Meet London’s new angry young men: dissatisfied, tough-talking children of South Asian descent.
Like Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali, first-time novelist Malkani wants to investigate how South Asians balance old and new identities while living in the West. Malkani’s more willing to play the subject for laughs, though, and Jas is a shade funkier than Lahiri and Ali’s heroes: A 19-year-old student living in a scruffier part of London, he’s desperately eager to fit in and prove himself a true desi, or South Asian. What’s a true desi? In Jas’s world it means a disdain for “gora” (white) culture but a carefully cultivated contempt for mom and dad’s favorite Bollywood movies; an obsession with flashy cars and hip bhangra music; and a willingness to deliver the occasional beat-down to prove your mettle. It also involves not getting a crush on attractive Muslim girls like Samira, but Jas begins pursuing a relationship with her on the sly and hopes that Hardjit, the alpha dog of his group of friends and a hard-liner about crossing such lines, never finds out. In the meantime, Hardjit and Jas help run an illicit cell-phone reselling operation; their schoolmaster’s efforts to mainstream and rehabilitate the young men leads them to Sanjay, a well-off Londoner who turns out to be even more corrupt. Malkani convincingly evokes Jas’s swaggering, obscenity-rich patois, and as a journalist at the Financial Times, he has an excellent feel for the economics of both the illegal cell-phone trade and London life in general. Better still, the novel concludes with a clever plot twist that upends the notions of identity and race Jas spends the novel struggling with. It’s almost enough to make you forget that, despite those strengths, much of the book is a conventional coming-of-age story about a kid aching for the stability of friendship—or at least a date.
A promising debut, though it lacks Monica Ali’s wisdom or Irvine Welsh’s grit.