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“Londonstani” by Gautam Malkani; “Tourism” by Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal

by Anamik Saha
14 Jun 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review

Review of: Gautam Malkani (2007) Londonstani, HarperPerennial; and Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal (2006) Tourism, Vintage.

With last year’s protests surrounding the filming of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane the debate on authenticity and representation yet again reared its head. It seems a shame that novels produced by anyone of ‘ethnic’ descent are reduced to these racialised discussions but sometimes framing texts within such discourses is unavoidable. This is particularly the case with two debut novels published by British Asian authors over the past year: Londonstani by Gautam Malkani and Tourism by Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal.

ISBN: 0143112287 Set in the bleak post-war suburbs of Hounslow, Londonstani is narrated by Jas, an awkward teenager who has managed to gain acceptance into a small gang of Sikh and Hindu ‘rudeboys’. The story centres on these young men and their various entanglements with gang-fights, girlfriends, domineering mothers, flash cars, Bollywood, R&B, izzat and an over-elaborate mobile phone heist. In particular, the novel follows Jas’ development from an initially insecure and self-loathing “gimp”, to a more assertive, independently-minded individual. His relationship with a Muslim girl and involvement with organised crime lead to a somewhat melodramatic conclusion that overshadows the underlying tale of a young man’s unravelling relationship with his masculine and racial identity.

Desi culture and sociocultural relations is at the heart of Londonstani. Somewhat predictably, Malkani’s subject matter has led to accusations of stereotyping. Certainly, plotlines involving arranged marriages, secret inter-faith relationships and gang warfare make these criticisms difficult to dispute. However it is the style of the narration that has generated the most discussion. In its first person narrative, Malkani adopts a rudeboy dialect that is a hybrid of cockney, Punjabi and gangsta-slang. While this style initially sits uneasily, the sharpness and inventiveness become more apparent and the lines become easier to digest. However, that is not to say Malkani fully succeeds, and the occasional slip into Ali G-isms undermines the actual depth of the characters.

Malkani’s choice of narrative style has been criticised for Othering Asian cultures and reinforcing notions of difference. But these arguments appear to ignore the major twist at the end of the book that rather unexpectedly, pulls the rug from under the very notion of an authentic British Asian identity. This ending was no doubt intended to highlight the impossibility of representing the Other and the inherent flaws in judging a text based on its representation of an authentic identity. However the end revelation is unconvincing and instead causes the reader to question the plausibility of everything that preceded it. Malkani’s intentions were worthy, but his skills as a storyteller are not yet fully developed as to pull off such an ambitious manoeuvre.

ISBN: 0099493047 Tourism by Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal, does not engage with the politics of representation in the same direct way as Malkani – this is not necessarily a book about being Asian – but his expression of second generation Asian identity emerges through his attack on politically-correct liberal white society. The novel follows the story of Bhupinder ‘Puppy’ Singh Johal, a cynical, emotionally-detached Southall-born thirty-something Sikh. Depressed with his status as a struggling journalist, Puppy infiltrates the wealthy metropolitan circles of west London where he falls in love with wealthy lawyer Sarupa who, unfortunately for Puppy, is engaged.

Also adopting a first person narrative (which seems more autobiographical than Londonstani), Dhaliwal’s style is nihilistic and unflinching and revels in his defiantly un-PC observations. His explicit, detached descriptions of sex are clearly influenced by Michel Houellebecq, and the ambiguous misogyny and homophobia are deliberately designed to offend the reader’s own liberal sensibilities.

We begin to sympathise with Puppy however when he describes his upbringing as a young Sikh in a racist British society. However Dhaliwal manages to deftly avoid a caught-between-two-cultures orthodoxy that is prevalent in depictions of Asian youth. Instead Puppy’s various journeys between his filthy Hackney flat and the rich surroundings of Notting Hill, take extra symbolic value. Puppy self-identification as a ‘tourist’ allows him to participate in both worlds with a detachment that helps him manage what is essentially a typically masculine existential crisis. His working-class Asian identity means that he will never be part of the status quo, but he believes that taking advantage of British society’s postcolonial melancholia can lead to some form of reparation.

Despite a surprisingly poignant ending, the central character of Tourism is still not a particularly sympathetic one, which can leave the reader with an ambivalent feeling about the book. Additionally Dhaliwal’s cutting prose can quickly descend from superior wit into plain facetiousness, which is equally frustrating. However, where Tourism does succeed is in writing about an Asian character that manages to avoid a reductionist debate about authenticity. Instead, a particular desi identity emerges secondary to the story. Puppy is a complex, fully rounded character; ‘Asian’ is just one axis in the many complicated intersections of his identity. That is not to say Malkani made a mistake in deciding to address these issues head-on. But whereas Londonstani leaves itself open to troubling debates about hybridity and authenticity, Tourism manages to sidestep these pitfalls altogether.

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Anamik Saha is a lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He previously worked as an ESRC Post-Doctoral Fellow, and then a lecturer in the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds. He has also been a Visiting Fellow at Trinity College in Connecticut and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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