Flash and Burn Outlaws

October 30, 2006

Published in the Fall 2006 edition of the quarterly Vancouver Review, and posted on thetyee.ca on October 19, 2006

WRITERS FEST: South Asian gangster life the stuff of two new novels, one set in B.C.
By Daniel Gawthrop

What is it about British publishers and their obsession with street lingo? The hype surrounding Londonstani, a debut novel that won its 29-year-old author a $632,000 (Cdn) advance and a splashy global marketing campaign, focused mainly on its use of a highly stylized, urban ethnic argot.

Like the protagonists of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Gautam Malkani’s characters are dissolute bad boys empowered by patois: Londonstani’s “rudeboys” speak a combination of MSN “texting,” bastardized street Punjabi, English scouse and Afro-American “bling” rap: hear wat my bredren b sayin, sala kutta? Come out wid dat shit again n I’m a knock u so hard u’ll be shittin out yo mouth 4 real, innit…

The story centres around Jas, a 19-year-old Hindu “coconut” (brown outside/white inside) who needs to be seen as a legitimate “desi” (a genuine South Asian in tune with traditional culture) despite being an “A” student who could go to Cambridge in a heartbeat.

Jas is head and shoulders above his comrades, a pathetic bunch of wankers who call themselves desi despite being hopeless slaves to global consumerism: Hardjit, the ringleader, a violent Sikh (that’s his riff quoted above, after he beats up a white boy, or “gora,” for calling his friends “Pakis”); Ravi, the undersexed wannabe whose bedroom walls are filled with posters of Bollywood actresses; and Amit, the designated driver with the righteous Beemer.

The narrative follows Jas and his mates as they cruise around London looking for babes while positioning themselves for a bigger piece of the illicit-goods trade. There is domestic conflict in which Jas, Amit and his brother Arun are forced to confront some “complicated, family-related shit.” And there’s a good white liberal in Mr. Ashwood, the teacher who tries to put Jas on the straight and narrow by setting him up with another protegĂ©, Sanjay, for mentoring.

Of course there’s far more to Sanjay, a Cambridge-educated banker, than meets the eye. And by the time young Jas tries to rip off his own father’s warehouse, the prospects for post-gangster rehab don’t look good.

Adult themes for young minds

Londonstani will appeal to younger readers. Malkani — a guest of the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival, which runs until Oct 22 — admitted he had S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders in mind when he began writing it. But the socio-political and cultural ground it covers is firmly rooted in the adult world.

The elaborate money-laundering and stolen-cellphone scam that gets Jas into trouble seems a convincing byproduct of Malkani’s day job as editor of the Financial Times’ Creative Business section, and the interplay between ethnicity and masculinity is well drawn. This is especially true with Hardjit, who, for all his homophobic posturing, is almost queen-like in his bodybuilder preening, as well as with Jas, who gains notoriety by dating the Muslim Samira.

We don’t get much of a visual taste of Hounslow, the ethnic working-class area near Heathrow airport where the story is set. The linguistic plot twist in the final three pages seems a little too convenient, and there are satirical touches that glamorize the outlaw desi life. That said, Londonstani is a guilty pleasure that’s hard to put down.

No glamorous words in ‘Daaku’

Daaku is another first novel about South Asian gangster life as seen through the eyes of a teenager. But the similarities to Londonstani end there. Culture and ethnicity are far less central to the narrative, and author Ranj Dhaliwal, a 30-year-old paralegal who volunteers for organizations that deal with at-risk Indo-Canadian youth, cannot be accused of glamorizing anything. Dhaliwal uses the Queen’s English, rather than street slang, to tell a sobering story that takes place in Surrey and Vancouver.

The word “Daaku,” which roughly translates from Punjabi as “outlaw,” appears only in the foreword and afterword. The cautionary tone of these passages (“The Daaku is a person who has no regard for life and is an outcast in society”; “Only in the end will the Daaku see his own darkness”) turns the story into a haunting parable about unfulfilled potential and lives wrongly lived.

Unlike the geeky Jas of Londonstani, the protagonist of Daaku is a swaggering big shot who knows he’ll be leader of the pack some day. The fact that Ruby Pandher will step over anyone and stop at nothing to achieve this goal is not apparent in the early going. He just seems like a restless kid who’s smarter than average but too lazy to work. “I thought if I could get away with something,” recalls Ruby, “why not try it.”

A thief with ambition

Well, it’s a very long road from swiping a dime off your Grade 1 teacher’s desk to whacking the last guy who stands between you and ultimate supremacy of the Lower Mainland cocaine market. But Ruby’s transformation from petty thief to big-time hood unfolds with a depressing inevitability that feels voyeuristic to witness.

We know the story he’s telling can only end badly. But we read on regardless, just as we keep watching Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas past the sickening barroom scene in which Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro stomp a rival to death; we want to know, apart from learning the protagonist’s fate, whether some measure of justice will ultimately be served.

Sure enough, Ruby becomes an increasingly unsympathetic figure as the story progresses. From lying to his parole officer and neglecting his mother, he progresses to cheating on his all-too-loyal girlfriend and betraying his fellow “Dragons.” Once he commits murder for the first time — and the body count quickly rises — he has pretty much used up every ounce of reader goodwill he began with. Indeed, I wanted the fucker to die.

By story’s end, Ruby is still only 19. This strains credulity somewhat, given just how far he has risen in the ranks. The supporting characters might have been fleshed out a bit more, and the chronological, first-person-present voice occasionally slows down the narrative. But New Star Books should be applauded for publishing an edgy, politically incorrect novel about South Asian youth and their vulnerability to organized crime, an issue treated far too simplistically by the mainstream media.

Dhaliwal, to his credit, has painted a grimly realistic portrait of the West Coast gangster life and the flash-and-burn trajectory of all those drawn to it.

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