Literary Fiction & London

Literary Fiction and Space:  London in Dickens and Malkani

The human experience captured in a literary novel is made up of time and space because we are always in a particular phase of history and in a particular place. Of course the time and place captured in fiction can be real as well as imagined.  Literary fiction often dwells on a particular age or phase, capturing its unique essence and flavour. Such a novel can have history in its backdrop though it need not always be a historical novel per se. The Tailor’s Needle is an example of such a novel. On the other hand literary fiction can focus on a particular place, giving to the reader a feeling of being in a place difficult to access in person. This synchronic portrayal of a place can be very similar to actually visiting a place though never an exact substitute for it. The author generally chooses to represent only some features of a place with more attention than others because these peculiar features say something about the place, sometimes assertively. Time and place are always intertwined with each other and can never be entirely cut away to be entirely separated. But the literary novelist tends to show one of these in a greater measure. What follows is an illustration of a place, London, as depicted in two literary novels.

            This chapter touches upon the representation of London in literary fiction in colonial and postcolonial times. London is of interest to students in all the Commonwealth countries because of its extraordinary aura. It is a delightful city and it is intriguing to find that literary fiction has recurrently represented it as a space that breeds crime though sometimes not lacking in the human touch. London being the seat of power has always drawn attention to itself and the literary imagination could well have sketched a murkier London than has actually been the case. John Clement Ball has pointed out in Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis that after the World War II, London which had been the hub of imperial power, became the centre of a diasporic world. He examines the position of London – real or symbolic – in postcolonial writing, and the implications of the city in a transnational context. This paper moves towards a narrower and different position; towards deviance and criminality in London as reflected in literary fiction. Some basic features of London seem to have remained constant and fiction has reflected upon them. Some credence must be given to the truth of fiction. This monograph is an attempt to analyse this representation chiefly with the help of two literary novels; Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist   and Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani.   One author reveals an imperialist London as an insider while the other does this as an outsider, affected by what he inherits from a colonised past. But both seem to see crime as a natural concomitant of culture and advancement.

            These two novels are singled out because, though substantially different, they project a criminality that is similar not only in the discursive content but also in their ways of presentation. Malkani has a very different perspective as a postmodern and postcolonial Indian author settled in London. Besides, they cover between them a span of one hundred and sixty-nine years, the period from 1837 to 2006. After so many years an author, Malkani, can still see in London the potential for a markedly criminal though human world, a cruel social reality and a place where the stronger bullies the weaker. If literature mirrors some kind of reality then this geographical space that we call London seems to  guide human actions somewhat negatively from at least the time when Dickens wrote, up to the present time. Or, is it that the literary vision has tended to seize one aspect of ‘life’ from the ‘slice’ that fiction is supposed to contain, when considering London? There could yet be another possibility. Some novelists after Dickens, like Malkani, have been guided by him subconsciously in the way they have viewed London.

            London, the cultural capital of the world has been represented negatively in literary fiction for some reason. The centre of classy writing, theatre, parliamentary and political activity, has often emerged as a place that has bred crime and hardship. Fiction, particularly the classics, has presented the darker side of London. Dickens’s mind, returned to this side of London as late as 1852 in Bleak House when he brought us to the secrets of Lord and Lady Dedlock along with the vigilant Inspector Bucket and the crafty solicitor Tulkinghorn. London in fiction is largely a reference to life on the streets of London. These are the winding streets, and concealed alleyways of both the rich and the poor in co-existence. If homes in London have been shown in fiction, they have tended to be shown as a momentary relief or escape from the workplace or the adversity. Virginia Woolf considered London like the workshop or like a machine  if not a refuge for the criminal. Furthermore, for Woolf, ‘The fascination of the London street is that no two people are ever alike; each seems bound on some private affair of his own.’  She felt that in London funerals reminded people of ‘the passing of their own bodies’ and to this they lifted their hats (28).  E M Forster’s version of London is a different one:

To speak against London is no longer fashionable.  …  One visualises it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity.

            One reason for this negation of London’s culture and the life-giving force for the literary imagination is that realism is involved in the portrayal, and realism rarely paints life in rosy hues. Pam Morris points out,

undeniably realism as a literary form has been associated with an insistence that art cannot turn away from the more sordid and harsh aspects of human existence. The stuff of realism is not chosen for its dignity and nobility. …

There is one distinction between realist writing and actual everyday reality beyond the text that must be quite categorically insisted upon: realist novels never give us life or a slice of life nor do they reflect reality. (3-4)

The two novels discussed in this paper, Oliver Twist and Londonstani, use realism and criminality as their chief narrative modes. The language used and the dialogue are as true to life they they might possibly be. They focus on everyday crime and hence pitch themselves away from the epic mode of writing as Georg Lukács has pointed out.

            Some other novelists who decided to write detective or crime fiction and chose London as the setting are Arthur Conan Doyle, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Peter Ackroyd and Sarah Waters. Others still turned to London though without giving too much importance to crime. For instance, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Sam Selvon, V. S. Naipaul, Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie, and more recent ones such as David Dabydeen, Amitav Ghosh, Martin Amis, Ali Smith and Zadie Smith. But OT and Londonstani have their focus on people that indulge in crime in its simple and uncomplicated forms. They show criminals intricately and how the institutions of family and language keep them going. We are brought face to face with people who seem ill-qualified to be any better than petty criminals. It is as though London fosters petty crime, which some decent people counter no doubt, but we are shown very little beyond this. Of course there are some good people (like Mr Ashwood in Londonstani and the Maylies and Brownlow in Oliver Twist) that come into the picture for a while to offer some relief or advice to victims and enable us to see the other side of life. But they emerge from the background and rarely remain in the forefront of the novels. Much has been written on the criminal world of OT and the question arises why we need to return to it in this paper? The answer is that in this novel as in Londonstani there is a unique interest shown in the lives of these criminals; they remain the subject of the novels. It is like a murderer is under focus in Macbeth. This chapter studies the difference between the ways in which the two novelists glorify criminality in the London of their own times.  Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel, Fingersmith, has the dramatisation of Oliver Twist in its very opening chapter. And we see how the audiences love the dramatisation and become part of it; feeling the criminal acts on their pulses as if it were. It is easy to see that the version of London talked of by Hanif Kureishi is not what most novelists have given to us.

            What follows in this chapter is on the two texts in question. In the first part the focus is on Oliver Twist and the second it is on Londonstani. Dickens was a journalist who started with The Morning Chronicle just as Malkani started with The Financial Times. Both have observed London as journalists and are concerned with what is wrong in society. Dickens has shown interest in “criminal types” and “criminal scenes” being a Newgate literature author, his reading of contemporary newspapers and his involvement in journalism are evident in some of his novels.  Dickens’s Oliver Twist sketches a nasty picture of London; it seems to be a trap, a labyrinth or maze from which the innocent would find it difficult to escape. It resembles a misty, dingy and crime-ridden prison. The city is a male’s world where women come as a saving grace, the bearers of emotion, yet they follow men and live for them, sometimes even conniving with them. Going against men will be possible only at a heavy price. They can even be driven into prostitution. Dickens was always a master at painting men as power-grabbing, unemotional creatures. This early novel seems to set the trend for a number of later ones in which Dickens presents male-monstrosity.  Dickens’s treatment of gender in this crime infested world is understandable because in his world little discourse and theory on the subjects of gender and sexuality was available. The word, “sexuality” became common currency only in the late nineteenth century in Europe and America.  What Dickens wrote was from what he saw and deduced as an experiencing male. Oliver Twist has been considered a Newgate novel because it seemed to glorify criminals. Dickens writes in the “Author’s Preface to the Third Edition”:

It is, it seems, a very coarse and shocking circumstance, that some of the characters in these pages are chosen from the most criminal and degraded of London’s population; that Sikes is a thief, and Fagin a receiver of stolen goods; that the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute. (3)

Dickens creates the binaries of the benevolent and the criminal in London. Bill Sykes and Fagin look to trap Oliver, trying to make a thief of him; Brownlow and the Maylies on the other hand stand up to save him from such a transformation. This opposition between the two camps emerges as a structural pattern in the novel. From a gang of criminal pickpocket boys Oliver is taken to be made into a more hardened criminal.  London seems to have hosted both these categories of crime, particularly the more unique one Dickens presents through Fagin’s den. “The types of gangs run by Fagin were common in nineteenth century London. Often they were to be found in some of the common lodging houses, where ‘keepers maintained gangs of professional child thieves and even ran schools for pickpockets’.”  Both the categories are shown with that typically Dickensian phrasing and imagery which makes their criminality a pictorial art:

Although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was not theoretically acquainted with the beautiful axiom that self-preservation is the first law of nature. If he had been, perhaps he would have been prepared for this. Not being prepared, however, it alarmed him the more; so away he went like the wind: with the old gentleman and the two boys, roaring and shouting behind him.

‘Stop thief! Stop thief!’ There is a magic in the sound. The tradesman leaves his counter; and the carman his waggon; the butcher throws down his tray; the baker his basket; the milk-man his pail; the errand-boy his parcels; the school boy his marbles; the paviour his pick-axe; the child his battle door. Away then run, pell-mell, helter-skelter, slap-dash: tearing, yelling, and screaming; knocking down the passengers as they turn the corners: rousing up the dogs, and astonishing the fowls; and streets, squares, and courts,   re-echo with the sound. (73-74) 

Then, while Fagin teaches Oliver how to steal the handkerchiefs, he makes it sound like a game that children can enjoy:

‘Is my handkerchief hanging out of my pocket, my dear?’ said the Jew, stopping short.

‘Yes, Sir,’ said Oliver.

‘See if you can take it out, without my feeling it: as you saw them do, when we were at play this morning.’ (71)

The village in the country where Oliver is so happy with Rose and Mrs Maylie (Chapters Nine and Ten) is the total opposite. The narrator suggests that the country can actually ‘cure’ some of the bad effects of the city: “Who can tell how scenes of peace and quietude sink into the minds of pain-worn dwellers in close and noisy places, and carry their own freshness deep into their jaded hearts?” (214). But even in the country, Oliver isn’t safe from Fagin’s criminal network. Even the pristine and tranquil country cottage can be invaded by bad visitors from the city, who disappear like ghosts without leaving footprints. Dickens might be suggesting that the city is more powerful – its evil representatives, after all, are able to penetrate into the country, while elements of country life seem only able to survive on the fringes of the city:

When I came to discuss the subject [crime] more maturely with myself, I saw many strong reasons for pursuing the course to which I was inclined. I had read of thieves by scores – seductive fellows (amiable for the most part), faultless in dress, plump in pocket, choice in horseflesh, bold in bearing, fortunate in gallantry, great at a song, a bottle, pack of cards or dice-box, and fit companions for the bravest. But I have never met (except in Hogarth) with the miserable reality. It appeared to me that to draw a knot of such associates in crime as really do exist; to paint them in all their deformity, in all their wretchedness, in all the squalid poverty of their lives; to show them as they really are, forever skulking uneasily through the dirtiest paths of life, with the great, black, ghastly gallows closing up their prospect, turn them where they may; it appeared to me that to do this would be to a something which was greatly needed, and which would be a service to society. And therefore I did it as I best could. (3-4)

It should be remembered that Oliver’s life before he comes to London is by no means an enviable one. His mother, Agnes Fleming, dies in childbirth and then onwards he goes from one troubled existence to another. Outside London, people like Mr Bumble; the parish beadle, a local undertaker, Mrs Sowerberry; Noah Claypole, Sowerberry’s apprentice, and others have all been unkind to Oliver in their own ways. But it is in London that he is given lessons in becoming a thief and then made to commit crimes unwillingly. It is only in the end, away from London, that Mr Brownlow adopts Oliver and they live happily with the Maylies. Happier times come from outside London.

            Dickens and Malkani are not merely telling stories in their respective novels. They are going much deeper; trying to bring to the surface the connections between human nature and social relationships. Language is important in society and the family, society’s basic unit, is deeply connected with how language is to be used. In OT, in contrast to Londonstani, most of the criminals speak the language of refinement. Their dialogues contain circumlocution, periphrasis and even elevated style. Florence S. Boos believes that “In specially dangerous situations these euphemisms become sardonic, but on most occasions they serve to insulate the reader from the story and protect him through irony from any odium of identification.”  In Londonstani the author makes little effort to save the reader by insulating him from the rough and vulgar language in its pages. In fact he makes it rather obscene and unpleasant. This language is nurtured in the family or on the streets and is vital for the novel’s life. The family and home becomes a binary for the street and vice versa. It is not surprising that family, street and language have been focused on in these two novels. The family connections gradually unfold in Oliver Twist. We get to know about Agnes Fleming, Oliver’s mother; Edwin Leeford, Oliver’s father; about Rose Maylie, Oliver’s maternal aunt; and Monks, his half-brother. Monks is Oliver’s half-brother, disfavoured in his father’s will. He will inherit from his father only if Oliver has engaged in crime. Thus it gradually dawns upon the reader that if Oliver has been forced into crime by Fagin, it is Monks who has worked for this behind the scenes. Family and crime are connected in the novel and they are in Londonstani too, though somewhat differently in the latter novel. In Londonstani, Malkani can talk of it casually as “family related shit” (94) even when family is so important in the overall design of the novel. The narrator, Jas, who has given the impression of being one of the Indian rudeboys, turns out in the end to belong to a traditional British family and that makes all the difference to the story. The families of the other Indian rudeboys display a lack of class and their maladjustment in West London seems largely to result from this. Both novelists are pretty class conscious. Oliver remains uncorrupted by Fagin because he belongs to the middle class while the other boys get corrupted because they belong to the criminal class.  The rudeboys in Londonstani are criticized by their school teachers and they haven’t grown up to be good enough among South Asian ethnic groups. Their parents have high expectations from them and don’t want to allow them the freedom that other native English youngsters enjoy. They are conscious that people don’t consider them good enough. They are also not of the higher social class and far from refined:

            People’re always tryin to stick a label on our scene. That’s the problem with havin a fuckin scene. First we was rudeboys, then we be Indian niggas, then rajmuffins, then raggastanis, Britasians, fuckin Indobrits. These days we try an use our own word for homeboy an so we just call ourselves desis but I still remember when we were happy with the word rudeboy. (Londonstani 5)

            In Oliver Twist the language spoken by all of Oliver’s family is refined English; the kind of English that was spoken in the Victorian age. Monks may have become a criminal but his language is not as vulgar as it could have been. Dickens takes care to make him the kind of shady character who will appear cultured due to his language. It is as though the family, through the institution of custom, sends out tendrils that introduce certain resemblances between its members. In Londonstani virtually everything is said or indicated by the kind of language the rudeboys speak; they are what their language and families make them. In Oliver Twist even thieves want to conform to custom and tradition and therefore speak a highly refined language. In the other novel the thieves who are not professionally thieves and belong to reasonably good families by West London standards, rebel against tradition through a rebellious language. The language that the criminals of these two respective novels use reflects not only the mindsets of the criminals but also their ideologies. Both Bakhtin and Althusser, as is well known, have shown how human beings act and think and how the human subject gets formed. It is through the language used that ideologies get articulated. The two novels contrast their criminal worlds and their ideologies by the contrasting ways in which language is used by the different set of criminals. In Oliver Twist the criminals conform to the basic imperialistic and colonial philosophy of the nation. In Londonstani the language used is one of protest and nonconformity and resistance; a demonstration of a rebelliousness against the powers that be – parents, society and the political order.

            An important similarity between Oliver Twist and Londonstani is that both, particularly the latter, show that theft may be morally wrong but how it can happen as a result of instinct. What is socially wrong still happens in life, due to natural impulses. Human beings are seldom governed by social norms entirely; they will tend to straggle away from the social path. For instance, it is natural for the stronger person to bully the weaker. Sanjay in Londonstani would bully, cheat and exploit Jas for no obvious reason but this that he is in a stronger position with a better education and has affluence. Noah Claypole’s character similarly illustrates this principle of how people like to boss over and bully those below them.  He has been troubled by virtually everyone, because he is at the lowest rung of the social ladder when he is an apprentice at Mr Sowerberry’s workplace. However, as soon as Oliver has landed there, Noah begins to lord over him. He enjoys bullying Oliver just as the others enjoyed bullying him. Malkani’s novel reveals this aspect of human nature throughout. This aspect will be discussed in the next section of this article.

            From works of fiction like the ones under study, it may be possible to deduce that society forces us to conform; it also compels us as far as possible to remain civilised. Were there no social order, it would be natural and normal to be criminal. If London is such a big centre of culture and advancement, it must also reveal how it equally fosters deviants. If it provides people with opportunities to rise in life through hard work and civil conduct, it equally lets them slip into the easy way out and proceed towards criminality. Civil behaviour and morality do not come naturally to most people, crime probably does. In a writer like Dickens, on the one hand there is the effort to show social reality in his novels but on the other there is a concomitant glimpse into human nature. In exposing this relationship between social reality and human nature, Malkani and Dickens seem to share the kind of writing they do. Dickens shows how in his times even the criminal wanted to conform outwardly to custom and tradition by the kind of language he used. In Malkani’s London we encounter the opposite of this; there seems to be the effort to shun custom, culture, civility and socially appropriate language.

            Some of the crime in Oliver Twist happens out of London but there seem to be indirect connections between this crime and the network of the crime organized from London. For instance when Oliver is taken by the Maylies to their place outside London, Fagin can still keep track of Oliver.

            Interestingly, both Oliver Twist and Londonstani are set in West London. In Londonstani, London (particularly Hounslow) is revealed very selectively by its author.  It is given out slowly even though the culture of this part of the city is what is under the spotlight. The London that is visible in the novel is shown very largely through minds that cannot be described as sufficiently normal because they are charged with frustrations and anxieties. Londonstani presents a group of South Asian, mainly Indian, youth, who are settled in Hounslow, West London, and who are neither properly educated nor properly assimilated into the culture of the place they inhabit. Their language is the key to their beings; it is a kind of window through which they and their frustrations can be glimpsed; the novelist reaches their inner masculinities through their weird use of language. Dickens’s over sympathy for deviants also seems to make him give to them an unusual language for criminals.  Londonstani presents a case of multiculturalism at its worst. Malkani is conscious that this lot of youngsters, called rudeboys, is not really welcome in London. He himself lived in Hounslow in his childhood. They are treated as outsiders and disliked only a little less than the Jews were in Dickens’s times. Harry Stone points out that ‘In 1830 a Jew could not open a shop within the city of London, be called to the Bar, receive a university degree, or sit in Parliament’ (Oliver Twist 449). Fagin’s character shows the kind of interest Dickens took in Jews. His villainy is somewhat romanticised just as Shylock’s was by Shakespeare. Malkani joins these earlier authors in portraying the rudeboys with something short of a romantic gaze on them. His literary imagination goes deep and paints a picture of the attractive criminal. The criminal element keeps varying and the human element is highlighted. London may not love this criminal lot but the writer picks them out making them more human than a number of others around them. Sanjay, with better schooling and finance, is much worse as a human being. He is richer not because he has indulged in more legitimate activities but because he is more educated and better equipped to deceive more cleverly. He is able to attract Jas, Hardjit, Ravi and their group towards his own fraudulent business and convinces them to graduate from their petty lawless acts to more advanced modes of criminality.  It is predominantly these young men that we encounter in Londonstani, though there are a few women, like Samira and Reena that are lightly sketched and are there mainly to show us the men. The young men are rough and they live largely at the physical level. They are called “rudeboys” chiefly because of their ways that signify a total disregard for tradition, decorum and authority.

            An essential similarity between Oliver Twist and Londonstani is that both portray in a pioneering fashion an emerging criminal class in London. Novels very often reveal changing structures in society.

Victorians began to write of a ‘criminal class’ who lived entirely on the proceeds of crime and preyed upon the respectable people of the West End of London. To make matters worse, this ‘criminal class’ lived undetected in the dark backstreets, ‘rookeries’ and courts of the East End, a place where ‘civilised’ people feared to tread. However, the Victorian idea that an organised underworld separate from the rest of society was systematically preying on the wealthy was largely a myth and perpetuated by social researchers such as Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew. 

            In Oliver Twist, Dickens painted a vivid picture of this mythical underworld.  The wicked lot of people created by Dickens reflects the popular belief, as Beaven and Pullham point out, that most of these criminals were Irish and Jewish immigrants. Malkani’s novel also paints a picture of immigrants as criminals. However, there is a major difference here, a difference that needs to be looked into from a postcolonial perspective. Malkani’s mind cannot be like the mind of Dickens who was a native Englishman. It has the imprint of a colonial past. Even as he seems to set himself free from traces of the colonial mindset, to write as a postcolonial author, he ends up painting the immigrants in London as criminals. For Dickens to have written in that mode was natural; for Malkani it is not. Malkani had lived in Hounslow and seen how some people from India didn’t quite come up to a respectable living in London. He had his roots in India no doubt but he had lived in Uganda, another British colonised country, with his mother and came to London with her. He probably could not identify entirely with the Indian community in Hounslow and therefore presented a far from respectable image of Indians settled in Hounslow. However, it is to be noted that there is something that can be called likeable as well in this presentation of the uncultured lot of Indians. Malkani’s picture of Indian youngsters in London shows them to be rebellious, nonconformist and individualistic. They are against tradition and consider it silly and slavish to show any vestiges of custom in themselves. Even their language shows this rebellious attitude. For instance: ‘– Hear wat my bredren b sayin, sala kutta? Come out wid dat shit again n I’ma knock u so hard u’ll b shittin out yo mouth 4 real, innit, goes Hardjit, with an eloquence an convention that made me green with envy’ (Londonstani 3). Hence they acquire respectability the wrong way; they are the successors of the Diggers, the Hippies and other nonconformists. Malkani has made them look contemporary, like some other rebellious youngsters, and yet there seems to be a lack of respect for the Indian settled in London. He has presented them with the critical eye of an Englishman. Somewhere, Malkani’s handling of the immigrant Londoner is very similar to Dickens. It would appear that Malkani has not been able to set himself entirely free from a colonial mindset.

            A point that needs attention is the way Malkani’s portrays Indians. It seems unnatural for him to paint such a negative picture of his countrymen. But on closer examination some reasons seem to emerge. Malkani’s Indians, through a realistic portrayal appear pathetic at times; they seem rather wrong in whatever they do. Without doubt, Malkani’s portrayal of the South Asians makes them a petty lot and his selection of this group of Indians shows that though he has studied their lives closely, he does not have anything really good to say about them. Whereas London was considered to be the cultural capital of the world, Malkani shows these youngsters as people living in a lesser sophisticated part of London and probably adding a great deal to make it even less sophisticated. Dickens’s intention in portraying the criminals seems very similar to Malkani’s; they both try to reform their respective societies in London. To an extent every novelist has such an aim; Khaled Hosseini has had to write against his own people and Aravind Adiga has written against his.

            Every novelist worth his salt tries to create in the novel a time and place different to every other novelist. It is in and through this time/place picture frame that he best tells his unique story. It is this that makes him known and it is this that reflects his individual and idiosyncratic personality. Londonstani is the outcome of such a need; the need to tell the world of how a certain place, Hounslow, is different from the rest of the world, at a particular time in the history of Indo-Brit relations and settlements. In this narrative style and linguistic choice is reflected a certain kind of politics; peoples’ desires and distastes, successes and failures, hatreds and attractions. Malkani’s need as a novelist relates to communities of people trying to share a time and a space multiculturally, and upsetting the applecart of some that are nationally or generationally different.

            Malkani is at pains to provide newness to the form of the literary expression he has chosen to adopt. He does this by manipulating two basic parts of the novel’s structure: (a) the language and (b) the manner of narration. Today’s novels, particularly those written by ambitious writers looking for awards of the highest kind, that will fetch them instant fame, have an eye on the invention of a narrative technique and vocabulary that has an imprint of their personalities. It is not only new ideas put into new language; it is a race against others to be different and to excel in their difference. It is this effort which makes Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Julian Barnes and others stand out and seem more successful than others.

            Malkani has made an effort to capture a time and a place with its difference from all other times and places. Whether he has done this successfully or not is difficult to determine. But it has to be admitted that the language which seems cheap and vulgar in the beginning of the novel affects the reader in a way that he begins to accept and even probably enjoy by the time that the novel ends. By this time, the reader has begun to recognise and even own the ugly reality of the youngsters living in West London. Such is the force of literary fiction.

            Malkani has hit upon a great formula to keep his literary novel going. Even though there is a very bare plot, the novel goes on merely on a narrative that is built out of dialogue and language that is colloquial. Here is a sample of the language that goes on throughout: ‘– Serves him right. He got his muthafuckin face fuck’d, shuldn’t b callin me a Paki, innit’ (Londonstani 3) He has found a form and content that go hand in hand perfectly. The form incorporates a realistic description of the setting with the help of a realistic dialogue packed into the narrative; the content showcases multicultural issues, like the inability to adjust and the anxieties of the Indian youngsters. It is rather evident that most of these rudeboys suffer from something close to ‘psychosis’. Psychosis is different to neurosis; psychotics often do not have an awareness of the morbidity of their condition. Some people with psychosis may also experience loss of motivation and social withdrawal. One of the symptoms of psychosis that is particularly the case with some of the rudeboys is disorganised speech.

            Kamila Shamsie could be partly right in her observation that the novel is more about gender than ethnicity.  It does seem, however, that though Malkani presents a male society in all its crudeness, it is a certain social class, a group of immigrants from India who want quick money, as they lead sub-standard lives, and never quite feel at home in London. They don’t find what they are looking for in London and therefore become negative in the way they live. London, then, becomes a place where the criminal seems more criminal because of the contrast to which he is subjected in his failure to conform.

            Language, particularly the language of refinement, reflects the state of a group’s civilisation level. The more disciplined and evolved a society, the less crudeness and vulgarity its language will contain. Not only Dickens and Malkani have shown this but others like Irvine Welsh and Martin Amis have reflected the same in their novels. Both Dickens and Malkani have revealed, without saying this explicitly, that language is directly related to social deviance and criminality.

            London, then, seems to invite the literary imagination towards the real world with its devious human actions instead of taking us toward epical or fantasy worlds. But the movement from Dickens to Malkani is one from theodicy to mundanity; realism is on the increase.  There is what Georg Lukács believes, a distancing from the epic. Novels like Londonstani and Oliver Twist, due to the realistic manner in which they present life with its social deviance and criminality, put them in a genre that is the opposite of the epic. Instead of soaring on the wings of fancy or grandeur they keep us in spaces that involve harsh reality. In this domain that London represents, there is pain and melancholy intrinsically wrapped up in a shabby and degrading existence.

Works Cited

Ball, John Clement. Imagining London: Postcolonial Fiction and the Transnational Metropolis.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Basdeo, Stephen.    


Beaven, Brad  and Patricia Pullham. “Dickens and the ‘Criminal Class’”.

Boos, Florence S. “Language in Oliver Twist and Our Mutual Friend”.

Bristow, Joseph. Sexuality. London: Routledge, 2013.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Ed. Fred Kaplan, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Forster, E M. Howards End. Ed. Paul B Armstrong  New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.

Kureishi, Hanif.


Lukács, Georg. “A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature”.

Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Malkani, Gautam. Londonstani. London: Fourth Estate, 2006.

Morris, Pam. Realism. London: Routledge, 2009.

Pykett, Lyn.  The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Ed. Martin Eastman, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Shamsie, Kamila. “How many a us bredren b here?”.

Stone, Harry. Oliver Twist. Fred Kaplan, 448-454.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Books, 2000.

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