GAUTAM MALKANI reads in the Brigantine Room Saturday (October 21), 8 pm, and is on a panel with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Kiran Desai and Jonathan Safran FOER in the Lakeside Terrace Sunday (October 22), noon. Rating: NNNNN
Gautam Malkani is on the line from London, England, talking about Londonstani, his electrifying debut novel, when he suddenly stops mid-sentence.
"They're about to announce the Booker," he says. "Here, I'll put the phone up close to the telly so you can hear the announcement."
While we're waiting for the big moment, I ask Malkani if prizes matter to him.
"Well, actually," he allows, "if I'd wanted to win the Booker I would have written a different book."
No kidding. Londonstani's story of sometime violent, bling-happy, testosterone-fuelled South Asian teens told in a complicated patois of hiphop, text messaging and South Asian slang is not exactly prize fodder.
"I knew when I was writing it that I wouldn't win friends in literary circles. But I also knew it would slap kids in the face like a wet fish."
You'd never guess this high-energy, profanity-laden story started out as a Cambridge PhD thesis on South Asian identity.
Turns out when Malkani went to the committee to pitch it, they sent him back to the Hounslow community where his subjects live (near Heathrow, the setting of Bend It Like Beckham) to dig a little deeper. It was during that follow-up set of interviews that the key revelation hit. This wasn't a book about race. It was a book about gender.
"Londonstani started out as a piece about identity. I could see that South Asian kids were trying to get the kind of respect blacks got through hiphop. Then, during the interview process, I started asking them to define the slang term 'coconut.' And they said what we all know: 'brown on the outside, white on the inside. '"
I'm expecting a fast talker, someone bursting with words who sounds like Londonstani's rapid-fire prose. I get a deliberate, almost hesitant thinker instead.
"But when I asked what does that really mean, they didn't couch it in terms of race. They used the word 'effeminate, gay, weak,' all of them gender references. So the penny dropped."
Londonstani's anti-heroes - Jas, the new kid on the block anxious to fit in, Hardjit, the superbly cut body builder, Ravi, the spineless follower, Amit, endlessly besieged by his mum, who worries her sons will marry beneath their caste - do not walk the newsmaking path of other immigrant communities in Europe.
They aren't the teens of closed Muslim communities set in their fundamentalist ways getting involved in terrorist cells in London, and they aren't the outsiders rioting in the poor suburbs of Paris. They are fiercely committed to consumer culture, hot to shop for the best trainers and absolutely devoted to their cellphones.
They are also walking paradoxes, endlessly mocking the assimilationist tendencies of their very comfortable, suburban parents while driving their mums' BMWs.
That hasn't stopped the backlash against Malkani. With a degree from Cambridge, a hefty advance for this, his first novel, and a ton of media attention, he's weathered flak for not being street enough.
He finds the dis hilarious. The book is not at all about street kids.
"The whole point of Londonstani is to show how this kind of scene or mindset is more complicated than a response to racism and discrimination. I went to great pains to depict them as the product of middle-class suburbs.
"These boys pretend to live in a ghetto - which is why there is only one reference to drugs and one to graffiti in the book - when in fact they live in five-bedroom houses. A lot of people just assume that if they're ethnic they're underclass. But it's not the same as the Paris situation."
The charge that Malkani has illegitimately appropriated the story is also ludicrous; he grew up in the Hounslow community he's writing about.
"I was like those boys in high school," says Malkani. "There was an anti-assimilation ethic, a kind of voluntary segregation. We stuck together, ate at the same table, that kind of thing.
"It was interesting that hiphop was becoming more central to Asian identity than Indian music. At the same time as we were trying to distance ourselves from the misogyny of our own culture in the 90s, we got some comfort out of hiphop because it made things like machismo and materialism cool."
One of the thrilling aspects of the novel is the slang spewed out in the narration by central character Jas, a brilliant linguistic triumph in itself. But even more impressive is the way Jas, despite his fervent attempts to dumb down his language, still comes across as profoundly intelligent.
"In order to be cool and tough, Desis (Punjabi for diasporic South Asians) try to suppress their intelligence and the depth of their character," Malkani explains. "Jas's friends have already been successful in that, but Jas is just starting out."
Malkani currently works as an editor at the Financial Times in London, where he covers what's called the creative business beat. It sounds like a stretch but really isn't. The boys in Londonstani fall under the influence of sleazy role model Sanjay, who delivers a rant on bling economics that could only come from the pen of a well-informed business writer. And a key plot line in Londonstani finds the boys getting into an elaborate scam that involves reprogramming stolen cellphones.
"I've been covering media, design, advertising and technology, so I know a lot about cellphones. I've always known that phones were phallic symbols, but over the years there's been what I call a forced change on people, who now have no choice but to buy into all these networks. The mobile is more than a fashion accessory. It was only when I started writing about the business of it that I could understand all of these things."
Work at the Financial Times is food for Malkani's literary concerns, so big advance and major hype be damned. This guy's not quitting his day job.
LONDONSTANI by Gautam Malkani (HarperCollins), 343 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNNN
Profane, outrageous, completely original, Londonstani is an explosive first novel tracking the lives of Desis in the London suburb of Houslow.
Harjit is the leader, Ravi the follower. Amit's got access to the car, and Jas is the newcomer desperate to make an impression. Together they go to the gym, buy expensive shoes, admire the girls and get involved over their heads in a stolen telephone scam.
It's a big book of tricks - plot twists are a major factor. But the biggest trick is a linguistic one. Told in a complicated slang incorporating hiphop, Punjabi and U-R-there text messaging, the story never gets tripped up by the language. It is infinitely readable - you won't need pages to get the drift - and fascinating from the opening sequence in which the boys brutalize one of their schoolmates for throwing the word "Paki" at them.
The book's unique style and ability to thrust readers into its setting (Malkani is trained as a sociologist, and this is his version of creative ethnography) has garnered comparisons to Irving Welsh's Trainspotting. But Londonstani is much funnier, a devastating satire of male insecurity hiding inside middle-class alienation.