'Londonstani': A Streetside Slice of Culture Laden with vernacular and violence, Gautam Malkani's debut novel Londonstani follows four Asian teenage kids in London's rough Hounslow borough. The result is a comic but sometimes harrowing portrait of immigration, identity and status.

'Londonstani': A Streetside Slice of Culture

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Jas(ph) is a Londonstani, a desi rudeboy, what they used to call a rajamuf(ph) and an Indo-Brit. He and his friends, Hardjit, Amit and Ravi live and run around in West London, where they say you can tell the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi homes by the two satellite dishes standing like lollipops outside the bedroom window.

Jas and his mates are almost mournfully middle class. They run around in supped-up cars that belong to their parents, they work on their pecs at the gym, reprogram stolen cell phones, blast out gangster rap, compare bling, and want to stomp anyone they think has looked at them funny.

They speak in a language all their own that the novelist Gautam Malkani has created from the words he heard growing up in West London, hip-hop and mobile phone text messages.

Londonstani, his novel, has earned rave reviews in Britain, has just been published in the United States. It is Gautam Malkani's first novel. He's also the director of the Financial Times creative business section, and joins us from WBUR in Boston.

Mr. Malkani, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. GAUTAM MALKANI (Author): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

SCOTT: And you wrote an entire novel in this language. Let's talk about that first if we will. Could you give us some idea of this language? There's a section there that occurs early on in the novel where your narrator, Jas, is kind of laying it out for people.

Mr. MALKANI: Yeah. I'll read that.

SCOTT: And before you read this section, let's tell people listening at home, if your eight-year-old is near the radio, take him away for the next minute. There's some adult language here.

Mr. MALKANI: People are always trying to stick a label on our scene. That's the problem with having a (bleep) scene. First we was rudeboys, then we'd be Indian niggers, then rajamuffins, then rajastanis, Brit-Asians, (bleep) Indo-Brits. These days we try and use our own word for homeboy and so we just call ourselves desi, but I still remember when we were happy with the word rudeboy.

Anyway, whatever the (bleep) we are, Ravi and the others are better at being it than I am. I swear I watched as much MTV-based Richie Rich and Juggy D videos as they have but I still can't attain the right level of rudeboy finesse.

SCOTT: How did you put this language together? You're not just in a sense mimicking what you've heard in the streets.

Mr. MALKANI: No. Well, what I wanted to do to make this language as accessible to everyone, I wanted to take a timeless version of the street slang, 'cause obviously street slang changes so quickly that I was worried that if I tried to just capture it at any moment in time, it would be obsolete before the book hit the shelves.

So what I did to create that timeless version is I sort of stitched together the slang that has already stood the test of time from when I was growing up from when I did the research for this book quite a few years ago and a latter phase of research. And just generally, you know, my knowledge of the way kids speak now.

So I tried to stitch together a version of the slang that would be easy for anyone to sort of identify with. Because it borrows so much from hip-hop and MTV talk. It's not just sort of London slang mixed with South Asian slang. It's much more than that.

SCOTT: This book comes out almost a year exactly after the London bombings. And, of course, with that title, Londonstani, a lot of people will think it's a book about terrorism and it's not.

Mr. MALKANI: No, it's not. It's about an aggressive, assertive ethnic identity that was embraced by South Asian boys in Britain in the early '90s. And it's about an anti-assimilation ethic, kind of voluntary segregation of society and how that kind of works through.

But I wanted to call it Londonstani because when I was doing the initial phase of research, when this was a piece of academic research, I heard a couple of kids refer to themselves as Londonstani. And I was just, I fell in love with that term because it was the only term out there that sort of represented a pride in being South Asian, a pride in being British and a pride in being, you know, Londoners. It was a very positive celebration of London's multiculturalism.

So, you know, after the bombings of last year, when the term Londonistan and variations of the term took on more negative connotations, I just felt, look, you know, the word was originally a positive celebration of a racially mixed society and I want to keep it that way.

SCOTT: To take up the story a bit, Jas, our protagonist or narrator, if you please, has a problem. He's not a Muslim and he's got an old fashioned, adolescent high school crush on Samira, who is Muslim. And he gets lots of advice from his friends on how to, in the parlance of the book, how to go chirpsing...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...to this girl. Could I - it's a very sweet scene. Could I get you to read about what he finally screws up the nerve to say to her?

Mr. MALKANI: Sure.

Samira. Jas. Hey, Jas. How are you? Look, Samira, I know you're Muslim and I know ain't Muslim, and I know the other guys will kill me, and when they're finished your older brothers will kill me again. Well, what are you talking about, Jas? The thing is, I know I don't stand a chance with you. I was wondering whether you'd mind if I just chat you up anyway, so that you'll agree to go out to dinner with me next Saturday? Proud of me? You f---ing should be. I practiced that line a hundred times in front of my bedroom mirror and a 100 f---ing times in from of the bathroom mirror.

Sometimes I practiced it as Johnny Depp, sometimes as Pierce Brosnan, sometimes as Brad Pitt. But in the end, I went with this cross between Andy Garcia and Sherap Khan(ph) because it just works for me. Samira came back with the reply that she'd obviously been practicing herself; only I figured she probably didn't practice her lines in front of the mirror. Probably she practiced it in front of all the other guys who asked her out. Jas, she said after counting about 20 Jupiter seconds, do you mind if we make it Friday night instead? It's just that I'm busy on Saturday, busy on my second date with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: That's nice. A well-meaning teacher, Mr. Ashwood, who thinks that Jas in particular just isn't making the progress he should, decides to link him up with one of his old students, Sanjay, who's been a great success and might be a helpful influence. The teacher hasn't caught up with Sanjay's recent career arc, has he?


SIMON: Sanjay went to Oxford. He becomes an investment banker in the city, but by the time that Jas catches up with him he's on to something else.

Mr. MALKANI: Yeah, Sanjay is a hardcore gangster. I wanted to have an old fashioned villain in the book because what Sanjay does is he seduces the boys to the extreme of where they're already heading...

SIMON: Mm hmm.

Mr. MALKANI: ...in terms of not just crime, but also that sort of disassociation from mainstream society.

SIMON: Without giving away any important points of the plot, there is a real twist of an ending here, the kind of ending that makes you go back over the book page-by-page and wonder either what you missed, or honestly wondering if the novelist was playing fair all along...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And I went back pretty carefully, I think you were. But without telling people what the end is, can you give us some hint as to what you're hoping it does?

Mr. MALKANI: I'm hoping that it shows that the subcultural identity has in a sense kind of supplanted the ethnic identity. What was once a kind of fundamental racial identity is now part of pop culture, and that can be a good thing.

SIMON: Mm hmm.

Mr. MALKANI: Can be a bad thing, it can be a good thing, I mean, I leave it open for debate. But it's certainly good from the perspective of getting different races to kind of co-exist together, because unlike ethnic identities, subcultural identities are more porous and people can live together. And the other thing I was trying to do with the twist, it's a twist that can only be done in a book. You couldn't have this in a video game, or a film, or a DVD. I want it to show people who perhaps don't care much for the novel, for books generally, I wanted to show them that, you know, books can have that kind of power, and have that kind of impact that perhaps a lot of people think you can only derive from video games these days.

And it's at the end of the book, because I think it's important, I mean one of the things that I love about novels is that they stick with you and you think about them for long after because you invest so much of your own time. So I stick the twist in at the end, because I really wanted people to go away and have a real long think about the extent to which a lot of things in today's world that we think are racial phenomena, or ethnic phenomena, or even religious phenomena, to what extent they're not, that race and religion are kind of secondary to more innate impulses, and in the case of Londonstani, the innate impulse is the impulse to be tough, to be a man.

SIMON: Mr. Malkani, thank you very much.

Mr. MALKANI: Well, thank you. Thanks very much.

SIMON: Gautam Malkani speaking with us from Boston. His new novel is Londonstani. And you can read an excerpt of Londonstani on our website, npr.org.

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