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Middle class mummy's boys: the hype, criticism and story behind Londonstani
1st June, 2006

by Sunny Hundal
Editor

In a darkened corner of a club, with images of tigers projected against the wall, Gautam Malkani thanks his audience and family members for their support for the past few years.

It is the Notting Hill Arts Club in west London, a small venue that later played host to DJ Nihal's monthly Bombay Bronx night. The launch for his debut novel Londonstani is being held here, instead of a plusher venue such as the Cinnamon Club, because he says it epitomises the modern, urban Asian Britain he loves.

The 30 year old Financial Times journalist has been the subject of widespread hype and commentary in the media over the past few weeks covering not just British but international press such as Time magazine and the New York Times.

I wanted to meet him after all the hype had died down to get his reaction on the coverage.

The book is important but I think the bigger picture is more interesting. Gautam Malkani has been hailed as the newest in a long line of writers of 'modern multi-cultural Britain', which includes goes from Hanif Kureishi to more recently Zadie Smith, Hari Kunzru and Monica Ali.

But is he being misrepresented by a media hungry for "authentic" Asian voices, as if that matters, and being made into a commentator when all he's done is write a novel on Asian 'rude-boy culture'?

So I ask him, what is Londonstani really about and why did he write it?

"Ultimately the book is about a certain group of boys trying to become men. But I was interested in the way that ethnicity is used as a proxy for masculinity. They play on their ethnicity to be more macho, more virile," he says.

There is a reason for this line of thinking he says. At Cambridge university he wanted to study Asian sub-culture for his final year project. His tutor suggested that rather than follow a group of boys and interpret his findings through a race perspective, it would be more interesting to examine how gender plays a part.

The book was partly based on that research.

"I could be looking at the aggressive Asian rude-boy scene as a response to racism," he says, "and it partly is - I don't want to downplay that. But the gender lines are interesting because if you think about racism, it makes people feel emasculated."

"It's not simply about a bunch of Asian boys fighting back. They're fighting back against their domineering mothers as much as they're fighting against the system. My main aim was to do it as an entertaining ride. I had so many more sociological insights I could have included but they just weren't entertaining. That means you can't take it too seriously or not seriously enough," he adds.

But what of the accusation that a middle-class writer like him has little understanding of kids 'from the ghetto'. Is he misrepresenting them? Does he actually feel the need to be "representative" or "authentic" of his community?

He is clearly annoyed with this and says there are two problems. "On one level a novelist should not have to represent anything other than the characters in the novel.

"It seems to me that if you're an ethnic novelist from a small community, there would be extra criteria on you to be authentic and representative in a way that other white novelists don't have. It's just stupid.

"But on another people don't get the fact that these are not ghetto kids. They are middle class mummy's boys pretending to be ghetto kids. So how can anyone criticise me on the basis of being a middle class journalist pretending to be street?"

"Everyone in the book is a middle class boy pretending to be street. Many of the characters in the book are intentionally unauthentic - they're two-dimensional screens onto which their 'selves' are projected by Bollywood, Hollywood, MTV Base and ads for designer fashion brands. I think people have seen the dialect, not quite got it, and thought well it's a tale about hard men from the ghetto. Well, it's not."

part 2 » how it happened, the criticism and what's next




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