the dialogues with so much of atmosphere. Some of it is laugh-aloud funny. But, reading page after page of this, largely unrelieved by “normal” English, becomes tedious and annoying. Some of it seems contrived: does one speak the word “before” as before, or as b4? Or “I got to be goin’” as I got to be goin’, or “I got 2 b goin”? Is there really a need for every dialogue to be written in this manner? The book abounds in this. Often, the story and plot flow sluggishly beneath the thicket of profanities and text-speak; the lingo upstages the story.
Another weakness of Londonstani is its thin story line and not-very-compelling plot. The boys are introduced by their former high-school teacher to Sanjay, a slick, super-wealthy Cambridge-educated former-banker, in the hope that he will inspire them and inject them with higher aspirations. Inspire them he does – but in a direction completely unanticipated by their well-meaning teacher. Having abandoned his former correct-and-law-abiding ways, he is now involved in various shady enterprises, which he, in smooth Cambridge-speak (which is lapped up by the admiring Jas) persuades the boys to join. Immense amounts of money, far greater than anything they could even dream of from their small-time cell phone reprogramming racket, are promised to them by Sanjay. The boys, not wanting to appear too eager or keen, voice their many doubts and reservations before eventually succumbing.
The scene in which the boys’ first meeting with Sanjay takes place in his super-luxury apartment is worthy of a Bollywood movie. Malkani’s depictions of the posh London club and restaurant scene, a vivid contrast to the bleak and depressing neighborhood where the boys live, are evocative and powerful. These descriptions make for some of the best reading in this book and are often so intensely telling that they compensate for the thinness of the plot and story lines.
The story moves on, sometimes torpidly, in fits and starts. Interspersed with the action are too many long speeches – on rudeboy rules, on how to be cool, on problems with assimilation, on “desi” (Indian) culture, on “bling-bling” economics. While they are interesting and informative in and of themselves, they slow down the momentum of the story. Some of the speeches – their former teacher’s attempt at understanding what drives them is one – come across more as socio-cultural treatises, clumsy and heavy-handed attempts to describe their disenfranchisement and assimilation problems.
The book ends with a surprise twist – as a surprise, it is extremely well executed, since (other than a few hints which one picks up only in hindsight) it is completely unexpected. However, coming as it does at the very end of the book, it fails to deliver any additional insights or understanding, or solve any puzzles in hindsight. The book could well have done without this twist, and been none the poorer for it.
Londonstani has been much hyped as a portrayal of the “desi” youth culture scene, of the “serious business of assimilation and young masculinity”. With its sharply-etched descriptions and unique “voice”, it is at once quite disturbing and very funny. For all its shortcomings of plot and story, it is well worth the read.