Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Week Thirty-Two - Jeanette

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani (2006)
Recommended by Malcolm

When you’re in the back seat a some pimped-up Beemer it’s basically your job to be cool. To just chill, listen to the tunes an stare out the window like some big dumb dog with a big slobbery tongue. DMX pumpin so loud out the sound system you can hardly hear what the other guys’re sayin up front.

I don’t have a Beemer (much less one with a spoiler or whatever constitutes ‘pimped-up’ these days), and you can replace DMX with Shirley Collins, but this pretty much nails what I’ve been feeling this week. Indestructible. Obviously there’s a risk of outrageously poor decisions as a result (just ask King Canute), but when it gleams like this, who gives a shit?

The teenagers of Londonstani certainly don’t give a shit. Soaked in young urban Asian culture, Hardjit, Ravi, Amit, and our narrator, Jas (the Wil-Wheaton-in-Stand-By-Me of the group) cruise around Hounslow avoiding college, lusting on girls, picking on ‘coconuts’ (Asian outside, white inside – i.e. ‘listening to fuckin Radiohead’), making pin money by unblocking stolen mobile phones, and commenting on the key issues of the day.

Now that we cleaned these streets a saps, coconuts an Paki-bashing skinheads, we gotta do something bout all these buses. Even with a special slip road for them outside Hounslow West tube station, they always managed to cause chaos there. It was the same near Hounslow East tube, Hounslow Central tube, Hounslow railway station an Hounslow bus station (though I in’t sure it’s fair for us to have beef with buses hangin round that last one).

In an effort to replicate the lives of the group, the language of Londonstani is half A Clockwork Orange and half Trainspotting. This works well as dramatic irony – evoking how streetwise these teens think they are (compared with how naïve they actually are). But, at other points, Malkani over-eggs his prose and it’s like wading through a five-hour Prodigy video transcript.

Jas and the boys are happy just to piss about until they meet an older, successful businessman. Sanjay has women, wealth, a Porsche, and confidence popping out his collar. They’re impressed and he becomes their mentor (in a sense), providing direction to their small-time lives. The character of Sanjay is also a vehicle for Malkani (a journalist at the Financial Times, where he seems to explore some similar topics) to consider a theory of ‘bling-bling economics’.

Urban people have a very different shopping basket than the rest of the economy and therefore they operate at a much higher level of inflation […] This isn’t about society becoming more affluent, this is about a subculture that worships affluence becoming mainstream culture.

I found this all very interesting. I’ve still not shaken the effect that the 2011 UK Riots had on me.

Emotionally, the Riots directly affected me because it was heartbreaking to see a place I used to live two minutes from, Mare Street in Hackney, turn into that violent, unhappy broth for those few nights. But, intellectually too, the Riots held a ghoulish fascination for me. I struggled, and struggle, to understand them. While the media played up the acquisitive aspect of the Riots, it didn’t quite tally with some of the footage I saw: looters grabbing laptops then smashing them the moment they were out of the store. I sensed hot rage at consumerism itself by some Rioters, who felt conned into idolizing stuff by a system that despised them. Just because this protest wasn’t pithily expressed on a placard, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Sanjay’s theory offered me a further insight into this. Societies are notoriously precarious at a time of hyper-inflation; if the urban cultures involved in the riots felt beset by a type of inflation largely hidden from mainstream narratives, then this will have helped fuel the Rioters’ hatred and blind vengeance (yet be incomprehensible to anyone not directly affected by it).

Overall, although it investigates some very interesting tensions, I’m not convinced that Londonstani is quite as deep as it thinks it is. A problem for me was the ‘complicated family-related shit’ that all the characters, especially Amit, go through. This spills over into pure melodrama on occasion, and Malkani seems far less surefooted in writing this than the street-level escapades. It felt tacked-on, as if the author felt he couldn’t write about Asian lives without a handwringing over marital traditions and their fallout. Much more successful (and a far subtler part of the book) is the status of homophobia as an accepted and even endemic part of the boys’ ‘culture’. Jas has philosophical problems with the prejudice but indulges in it anyway; Hardjit, the most virulent in his anti-gay remarks, is also the only one with posters of bodybuilders rather than Bollywood women on his bedroom wall. Finally, and the aspect I liked best of all, was the universal sense of growing into one’s body and emotions. I do, after all, have a very soft spot for books about teenagers.

            Daydreamin is good for you. Better than wankin even.

I wish I could say I first met Malcolm when we were teens, because that would have been a perfect segue; but it was when he and I were in our early twenties. Malcolm was the best friend of my boyfriend, and when I met him I was way impressed – sharp and funny, with a real hedonistic streak. Now Malcolm is a doctor, and he has become sharper and funnier as he’s matured. He even had a reality TV moment on Channel 4’s 24 Hours In A&E.

I love the gallows humour so often present in medical professionals. If you’re dealing with the thin line between heaven and here every day, a head can’t be crammed with ponderous memento mori. Literally, it’s do or die.

And that brings me back to indestructibility. For me, indestructibility comes not from hiding yourself behind ramparts. It stems from being entirely vulnerable. If someone takes your coat, well, let him have your cloak, too.