Winter 2007
What Price Identity? 
by Anjana Basu
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Brideless in Wembley
By Sanjay Suri
Penguin Books India Rs 495/-

By Gautam Malkani
4th Estate. £11.99

Identity. It seems to be bought at a price above everything else, if we consider the statement made by films like The Bourne Identity. There it’s an issue of amnesia. A man doesn’t know who he is, but all around are assassins who seem to have a very clear idea. And all Jason Bourne remembers is that he can kill when required or forge a passport or hide. Very convenient skills for a man who does not know who he might be. 

In a 21st-century world, who we are seems to be the most important question confronting us – especially given the fact that the fall of colonialism has resulted in a melting pot where people are thrown together without respect for caste, creed or colour. Where we are is not where our parents were, and as for our grandparents, they would probably have had hysterics. The Empire has struck back, is the easiest way of saying it, and its inhabitants are going to great lengths to redefine themselves.  Brideless in Wembley and Londonstani, one non fiction, the other definitely a work of the imagination, are among the latest attempts to try to solve the perplexing issue of identity for Indians in England.

Brideless in Wembley is a compilation of encounters that journalist Sanjay Suri has put together over a period of time-- encounters that focus on the cultural confusion of Indians living in England. Despite echoes of Sleepless in Seattle that the title conjures up, the book is not intentionally funny. In fact, it is very often grim. 

Even though Leicester is ‘the first big town in the West where whites are steadily declining into minority status,' the third story, ‘Give me the Ghetto’ is an in-your-face exploration of the safety of ghetto life for many Indian settlers through the example of the Barot family[??], who have settled in Northfields, Leicester. Together, the story suggests, you can protect your community from the inroads of your white neighbours, who sneakily set their children to fire arrows through your windows or post you packages of excrement, secure in the knowledge that the police cannot arrest children. The positioning of the two stories is, of course deliberate: an early jolt to all those people who think life across the black waters is much greener than on this side. 

Sanjay Suri’s book does in fact challenge many of our assumptions about British Indian life, most of which are usually gathered on the surface from flying visits to relatives. What he does is present desi urban tribes in all their strange ritualistic presence – tribes that used to be castes in villages in the backwaters of Gujarat, groups that ritually drowned baby girls in milk, or barbers or chamars. Transformed into Englandstanis, these castes still maintain their own exclusivity. There are the Ravidassias--descendants of families who worked in the leather- and-hide trade and because of this were untouchable. The group worships a 14th-century preacher named Ravi Das from which they take their name. This, however, alienates them from the larger Sikh community which does not count their saint among the Ten Gurus, proving that the untouchability of so many centuries still persists despite the venue. Or, there are the Patels and their cricket match, where the players come from the same twenty-four villages in Kutch but traditionally go to different temples. This point of difference is what makes the rivalry of the match possible. 

At its heart the book is a quest for an identity so complete that it condemns the seekers to a kind of suspended animation, of the where-we-are-India-is variety.

That’s where Gautam Malkani comes in. Most people utter Gautam Malkani’s name and gasp at the amount of money involved in the advance. That 300,000-pound figure, in fact, does a great deal to dilute the fact that Londonstani needs to be read dispassionately in its own right. 

Admittedly, it is difficult to separate the book from the hype surrounding it – because the book embarks on an experiment that most people would not dare to undertake, especially if you consider what educationists have to say about text messages destroying the English language and GenNex’s spelling. 

Londonstani has been reviewed text-style, though Malkani’s language, if you analyse it, is a more complex combination of text, gangsta rap and slang. What Malkani is attempting to do is record the life and times of the young Indian hoods who live and breathe around the neighbourhoods of Hounslow. The planes from Heathrow can be heard taking off overhead, and there’s nothing particularly idyllic about the area.

Knives out in the parking lot behind Boots between the Beemers, the gang led by Harjit reinvented as Hardjit, with Jas the weedy hanger-on. A lot of this comes from the essential nature of Hounslow, which lends its unique character to Londonstani. Its an in-between kind of place where sixty percent of the population comes from the Third World and where most people have their eyes fixed on the airport, whether for cheap trips abroad or for its links with the home country. At its heart Londonstani is a novel about gang warfare, the surd hoods taking on the Paki hoods - 'Can’t be callin someone a Paki less you also call’d a Paki, innit.'

Surprisingly, none of these kids come from underprivileged families--there's a plethora of Beemers and mobile phone scattering the pages, not to mention the auntiejis in their pashmina shawls sitting on the Persian-carpeted floors, swaying to bhajans.  There’s a great sprinkling of Kareena Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai posters, and the portrait of everyday life that emerges in Londonstani is a confident crossover with no apparent disorientation. Everyone knows who they are: Muslim boys cannot date Hindu girls, otherwise it’s broken noses at forty paces and vice versa, and there are Bollywood hits playing on the music system. Of course, despite running around in small- time mastaan, sorry rudehood Amit’s souped-up Beemer, what everyone wants to be is a successful hood like Sanjay who runs his own nightclub complete with Oxbridge degree and bodyguard and phrases like 'bling bling economics.' Compared to Sanjay, the ‘rudeboys’ are all very junior hood-wannabes.

If you shifted the novel to the Bronx and turned the boys black, it would fit equally well, though the ‘ooltis’ and the ‘khotas’ would of course have to be replaced with an equivalent language. Jas, the narrator, is by his own admission a nerdy kind of wannabe rudeboy. Unlike the rest he seems to be unsure of himself spends vast amounts of time hanging around everyone else’s home. He also covets the slinky Samira, despite the fact that she is Muslim and therefore forbidden, but works around to taking her out to Sanjay’s bling bling nightclub. 

In the end, Londonstani is a book about what lies under one's skin, who one is. That is what the surprise ending is all about. However, somehow the groundwork isn’t properly prepared.  It jumps out at the reader like a jack-in-the-box in the last few pages and you wonder, 'Huh?' 

Seriously speaking and Jason Bourne apart, cultural identity has  become the issue of NRI life. How do you preserve your own Indianness while taking on a different nationality? It seems to overpower the issues of good and bad writing[???] completely. To be of Indian origin growing up in England, the tikka masala or the coconut – that is where the hype centres. Both books perpetuate this dilemma in their different ways. 

(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel,  Black Tongue, has just been released by Roli. Ms Basu is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared  in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)