I admit I picked up Gautam Malkani's Londonstani with needle thrills in my fingertips. A London street gang! Of South Asian immigrants! Hindus and Sikhs fighting Muslims! Surely the pages would offer up a switchblade scimitar or a bomb hidden in one of those double-decker buses. It'd be political and religious, and someone with great potential would end up dead.
I expected a Clockwork Orange for the multicultural age. Instead, I got a hip-hop Quadrophenia, a gang of self-described "rude boys" riding around in a lilac BMW, fighting using eclectic martial arts (no weapons, please) in a BMX park, and trying too hard to talk like Usher and dance like Justin Timberlake. The BMX park fight is delayed when the opponent "Had 2 go 2 some supermarket wid his mum, innit, help her carry da shopping bags." And their gangsta activity? They unlock and unblock cell phones so people can switch to different carriers without buying new handsets. They're out of control! (OK, so their business does get a little dicier as the story progresses, but still.)
The story is narrated by Jas, a smart, sweet, tongue-tied social misfit of a young man who has fallen for Samira, an off-limits Muslim girl. He runs with Hardjit, the tough-ass leader of the gang; Ravi, the owner of the aforementioned lilac Beemer; and Amit, whose older brother can't seem to work up the courage to stand up to his mum.
The great news is that, as desperately as Jas tries to front that he's a real rude boy, he's too clever not to catch glances of how ridiculous they sometimes are. Walking toward the fight, Jas says, "Hardjit set the proper pace. Left. He always set the pace. Right. Otherwise our bobbing up an down would make us look like a bunch a penguins or something. Gangsta penguins, mind you, with shrapnel in their legs from some swim-by shooting or someshit. Left. Right. Or maybe just penguins who really needed a piss."
At times hilarious, at time heartbreaking, Londonstani becomes a surprisingly sincere coming-of-age story for a young man lost in the multiplicity of postmodern identities. The rude boy becomes, for real, a gentleman.