In the days immediately following the July 2005 terrorist attacks in London, the American press described the city as a hub of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist cells. With headlines like “For a Decade London Thrived as a Busy Crossroads of Terror” (New York Times) and “Continent’s Issues Include Geography and Open Borders–Bombers Travel Freely, Police Cannot” (Wall Street Journal), the city was characterized as a “breeding ground for hate” and a “crossroads for would-be terrorists” where Muslims exploit civil liberties and “openly preached violence.” Like Kandahar, only with bowler hats.
This was a shock to most Londoners, including myself. True, London does have its fair share of radical Islamist clerics. There is Abu Hamza at the Finsbury Park Mosque, recently convicted of incitement to murder and racial hatred for his anti-Semitic rants; and there was the Brixton Mosque, spiritual nurturing ground of would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid. But nothing on the apocalyptic scale described by American journalists. Indeed, before the week was out it would transpire that none of the bombers actually came from London.
Nonetheless, so entrenched was the notion that the British capital had become a mutinous outpost of the Islamist diaspora that American reporters were determined to rename the capital Londonistan. The word, which I had never heard used in England before, was employed at least nine times in different American papers in the six days following the attacks.
In a bid to give it legitimacy each writer would strain to explain its provenance. And with each contradictory explanation it became increasingly clear that the source lay in the ethnic and religious template they themselves had designed for the city. In the New York Times Peter Bergen claimed: “Arab militants living in London sometimes jokingly refer to their hometown as Londonistan.” The San Jose Mercury News argued that “for years, those in diplomatic and security circles have referred to England’s capital as Londonistan.” According to the Pittsburgh Tribune Review the French were responsible: “Frustration over extradition delays has led some to dub their neighbor Londonistan.”
Quite who these “some” referred to was conveniently unreported, but such claims have since found their echo in Londonistan, a shrill broadside against multiculturalism by right-wing British columnist Melanie Phillips. Phillips claims Britain “is currently locked into such a spiral of decadence, self-loathing and sentimentality that it is incapable of seeing that it is setting itself up for cultural immolation.” Such views were given succor–but little substance–in August when British security services uncovered an alleged plot to blow up planes bound for America. This time a large number of those believed to be involved did come from London’s East End borough of Walthamstow. Whatever else ushered the most recent terror suspects into the trade, it was clearly not a desire to self-segregate. These were young men who played soccer, delivered pizzas and supported Liverpool. At least two were white converts. One waits for the first appearance of “Walthamstan” in the American media lexicon.
With the release of Gautam Malkani’s novel Londonstani, the term is now ready for public consumption in a manner far less contrived and far more in keeping with the context of Britain’s particular racial and ethnic reality–a post-colonial hub to which the four corners of the globe descended after World War II and the collapse of the British Empire. Immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have made more than a quarter of the city nonwhite.
Londonstani tells the story of Jas, a teenager living in Hounslow, near Heathrow Airport, who has fallen in with a crowd of South Asian toughs, all of whom are retaking their university entrance exams after failing the first time around. There is Hardjit, the hard man with a Sikh Khanda symbol tattooed on his bulging right bicep; Ravi, a self-styled ladies’ man with a BMW decked out to match the color of the underwear belonging to the women he seduces inside; and Amit, overwhelmed by the family rows over his brother’s impending wedding.
From the outset it’s clear that Jas is an outsider, tormented by the gang that keeps itself in bling with the help of a small-scale mobile phone racket. The only thing Jas wants more than to belong is to have a date with a much-desired Muslim girl, Samira. But his Sikh and Hindu friends warn him against looking for lust across the religious divide. Yet for all their machismo this is a tame, if not lame, bunch. Ravi’s lady magnet of a BMW actually belongs to his mum, and the gang’s mothers interrupt their underworld cellphone business to bring up samosas and drinks.
While Jas persists in his romantic endeavors, his gang hits pay dirt when they’re introduced to Sanjay, a former stockbroker who offers to buy as many mobile phones as they can pilfer. With Sanjay’s help, Jas successfully woos Samira before he finds himself out of his depth and in serious trouble over his involvement in the caper. The book ends with a twist, as corny as it is clever, which it would be churlish to divulge here.
Such a rich tale of London life is vulnerable to miscategorization. Written by a young, smart, Cambridge-educated nonwhite Briton (Malkani’s day job is editing the Financial Times‘s Creative Business section), Londonstani appears on paper to belong on the same shelf as the work of a new wave of British talent that has traveled from the racial and ethnic margins to the cultural mainstream in a single generation. The success of books by Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Monica Ali has created the impression that a version of the Harlem Renaissance has taken root in the British capital, of which Londonstani is just the latest expression. In crude demographic terms that conclusion makes sense. In literary terms it would just be plain crude.
Londonstani has little in common with Smith’s social mimicry or Ali’s slow-paced nineteenth-century realist narratives, and it occupies an altogether darker and less absurd terrain than Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia. The novel’s rough urban argot and moral ambiguity owe far more to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. Jas has a moral compass, but his friends are driven by a mix of priapic nihilism, materialism and criminality that he imbibes in order to fit in. Like Welsh’s layabouts from Leith, Malkani’s characters make up in bravado and, when necessary, violence what they lack in principle.
The book opens with Hardjit giving a white boy a beating for calling him a “Paki” (which the boy denies):
“Why didn’t you tell them I didn’t say anything?” asks the boy.
”OK, Daniel, swear on your mothers’s life you din’t call us Pakis,” says Jas.
”For fuck’s sake, Jas, you know my mother’s dead…you came to the funeral.”
Jas just turns around and jogs back to the car.
Also like Welsh in Trainspotting, Malkani writes dialogue in local vernacular–a London-street patois informed by youth, ethnic hybridity, hip-hop and new technology. Much is in cellphone English: “I also told’chyu we had 2 call Davinder b4 we left dis place, innit, so any a u chiefs know his mobile?” asks the gang leader Hardjit at one point. Jas hangs out with “Desis” (the self-description of choice for many Anglo-Asians), who all keep their distance from “khotas” (idiots) and maintain a wry indifference toward “goras” (whites). But they also act like “rudeboys,” hang out with their “bredren” and call gay people “battys”–all words of Jamaican derivation. At moments they are saying “innit” as though they are East End cockneys; at others they are calling each other “blud” and “homeboy” as though they are straight out of Compton.
At times this mix is playfully subversive–one character is told to “wake up, smell the masala tea”; Jas tells us Desi fathers will “drop you like a hot samosa.” But it can be jarring, too. Like Forest Whitaker fumbling to maintain his English accent for the duration of The Crying Game, Malkani puts unlikely middle-class words into the narrative voice of the supposedly streetwise Jas:
Regarding it as some kind a civic duty to educate others in this basic social etiquette, he continued kickin the white kid in the face, each kick carefully planted so he din’t get blood on his Nike Air Force Ones (the pair he’d bought even before Nelly released a track bout what wikid trainers they were).
It’s unclear how someone who thinks in terms of “civic duty” and “basic social etiquette” can move so easily to Nelly’s “wikid” sneakers; still, Malkani’s overall portrait of a hybridity of races, religions, ethnicities and globalized reference points is a welcome reflection of the everyday life of London’s youth.
Britain exported its codified racism to the colonies, which was also where the civil rights movements took place against colonial rule. With no history of official segregation or mass struggles for integration on British soil, there are relatively few autonomous spaces for racial and ethnic minorities outside of religion. One in two black men and one in three black women are in relationships with white people. (Bangladeshis, meanwhile, are the group least likely to intermarry.) At the same time, you will hear white and Asian kids speaking an Anglicized Jamaican patois. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. pointed out in The New Yorker several years ago, “Black culture simply is youth culture in London today.” Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G didn’t come from nowhere.
Racism, of course, still exists–in May, for instance, the fascist British National Party won eleven seats in the suburban district of Barking and Dagenham. But for the new urban generation of which Malkani and his white, black and Asian peers are part, a return to an exclusively white national identity is impossible to imagine. Two-thirds of those of Caribbean descent, a third of those of Chinese descent and the majority of children in every minority community in Britain were born there. Indian restaurants not only make the country’s most popular dish; they employ more people than shipbuilding, steel and mining put together.
Malkani gives voice to this generation of young people who flirt with the world both Phillips and her ideological American counterparts fear most–not the world of jihadis but of those ambivalent to and at times even scornful of British establishment norms. These are people who are talked about often–usually in the context of crime, immigration, race or fundamentalism–but whom we rarely hear talk. (True, none of Londonstani‘s main characters are Muslim, but as Sikhs and Hindus, none would be welcomed in Phillips’s monocultural utopia, either.) Malkani is interested in youth who are socially disaffected and sexually distracted, culturally integrated and autonomous, indifferent in their religious observance and aggressive in their tribal affiliations–a cause for concern but certainly not panic. His London is not a city of countless terror cells about to be torn apart by extremism but a parallel universe where nonwhites are so tightly interwoven into the fabric that to try and pick them out would make the whole weave unravel. There is neither racial harmony nor animosity but a banal, occasionally volatile coexistence of various traditions that rub up against one another because they have done so and they have to continue to do so.
When the boys’ former high school teacher–a poorly painted pastiche of white liberalism–tells them he is tired of hearing the misogynistic language they glean from rap videos, Ravi accuses him of being racist. “I don’t mind you using your mother tongue,” says the teacher.
In actual fact I’ve often thought it admirable the way you boys mix up Hindi with Urdu and Punjabi to create your own second-generation tongue. It’s the English code words I can’t stand…. The way your use of English makes your lot look like you’re some kind of Asian mafia rather than your use of your mother tongue.
When they speak in languages he doesn’t understand, it irks him far less than when they say things he doesn’t like in a language he does.
As long as nonwhites have been in London, people have been trying to imagine the city without them. In 1601 Elizabeth I declared herself “highly discontented to understand the great numbers of negars and Blackamoores which…are crept into this realm.” In 1788 Philip Thicknesse complained that “London abounds with an incredible number of these black men…in almost every village are to be seen a little race of mulattoes, mischievous as monkeys and infinitely more dangerous.” And more recently, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill and Match Point have filled film screens with a lily-white fantasy not unlike that of Seinfeld or Will & Grace. The characters of Londonstani drive one more nail into that colorless coffin.
Of course, the fact that this imaginary white London has overcome all evidence of demography does not in itself lend merit to every nonwhite creative response to it. While Malkani’s portrait of teenagers flirting with petty crime is lively, it falls short as a literary exploration of how this South Asian youth subculture relates to the post-9/11 British and global culture. The politics that nourish the plot with dramatic tension and energy, racial violence and pressure, appear but are never examined. The title suggests more than a tale of adolescent reckless abandon with an ethnic flavor, and yet at times that’s all the reader gets.
Malkani ignores direct engagement with the political context, which reduces his characters to a series of stiff and purposeless actions; they are all function. This vacuum also makes the pacing of the book somewhat awkward. The first third meanders; in the second the story finds its rhythm; in the third it unravels at an almighty speed, which leaves you thinking that Malkani was merely chasing a punch line.
At times Malkani also clearly lacks Welsh’s confidence that his audience will grasp the full meaning of his words. Having taken the bold step of putting the dialogue in the vernacular, he occasionally feels the need to overexplain rather than trust that the (mostly white) audience will figure it out. Twice, within three pages, he explains that “coconut” denotes a race traitor who is brown on the outside and white on the inside. This is a common dilemma for a nonwhite British writer, but Malkani’s solution only yields a common problem–fluent text labored by footnotes for readers unfamiliar with street slang.
But when Malkani steps back and lets Jas and his crew drive the novel, it comes alive. Like teenagers everywhere, their primary concern is to define themselves before others do the defining for them.
“People’re always tryin’ to stick a label on our scene,” Jas complains.
That’s the problem with havin a fuckin scene. First we was rudeboys, then we be Indian niggas, then rajamuffins, then raggastanis, Britasians, fuckin Indobrits. These days we try an use our own word for homeboy an so we just call ourselves desis.
To that list of labels imposed by others we can now add, if some are to be believed, “threat to national security” and “enemies of national identity.” Whoever lives in the Londonistan of American commentators and their handful of British counterparts, few of them appear to be Londonstanis.