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

James Graham

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 –- 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 don’t have nationalism with a metropolitan identity – that’s why I use the word utopian. And that’s a good thing, or at least that strikes me as a good thing, because there’s a chance there for real racial integration. I mean, that’s what London does, right, people see themselves as Londoners and therefore everyone’s allowed to be in London and therefore there’s no dominant race in London: everyone’s a Londoner.

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 –- presumably these are also important to the metropolitan identity you speak of?

Well, because it’s a metropolitan identity and it’s London and for various other reasons it’s a very new identity, there’s less that’s 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 that’s the thing with metropolitan identities: there’s 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.

And borrowing?

And borrowing. The main thing is that they’re not taking [their identity] from their roots. Hardjit might pretend that he’s sourcing his identity from his ethnic roots or whatever, but he’s not. He’s sourcing it from Hollywood, Bollywood, MTV Base and ads for designer fashion brands. All these different sources come into the mix, right. So it’s a performed, made-up-as-you-go-along identity anyway, but the fact that it’s 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, there’s 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 London’s 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, I’m no kind of expert on this, but London is the subcultural capital of the world …

It’s 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 ‘ urban’ — in scare quotes –- but it’s 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, that’s the thing. The whole of the East End, which for a long time you would think of as being the archetypal ‘London’, 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 –- that really is for tourists. Real Londoners are not really in Zone 1, you know what I mean.

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 –- 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 hadn’t been used as a literary setting –- or am I wrong, has it been written about before?

I wasn’t aware of it having been written about before … I was aware that people had written about desi youth subculture before …

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 they’re 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 can’t do that. With Disobedience — Naomi Alderman and Hendon -– it’s not about Hendon but it’s set in Hendon.[5] For some people it captures Hendon for some people it doesn’t. That’s the point, it doesn’t try to capture it, it doesn’t try to be definitive. And it’s the same with this: some people say it brings back Hounslow, some people say it brings back Wembley or Harrow.

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 ‘Silence of the Lambs’ because he’s not an authentic cannibal or serial killer. It also implies that there’s a single authentic British Asian experience and that authentic experience can’t be shared by someone who went to Cambridge and works for the FT. And yet I’m sure these reviewers know that there are a lot of Asians living in Hounslow, never mind in London … we’re sitting in Ealing, right, you can’t write a book that captures the white middle-class experience of Ealing. Some people’s lives here might be defined by the fact that they work in the public sector, some people’s lives might be defined by the fact that they’re swingers. It goes without saying that brown people in Hounslow , with 49,000 of them -– and not all of them middle-class -– there’s going to be a whole diversity of ways of experiencing living your life in Hounslow. I’m sure people know that you can’t capture all of that in one book. Therefore the search for authenticity is kind of meaningless.

For me that questioning of authenticity comes through strongly in the novel, especially through the language different characters use. In a ‘Londonstani style guide’ 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 –- 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 — that’s kind of the point, it’s about performance and pretence –- so the whole authenticity test that the media kept applying to me becomes even more ridiculously meaningless. Just like there’s no definitive Hounslow experience, there’s no definitive rudeboy experience and there’s no definitive rudeboy experience in Hounslow. Hardjit’s world, his place in the subculture, is defined by the fact that he’s a middle-class mummy’s boy trying to be a man. But he’s overshooting and he’s flexing his hypermasculinity in order to define himself as a man against the overbearing mother. Ravi’s rudeboy experience is that he’s a sheep: he does what other people do. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure I made a conscious decision not to delve too much into Ravi’s class … but you know what I’m saying, they’ve all got different things and the language corresponds –- though it’s hard to notice the differences …

Unless you compiled a linguistic style guide …

[Laughs] There are differences, and they’re important to me because if there’s difference in the language then the voice is different and the character is different. They’re not just one homogenous mass, they’re not all identical. Amit is very different to Hardjit.

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 don’t 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. It’s 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, it’s the first generation where identity is not prescribed. It doesn’t matter what race you are, what class you are, what gender you are even, it’s all changeable.

In the book what comes through very significantly is the importance of things in relation to this. What Sanjay labels ‘bling-bling economics’ and ‘consumerist aspiration’: kids stylising themselves through commodities …

That’s the thing … I was talking to my brother and I was saying, ‘look, I don’t understand why the whole world thinks this book is about the ghetto when the whole point is that it’s about middle-class kids pretending to be ghetto’ …. it seems to be an almost wilful misinterpretation. With the paperback I had the chance to re-touch the manuscript but I didn’t. I tweaked a few stylistic things, a couple of typos, but I didn’t really do very much. I asked my brother, ‘listen 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 that’s 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 teacher’s mouth or something: “You’re not ghetto”?’

But that’s pretty much what Mr Ashwood says anyway isn’t it?

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

But if you’d have done that people would have criticised you for being too obvious, too didactic even, on top of the authenticity issue …

And that’s why I didn’t spell it out. That’s why I said it has to be wilful [misinterpretation by some critics]. I can’t 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, it’s all a performance. None of it is inherent in these characters. That’s another thing, the middle-class identity, the language [that certain characters, like Jas at times, also use] is clearly an artificial construct …

For people who hear you read from the book this idea of language as a performance is particularly clear –- 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 it’s not just gratuitous swearing, it’s not just gratuitous violence. There’s a real performance going on, real rules being observed. It’s a struggle to keep swearing so much for these kids. But they’re trying –- 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, it’s 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 …

It’s like Jas [the narrator] is describing the moves in a computer game …

I think of it as sports commentating. He’s commentating on sports and he’s 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? It’s contrived and that’s what Jas is doing with the violence. He’s describing it as a real bloodbath but you’re supposed to see through that …

But that’s the thing with his narrative –- he’s 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 he’s anticipating the ‘Bollywood Soap-Opera showdown’, he seems completely immersed in his own fantasy-filmic world …

But that’s his reality. That’s the point. When you have a cut and paste identity … we’re talking about kids who have no connection with their roots whatsoever. And ‘roots’, that’s a meaningless term when you’re a third generation British Asian isn’t it? What does it mean? Fantasy is his reality.

Ok, but I imagine some people might not be quite so happy with that –- 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 –- and that’s what radical Islam is for some people, right? Third generation kids who are more devout than their parents –- that’s a conscious decision they make. Basically your roots become one resource and sit there alongside Hollywood and hip-hop culture or whatever. I don’t mean we don’t have them, I just mean roots don’t necessarily have to take precedence over another form of identity. I don’t mean that roots are irrelevant. Some people choose, third generation, to be more Indian than their parents. But it’s a choice –- it’s not coming from within your blood vessels … they can easily be gangster rappers, they can follow the gangster rap identity, there’s nothing stopping them. Whereas before, maybe if you are first generation or second generation, it was in your memory, in your childhood. It’s there, it’s bound to take precedence over other identities that are available.

You’ve 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? You’ve discussed elsewhere how the book emerged from your MA dissertation …[7]


… 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 …

And for the benefit of readers who may not know – he’s 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 … don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he was the leader of the group or anything like that, all I’m saying is he’s definitely not the tag-along and definitely not a wannabe. He’s 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 …

So he’s a desi?

Yes, he’s a desi if you take the street definition of desi as “homeboy” rather than the traditional Sanskrit definition of “countryman” — because he’s 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 it’s possible to have someone who … you see it all the time, with parody, people try to be black or Asian, and we’ve seen that with Ali G … but here was a serious and successful example. What I mean is he’s [Marky Mark] not trying to be Indian, he’s trying to be part of the subculture, and he does so really well. And I thought, that’s what my narrator needs to do. He doesn’t need to be a respected figure on the desi music scene like Marky Mark, but he also doesn’t need to be just a tag-along. Instead, Jas is trying so hard and working so hard that he’s somewhere between belonging and not belonging. It’s not a simple matter of saying he does or doesn’t belong. He’s 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 doesn’t want him there …

How does Jas end up then? In the final section it’s as if he is on a kind of allegorical journey. He’s been cast out of the group and he begins to find affinities with things that he shouldn’t –- 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 he’s beaten up and then has the’ showdown’ 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?

It’s 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, it’s a really pessimistic book because it means it doesn’t work, and white people and brown people shouldn’t mix. Clearly I don’t mean that. If those guys were Samira’s brothers then it would say something about inter-religious relationships. Again, hopefully people will realise that it can’t possibly mean that. So the natural conclusion is that they are thugs — Sanjay’s henchmen. What that would mean would be that Jas’ wrong turn was not to hang around with these new guys, to integrate with them, or to form an inter-religious relationship. Jas’ 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 aren’t necessary …

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

Absolutely. As it moves further and further away from … it’s 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 it’s changing. The problem with hip-hop is that it’s always a case of two steps forward one step back. You have people like Kanye West who’s 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 it’s one step back because, lo and behold, Kanye West is now dripping in diamonds when he wasn’t 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 –- they’re always changing.

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 he’s not living in a fantasy world, that’s his reality. He impresses her by reinventing himself with tuition from Sanjay –- it’s another performance.

But Sanjay comes across as the immoral force in the novel. Where does this leave Samira? And she leaves Jas because she’s 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 … they’re basically both caught, so they need to be extra strong.

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 can’t be mushy. You see that with girls a lot today. Women have had to become a lot stronger.

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 that’s 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 can’t either. Whether she is asserting a new kind of femininity or masculinity is kind of irrelevant. She’s just being strong. And she finds weakness abhorrent. It’s not just about being strong, it’s about seeing weakness and sensitivity as being undesirable.

It’s interesting that when they have their break-up, down by the river in Old Isleworth …

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

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 ‘English’ names. It made me think of the opening scene in Dickens’ 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 isn’t 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 wasn’t. But I did want Jas to feel alien to those names when he reads them out. But beyond that, no.

But you do seem tuned in to the idea of ‘literary London’. You’ve already talked about a number of books by other authors that are set here. Do you draw on these in your own work?

I hadn’t 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 ‘London’ book. But I don’t consciously seek out London novels. When I am reading books set in London there is a certain magic to them though because it’s where I live.

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 wasn’t my reason for writing the book. I just wanted to do something with my dissertation –- it was the only decent thing I did at uni. Initially I tried turning it into an academic text –- a kind of urban ethnography. But that was boring to write –- you have to keep qualifying stuff, you can’t 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. I’m not saying rudeboys read novels, but I thought I’d have a better chance of engaging them with a novel than a textbook -– and if you look at the way the book’s presence has shaped up on MySpace and Facebook that seems to be holding true. But it’s a hard slog. You can’t 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 ‘white’.

And so presumably this is where the idea of ‘disrespecting’ 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 –- not any more, but in the early 1990s.

Is that reflected in the structure of the novel –- in the three sections that move from ‘Paki’ to ‘Sher’ and finally to ‘Desi’?

There’s an element of that, yes, because I wanted to show that as they hang around with Sanjay and their identity matures, everything changes. They’re in clubs dancing with white characters — I think one of them is called Hamish — dancing to Arabic hip-hop and ogling white maître-des. So I wanted to show how suddenly races integrate, not just over time, but as the subculture matures. But that’s what subcultures do, especially London subcultures. People mix and before you know it you’ve got, as we saw in the 1970s –- and you could only see it in London –- 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 – we’re talking late Clash kind of stuff –- and that’s brilliant, and I tried to show that with the desi beat scene.

To return to voluntary segregation –- it’s not a question of growing out of it, it’s 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 ‘we didn’t want to hang around with white people but now we do’. These symbols are public institutions. I’d already got this convenient metaphor for not subscribing to mainstream society which was tax avoidance –- it’s there all the way through then you get the mother of all tax scams at the end. But it’s 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 Ashwood’s 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 dis’ [respect] public transport, they dis’ buses all the time, the tube, and that became another metaphor. So schools, transport –- and the BBC was a big one. At the beginning of the book Jas constantly talks about how he wouldn’t want to talk like a BBC ‘ponce’ … but then when they get to the teacher’s office something changes. The BBC is the first one the characters make their peace with. The public institutions that these guys don’t 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 that’s 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.

But that’s quite complicated, isn’t it? You have the [BBC] Asian Network and 1Xtra and so on, but you could argue that these are ‘add-ons’ — they reflect a fragmenting audience not an integrating one …

I disagree. If you look at Radio 1, you’ve 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, that’s the nature of today’s media industry. The fact remains that the archetypal ‘voice of the BBC’ 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 Jas’ moments with public transport … and there are others … There’s this constant denigration of the public sector generally followed by the eventual embracement of it. That’s why Jas pontificates so much about being in an NHS hospital at the end –- and why there’s that ex-serviceman in the bed next to him.

Right, and this comes through in the novel as a battle between Mr Ashwood and Sanjay for Jas’ soul — though it’s 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 Jas’ father is not as distant as he makes out …

Jas makes him distant. That’s the thing. Jas doesn’t really know his dad, he’s 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 –- there is not a physically absent father that makes them so susceptible to hypermasculinity in the way I describe it in the book. It’s not about a physical absence of the father, it’s 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 Jas’ choice, he wanted that … And that’s 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. They’re in a loving two-parent family, the father is not abusive or actually absent or anything.

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 Alexander’s 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 ‘underclass’. You seem to share this idea that social pressures cannot on their own explain why characters act the way they do – that society does not simply impose certain choices on them …

If I was writing non-fiction I wouldn’t say that because it’s different for different classes and I’d 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 that’s not to say that class structures don’t exert that influence, I just think it’s interesting to explore people for whom they don’t. You can learn a lot from that specific focus, and it makes for an interesting story. Again, it’s about a conscious performance, a conscious reinvention of identity. I didn’t want there to be too many external influences. Obviously there are external influences — in a way it’s defined by superficial external influences like MTV — but I didn’t want them to be a necessity. That’s what I was trying to get away from. Do any of the external influences make this behaviour necessary? No they don’t.

Ok, final question. After Londonstani, what next?

Another book. I’ve been making loads of notes. It’s really hard to talk about at the moment. I have a plot but no characters, which is kind of where I was with Londonstani. I’m just waiting for the voice –- Londonstani would not have been possible without Jas’ voice.

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

[Laughs] I don’t know. I wouldn’t necessarily want to do another rudeboy book because I’ve said everything I wanted to say about that. I would have to change one of the variables –- social class, racism, family make-up. But then it just becomes didactic. But I really like the idea of performed identity. I’m kind of obsessed with it. Maybe it’s 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. It’s fascinating. So that will feature heavily.

Thanks for your time Gautam.


[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

[7] See Gautam Malkani, ‘What’s Right with Asian Boys’, Financial Times 21/4/2006,

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

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

[10] See

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

To Cite This Article:

James Graham, ‘An Interview with Gautam Malkani: Ealing Broadway, 6th November 2007’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at Accessed on [date of access]