An Interview with Gautam Malkani: Ealing Broadway, 6th November 2007

James Graham

<1> Is Londonstani a novel about London or about being a Londoner?

I think London is important insofar as it provides the characters with a metropolitan identity. I was really interested in the way that metropolitan identities can transcend other identities in the same way that your national identity can supplant your ethnic identity, or your racial identity or your religious identity. So in some situations nationalism becomes your ethnic identity, right Ė- we saw that in the Balkans. But I was interested in the way that in a kind of utopian world, a metropolitan identity can supplant all of those identities. For example, you donít have nationalism with a metropolitan identity - thatís why I use the word utopian. And thatís a good thing, or at least that strikes me as a good thing, because thereís a chance there for real racial integration. I mean, thatís what London does, right, people see themselves as Londoners and therefore everyoneís allowed to be in London and therefore thereís no dominant race in London: everyoneís a Londoner.

<2> And it is a novel about integration, it seems to me. What kinds of cultural forms do you see as enabling or expressing that integration? In the novel music and film are important to the subculture the characters are involved in Ė- presumably these are also important to the metropolitan identity you speak of?

Well, because itís a metropolitan identity and itís London and for various other reasons itís a very new identity, thereís less thatís inherent to it. Even with a New Yorker -- the archetypal metropolitan identity -- what actually constitutes a New Yorker as opposed to an American goes beyond just liberalism and open-mindedness ... the actual stuff that makes up the New York identity changes all the time. I guess thatís the thing with metropolitan identities: thereís nothing inherent or intrinsic about it. And so it lends itself really well to subcultures. It lends itself really well to the kind of identity the characters in the book have, because they are performing their identity and reinventing their identity and making it up as the go along.

<3> And borrowing?

And borrowing. The main thing is that theyíre not taking [their identity] from their roots. Hardjit might pretend that heís sourcing his identity from his ethnic roots or whatever, but heís not. Heís sourcing it from Hollywood, Bollywood, MTV Base and ads for designer fashion brands. All these different sources come into the mix, right. So itís a performed, made-up-as-you-go-along identity anyway, but the fact that itís a metropolitan identity reinforces that. Basically these are just fancy words for saying that these are subcultural identities. Subcultural identities do borrow from all over the shop, thereís nothing intrinsic about them. Subcultural and metropolitan identities are just as random as each other, right, it just so happens that unlike the New York identity, one of the components of Londonís metropolitan identity, I have always thought, is that it is a hub of subcultures in a way that other large cities are not. We could argue that San Fransisco has a subcultural identity but there are few ... look, Iím no kind of expert on this, but London is the subcultural capital of the world ...

<4> Itís interesting that you say that, because what we are talking about here is a novel set not so much in urban as in suburban space. Some people reading the novel could be forgiven for thinking that this is a novel about the inner-city. Certainly this idea of youths trying to perform this rudeboy gang identity suggests Ď urbaní -- in scare quotes Ė- but itís a suburban text. The characters never seem to walk anywhere for starters ...

Yeah but when people talk about suburban London I always get annoyed because I think, you know what, the suburbs are totally intrinsic to London, thatís the thing. The whole of the East End, which for a long time you would think of as being the archetypal ĎLondoní, is a suburb in a sense. London is just made up of loads of different suburbs. The tourist guide London, the Leicester Square, Westminster, Piccadilly kind of area Ė- that really is for tourists. Real Londoners are not really in Zone 1, you know what I mean.

<5> You mention the East End. A lot of fiction writing set in London in recent years that, like your own, has had a lot of press, seems to have been set there Ė- Brick Lane[1] for instance, going back further, The Satanic Verses .[2] When you were writing about Hounslow, were you conscious that this was a part of London that hadnít been used as a literary setting Ė- or am I wrong, has it been written about before?

I wasnít aware of it having been written about before ... I was aware that people had written about desi youth subculture before ...

<6> In fiction?

Yeah in fiction. Bali Rai writes a lot about this,[3] a couple of rudeboys feature quite prominently in White Teeth .[4] So theyíre there in the fiction ... that was what I was more interested in, the subcultural setting rather than the specifics of the suburban setting. A better way to say that is that these are British Asian rudeboys, not Hounslow boys necessarily. The problem is that I would never have thought that I was writing a book that could be called Hounslowstani, ever, because you canít do that. With Disobedience -- Naomi Alderman and Hendon -Ė itís not about Hendon but itís set in Hendon.[5] For some people it captures Hendon for some people it doesnít. Thatís the point, it doesnít try to capture it, it doesnít try to be definitive. And itís the same with this: some people say it brings back Hounslow, some people say it brings back Wembley or Harrow.

<7> Right, but this seems to feed into the question of authenticity that always seems to come up in reviews, especially in some of the more negative ones ... what is your response to those kinds of reviews?

The authenticity hurdle that reviewers have required me to jump implies Thomas Harris should have been disqualified from writing ĎSilence of the Lambsí because heís not an authentic cannibal or serial killer. It also implies that thereís a single authentic British Asian experience and that authentic experience canít be shared by someone who went to Cambridge and works for the FT. And yet Iím sure these reviewers know that there are a lot of Asians living in Hounslow, never mind in London ... weíre sitting in Ealing, right, you canít write a book that captures the white middle-class experience of Ealing. Some peopleís lives here might be defined by the fact that they work in the public sector, some peopleís lives might be defined by the fact that theyíre swingers. It goes without saying that brown people in Hounslow , with 49,000 of them -Ė and not all of them middle-class -Ė thereís going to be a whole diversity of ways of experiencing living your life in Hounslow. Iím sure people know that you canít capture all of that in one book. Therefore the search for authenticity is kind of meaningless.

<8> For me that questioning of authenticity comes through strongly in the novel, especially through the language different characters use. In a ĎLondonstani style guideí you have published on your website, you have made it very clear how the characters are defined in relation to different linguistic codes. But it seems to me that we are not necessarily meant to read these as being authentic representations Ė- we laugh at them as well as with them ...[6]

Well, going back to the authenticity thing, the characters in Londonstani are basically defined by their differing levels of inauthenticity -- thatís kind of the point, itís about performance and pretence Ė- so the whole authenticity test that the media kept applying to me becomes even more ridiculously meaningless. Just like thereís no definitive Hounslow experience, thereís no definitive rudeboy experience and thereís no definitive rudeboy experience in Hounslow. Hardjitís world, his place in the subculture, is defined by the fact that heís a middle-class mummyís boy trying to be a man. But heís overshooting and heís flexing his hypermasculinity in order to define himself as a man against the overbearing mother. Raviís rudeboy experience is that heís a sheep: he does what other people do. I donít remember exactly, but Iím pretty sure I made a conscious decision not to delve too much into Raviís class ... but you know what Iím saying, theyíve all got different things and the language corresponds Ė- though itís hard to notice the differences ...

<9> Unless you compiled a linguistic style guide ...

[Laughs] There are differences, and theyíre important to me because if thereís difference in the language then the voice is different and the character is different. Theyíre not just one homogenous mass, theyíre not all identical. Amit is very different to Hardjit.

<10> Right, and it seems to me that some reviewers have suggested that you are writing about some kind of ghetto scene and not noticed the irony here. These characters donít live in the ghetto, as much as they might think, speak and act like they do.

Yeah, the problem with the book was that the literary establishment expected it to be a book about the ghetto and refused to let go of that idea. They refused to view it in any other way. Itís weird. The obvious subtext was that as far as they were concerned, the only authentic British Asian experience is that of the ghetto and anything more complicated than that is invalid. The whole point of the book was to look at the construction and performance of inauthentic identities among young people today regardless of race. The Myspace, Facebook generation, whatever you want to call it, itís the first generation where identity is not prescribed. It doesnít matter what race you are, what class you are, what gender you are even, itís all changeable.

<11> In the book what comes through very significantly is the importance of things in relation to this. What Sanjay labels Ďbling-bling economicsí and Ďconsumerist aspirationí: kids stylising themselves through commodities ...

Thatís the thing ... I was talking to my brother and I was saying, Ďlook, I donít understand why the whole world thinks this book is about the ghetto when the whole point is that itís about middle-class kids pretending to be ghettoí .... it seems to be an almost wilful misinterpretation. With the paperback I had the chance to re-touch the manuscript but I didnít. I tweaked a few stylistic things, a couple of typos, but I didnít really do very much. I asked my brother, Ďlisten do you think I should just make it -- given that at hardback stage everyone seemed completely to miss the idea that these are middle-class guys and thatís fundamental to whole fucking book and the study the book is based on - should I spell it out, should I stick in a line somewhere, maybe in the teacherís mouth or something: ďYouíre not ghettoĒ?í

<12> But thatís pretty much what Mr Ashwood says anyway isnít it?

I had him showing it rather than specifically saying it. I just thought, you know, people arenít stupid, you can tell these guys are not living in the ghetto. And my brother was like, Ďdonít touch it, itís obvious: they drive around in luxury cars, they live in five bedroom houses, their mothers are dripping in diamonds. Theyíre not living in council flats. Donít change it to make that point clearer.í But I wish I had done something at the hardback stage to spell it out more clearly ...

<133> But if youíd have done that people would have criticised you for being too obvious, too didactic even, on top of the authenticity issue ...

And thatís why I didnít spell it out. Thatís why I said it has to be wilful [misinterpretation by some critics]. I canít see how people who read beyond the first thirty pages can fail to see that -- or perhaps as far as some journalists are concerned, the ghetto now incorporates five-bedroom detatched houses with a Lexus in the drive? Even the violence and swearing, itís all a performance. None of it is inherent in these characters. Thatís another thing, the middle-class identity, the language [that certain characters, like Jas at times, also use] is clearly an artificial construct ...

<14> For people who hear you read from the book this idea of language as a performance is particularly clear Ė- the way you modulate your tone, your accent ...

Yes, the violence is a performance and the swearing is a performance. For these characters the swearing is important, in the sense that itís not just gratuitous swearing, itís not just gratuitous violence. Thereís a real performance going on, real rules being observed. Itís a struggle to keep swearing so much for these kids. But theyíre trying Ė- trying too hard in some cases. Their natural way of speaking is with their mums, which is why they lay the swearing on so thick. And with the violence, again, itís exaggerated. In chapter one, the narrator describes Hardjit beating this guy to a pulp but afterwards the victim is able to sit up and talk, to have a conversation. So clearly the narrator is exaggerating the violence he is seeing ...

<15> Itís like Jas [the narrator] is describing the moves in a computer game ...

I think of it as sports commentating. Heís commentating on sports and heís really enthusiastic, and you know sometimes when you watch players just fumbling around with the ball and the commentator makes it sound so much more elegant? Itís contrived and thatís what Jas is doing with the violence. Heís describing it as a real bloodbath but youíre supposed to see through that ...

<16> But thatís the thing with his narrative Ė- heís trying to perform an identity through it but he keeps slipping into the third-person. He keeps reflecting, quite self-consciously, on the language he uses - on his old self and the self he is trying to become. Towards the end of the novel he speaks of himself increasingly as being in a film -- in The Matrix when he talks to Arun, and later, in the final section when heís anticipating the ĎBollywood Soap-Opera showdowní, he seems completely immersed in his own fantasy-filmic world ...

But thatís his reality. Thatís the point. When you have a cut and paste identity ... weíre talking about kids who have no connection with their roots whatsoever. And Ďrootsí, thatís a meaningless term when youíre a third generation British Asian isnít it? What does it mean? Fantasy is his reality.

<17> Ok, but I imagine some people might not be quite so happy with that Ė- the suggestion that if you are third generation in this country you only live your life in the present with no recourse to the past or tradition ...

No, look, for some people, their heritage becomes part of their identity. If you decide like Hardjit does that you want to be more devoutly Sikh than your parents Ė- and thatís what radical Islam is for some people, right? Third generation kids who are more devout than their parents Ė- thatís a conscious decision they make. Basically your roots become one resource and sit there alongside Hollywood and hip-hop culture or whatever. I donít mean we donít have them, I just mean roots donít necessarily have to take precedence over another form of identity. I donít mean that roots are irrelevant. Some people choose, third generation, to be more Indian than their parents. But itís a choice Ė- itís not coming from within your blood vessels ... they can easily be gangster rappers, they can follow the gangster rap identity, thereís nothing stopping them. Whereas before, maybe if you are first generation or second generation, it was in your memory, in your childhood. Itís there, itís bound to take precedence over other identities that are available.

<18> Youíve spoken quite a bit about Hardjit, about how his identity is formed, but ostensibly the main protagonist in the novel is Jas. Where did the idea for Jas come from, this white guy who wants to be one of the Asian rudeboys? Youíve discussed elsewhere how the book emerged from your MA dissertation ...[7]

BA

... sorry, from your BA dissertation which focused on your home community. Is he someone you interviewed, someone you knew from home?

Well, I had the plot, or the general ideas or themes, the idea of the mobile phone scam and all that, before I had a narrator. I was waiting for a narrator, and the idea that the narrator should be white ... well, I was at an Asian music awards night and Marky Mark, one of the founder members of a group called the Panjabi Hit Squad, won an award for best commitment to the scene ...

<19> And for the benefit of readers who may not know Ė heís a Hounslow-born white guy, right?

Yeah. And I was struck by that, and then I went to a club a few weeks later and Panjabi Hit Squad were playing, and he was really the man ... what I mean by saying he was the man ... donít get me wrong, Iím not saying he was the leader of the group or anything like that, all Iím saying is heís definitely not the tag-along and definitely not a wannabe. Heís as deserving of that stage as the other members of the group. So it struck me that it would be quite possible to have a narrator who ...

<20> So heís a desi?

Yes, heís a desi if you take the street definition of desi as ďhomeboyĒ rather than the traditional Sanskrit definition of ďcountrymanĒ -- because heís part of the subculture and head of music at the [BBC] Asian Network now. So I just wondered what it must have been like, not so much for him, but he shows how itís possible to have someone who ... you see it all the time, with parody, people try to be black or Asian, and weíve seen that with Ali G ... but here was a serious and successful example. What I mean is heís [Marky Mark] not trying to be Indian, heís trying to be part of the subculture, and he does so really well. And I thought, thatís what my narrator needs to do. He doesnít need to be a respected figure on the desi music scene like Marky Mark, but he also doesnít need to be just a tag-along. Instead, Jas is trying so hard and working so hard that heís somewhere between belonging and not belonging. Itís not a simple matter of saying he does or doesnít belong. Heís got some sort of affinity with Hardjit and these guys ... but that guy Davinder, I wanted to show that early on in the book that he doesnít want him there ...

<21> How does Jas end up then? In the final section itís as if he is on a kind of allegorical journey. Heís been cast out of the group and he begins to find affinities with things that he shouldnít Ė- he moves from travelling in cars to travelling in the tube, and then walking along to the warehouse in the rain the bus stops for him, offering a glimmer of light, of hope, before heís beaten up and then has theí showdowní with his parents. Where is he at the end of this journey? Has he become a desi, or has he fallen foul of the rudeboy codes?

Itís up to the reader to decide ... but I know what I think. For me the answer to that question all hinges on who the three masked assailants are in the warehouse. If those three guys are Hardjit, Amit and Ravi then yeah, itís a really pessimistic book because it means it doesnít work, and white people and brown people shouldnít mix. Clearly I donít mean that. If those guys were Samiraís brothers then it would say something about inter-religious relationships. Again, hopefully people will realise that it canít possibly mean that. So the natural conclusion is that they are thugs -- Sanjayís henchmen. What that would mean would be that Jasí wrong turn was not to hang around with these new guys, to integrate with them, or to form an inter-religious relationship. Jasí wrong turn was to get seduced by all the materialism and all the bad things about the subculture that Sanjay represents, but which is also reflected in hip-hop culture and traditional Indian culture -- the hyper-materialism, the hyper-misogyny, the homophobia and the hyper-machismo. These things arenít necessary ...

<22> Do you see the desi subculture as moving away from these things?

Absolutely. As it moves further and further away from ... itís changing but also hip-hop is changing. The gangster rap scene still glorifies guns and violence and misogyny and jewellery and these kinds of things, but itís changing. The problem with hip-hop is that itís always a case of two steps forward one step back. You have people like Kanye West whoís really redefining it in a way, and Eminem is redefining it, and all these acts are taking its focus away from crime and consumerism you had with Tupac [Shakur] and Biggie [Smalls]. But then of course itís one step back because, lo and behold, Kanye West is now dripping in diamonds when he wasnít to begin with ... I was listening on the radio last night to a description of how hip-hop took on grunge values, and you can see that with some urban acts as well Ė- theyíre always changing.

<23> Do you think this idea of two-steps forward one step back is perhaps echoed in the book with regard to the female characters? The book is an exploration of the relationship between masculinity and ethnicity, but where does this leave femininity? The only females we meet in the book are the overbearing mothers and Aunties, and Samira, who is pretty sassy but then falls for the Jas who lives in his fantasy world.

Well heís not living in a fantasy world, thatís his reality. He impresses her by reinventing himself with tuition from Sanjay Ė- itís another performance.

<24> But Sanjay comes across as the immoral force in the novel. Where does this leave Samira? And she leaves Jas because sheís fed up with him being neurotic ...

Well, a lot of the girls I interviewed doing the research ...

You interviewed girls as well?

Yeah. A lot of these girls very clearly expressed that they were caught between the misogyny of traditional Indian culture and the misogyny in modern-day hip-hop-influenced desi youth culture. So basically they were caught in this pincer movement of misogyny. So Reena and even Arun are getting all the misogyny from traditional Indian values, Samira is getting all the misogyny from hip-hop values. Samira also gets it from her brothers ... theyíre basically both caught, so they need to be extra strong.

<25> So is that how you perceive these female characters, as having an extra strength?

Yes. Just as Jas and the other boys are under pressure to suppress their intelligence and sensitivity, Samira is too. She canít be mushy. You see that with girls a lot today. Women have had to become a lot stronger.

<26> Because these women have to define their femininity in relation to all this hypermasculinity?

Yeah, and hip-hop is really important. If you look at urban youth culture, hip-hop has been like a juggernaut of misogyny that women have had to contend with. Women have had to demonstrate real strength and thatís what Samira does. But one of the problems with that is that just as Hardjit is loath to see the softer side of life, well she canít either. Whether she is asserting a new kind of femininity or masculinity is kind of irrelevant. Sheís just being strong. And she finds weakness abhorrent. Itís not just about being strong, itís about seeing weakness and sensitivity as being undesirable.

<27> Itís interesting that when they have their break-up, down by the river in Old Isleworth ...

The most romantic spot I could think of [laughs] ...

<28> It is very nice down there ... at the end of that chapter Jas walks into the cemetery and he reads off the names on the gravestones, and they are of course all ĎEnglishí names. It made me think of the opening scene in Dickensí Great Expectations, when all that the young character seems to know about his life is captured in the names of his dead parents engraved on the headstones. But Jas isnít able to identify with these English names. Is that a conscious reference to Great Expectations, an attempt to rework some of its themes?

No it wasnít. But I did want Jas to feel alien to those names when he reads them out. But beyond that, no.

<29> But you do seem tuned in to the idea of Ďliterary Londoní. Youíve already talked about a number of books by other authors that are set here. Do you draw on these in your own work?

I hadnít though of it that way. I suppose I do read a lot of books that are set in London. And I do get a kick when I read books that are set in London because I know London. I remember reading Soft by Rupert Thompson[8] and getting a kick out of Maroush, and Maroush features heavily in my book [it is the Lebanese restaurant where Dinesh and Sanjay take Jas, the crew and the girls they pick up at the nightclub, and where Jas takes Samira the following night]. Little hidden gems like that. City of Tiny Lights by Patrick Neate ,[9] again, a very ĎLondoní book. But I donít consciously seek out London novels. When I am reading books set in London there is a certain magic to them though because itís where I live.

<30> What made you write Londonstani?

The fundamental problem that made me do the dissertation that the book is based on was the voluntary segregation that a lot of the Asian kids were embracing in the early 1990s. So I wanted that to be part of the book, but it wasnít my reason for writing the book. I just wanted to do something with my dissertation Ė- it was the only decent thing I did at uni. Initially I tried turning it into an academic text Ė- a kind of urban ethnography. But that was boring to write Ė- you have to keep qualifying stuff, you canít drill down into specific characters and personalities. And fiction was also a better way of putting my dissertation into a form that young people and even Brit-Asian rudeboys themselves would be able to engage with. Iím not saying rudeboys read novels, but I thought Iíd have a better chance of engaging them with a novel than a textbook -Ė and if you look at the way the bookís presence has shaped up on MySpace and Facebook that seems to be holding true. But itís a hard slog. You canít exactly do the circuit of literary festivals and be done with it. After all, books, solitary activity, intellectual pursuits -- the conclusions of my own dissertation warned me that these things are perceived by rudeboys as effeminate and therefore Ďwhiteí.

<31> And so presumably this is where the idea of Ďdisrespectingí mainstream culture comes in?[10]

Yes, of turning your back on mainstream culture. Throughout the 1980s, the way to be British-Asian was to be more English than the English. But then that suddenly changed, it was actually to reject that Ė- not any more, but in the early 1990s.

<32> Is that reflected in the structure of the novel Ė- in the three sections that move from ĎPakií to ĎSherí and finally to ĎDesií?

Thereís an element of that, yes, because I wanted to show that as they hang around with Sanjay and their identity matures, everything changes. Theyíre in clubs dancing with white characters -- I think one of them is called Hamish -- dancing to Arabic hip-hop and ogling white maÓtre-des. So I wanted to show how suddenly races integrate, not just over time, but as the subculture matures. But thatís what subcultures do, especially London subcultures. People mix and before you know it youíve got, as we saw in the 1970s Ė- and you could only see it in London Ė- you have punk rock, which started out as a really right-wing, almost fascist kind of thing, and reggae, side by side as subcultures mature - weíre talking late Clash kind of stuff Ė- and thatís brilliant, and I tried to show that with the desi beat scene.

To return to voluntary segregation Ė- itís not a question of growing out of it, itís a question of leveraging the strength you get during a phase of voluntary segregation in order to reintegrate at a later stage but from a position of greater self-esteem. I wanted to show that in the book without, again, getting didactic, so I did it with symbols rather than by having people saying Ďwe didnít want to hang around with white people but now we doí. These symbols are public institutions. Iíd already got this convenient metaphor for not subscribing to mainstream society which was tax avoidance Ė- itís there all the way through then you get the mother of all tax scams at the end. But itís not just about not subscribing financially to mainstream society or from the perspective of an identity politics, but there are tangible behaviours [sic] in terms of how we respond to public institutions -- first up being the education system, as we see in Ashwoodís office. It becomes cool not to subscribe to mainstream Britain and suddenly the education system becomes the enemy. Next to that we have public transport. The kids disí [respect] public transport, they disí buses all the time, the tube, and that became another metaphor. So schools, transport Ė- and the BBC was a big one. At the beginning of the book Jas constantly talks about how he wouldnít want to talk like a BBC Ďponceí ... but then when they get to the teacherís office something changes. The BBC is the first one the characters make their peace with. The public institutions that these guys donít subscribe to fall down like dominos in the sense that they change their attitude to them. And the first one they change their attitude to is the BBC. And thatís because if you look at London, if you look at Britain, the BBC is at the forefront of ... not imposing a definition of Britishness, but taking these grassroots identities and making them British.

<33> But thatís quite complicated, isnít it? You have the [BBC] Asian Network and 1Xtra and so on, but you could argue that these are Ďadd-onsí -- they reflect a fragmenting audience not an integrating one ...

I disagree. If you look at Radio 1, youíve got Nihal ...

But when is he on?

... on Saturday and Sunday mornings -- going up just before Vernon Kay.

I stand corrected!

[laughs] Which is quite a big deal. But more importantly, even if the BBC caters to a fragmenting audience, thatís the nature of todayís media industry. The fact remains that the archetypal Ďvoice of the BBCí is not what it was ten years ago. The British Broadcasting Corporation has been a big champion of desi beats and that sends a clear signal to kids that the desi beats scene is British. Anyway, the point is, as these guys reach an identity where they can reintegrate with mainstream society, with the symbols of mainstream society, so to do they warm to these symbols. After they warm to the BBC you have Jasí moments with public transport ... and there are others ... Thereís this constant denigration of the public sector generally followed by the eventual embracement of it. Thatís why Jas pontificates so much about being in an NHS hospital at the end Ė- and why thereís that ex-serviceman in the bed next to him.

<34> Right, and this comes through in the novel as a battle between Mr Ashwood and Sanjay for Jasí soul -- though itís not so much his soul as his style it seems. They are surrogate father-figures to Jas, but then at the end of the novel we realise Jasí father is not as distant as he makes out ...

Jas makes him distant. Thatís the thing. Jas doesnít really know his dad, heís up there with the BBC as something Jas has chosen not to integrate or connect with. It comes back to this question of the choices these guys are making. Jas is not from a single parent family, Hardjit is not from a single parent family Ė- there is not a physically absent father that makes them so susceptible to hypermasculinity in the way I describe it in the book. Itís not about a physical absence of the father, itís an emotional absence. But once I got to the end I wanted to make it clear that the absence of an emotional connection with his father was Jasí choice, he wanted that ... And thatís really going back to the whole idea of economics, and the way that you can hold certain variables constant in order to look at others. So just as I was holding race constant, and class constant -- by focusing on middle-class kids in a part of London where Asians dominate -- I also wanted to hold the family structure constant in order to show better that these are choices and they are not forced upon them. Theyíre in a loving two-parent family, the father is not abusive or actually absent or anything.

<35> So in the situation these guys are in they are able to make choices, but is this always the case? This makes me think of Claire Alexanderís work, The Asian Gang, where she looks at Bangladeshi youths in South London.[11] She questions the way these guys are represented as the victims of social pressures, as being an Ďunderclassí. You seem to share this idea that social pressures cannot on their own explain why characters act the way they do Ė that society does not simply impose certain choices on them ...

If I was writing non-fiction I wouldnít say that because itís different for different classes and Iíd have to keep qualifying things to reflect that, but because I was writing fiction I could conveniently hold those factors constant to dig deeper into the stuff I wanted to explore. So thatís not to say that class structures donít exert that influence, I just think itís interesting to explore people for whom they donít. You can learn a lot from that specific focus, and it makes for an interesting story. Again, itís about a conscious performance, a conscious reinvention of identity. I didnít want there to be too many external influences. Obviously there are external influences -- in a way itís defined by superficial external influences like MTV -- but I didnít want them to be a necessity. Thatís what I was trying to get away from. Do any of the external influences make this behaviour necessary? No they donít.

<36> Ok, final question. After Londonstani, what next?

Another book. Iíve been making loads of notes. Itís really hard to talk about at the moment. I have a plot but no characters, which is kind of where I was with Londonstani. Iím just waiting for the voice Ė- Londonstani would not have been possible without Jasí voice.

<37> Do you think you might find these characters, the voice you need, in the desi club-scene again?

[Laughs] I donít know. I wouldnít necessarily want to do another rudeboy book because Iíve said everything I wanted to say about that. I would have to change one of the variables Ė- social class, racism, family make-up. But then it just becomes didactic. But I really like the idea of performed identity. Iím kind of obsessed with it. Maybe itís just because of when I was born -- because I was lucky enough to be born on the cusp of things changing radically in terms of our identities no longer being proscribed. Itís fascinating. So that will feature heavily.

Thanks for your time Gautam.

Endnotes

[1] Monica Ali, Brick Lane (London: Doubleday, 2003). [^]

[2] Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (London: Viking, 1988). [^]

[3] Bali Rai is a prolific author of novels and non-fiction for teenagers. [^]

[4] Zadie Smith, White Teeth (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000). [^]

[5] Naomi Alderman, Disobedience (London: Viking, 2006). [^]

[6] See http://www.gautammalkani.com/style_guide.pdf [^]

[7] See Gautam Malkani, ĎWhatís Right with Asian Boysí, Financial Times 21/4/2006, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9f2bb9fc-d03b-11da-b160-0000779e2340.html [^]

[8] Rupert Thomson, Soft (New York: Random House, 1998) [^]

[9] Patrick Neate, City of Tiny Lights (London: Viking, 2005) [^]

[10] See http://www.gautammalkani.com/about_londonstani.htm [^]

[11] Claire Alexander, The Asian Gang: Ethnicity, Identity, Masculinity (Berg, 2000). [^]