“This is our land [Coconut City]”

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Nikesh Shukla’s Coconut Unlimited invited me in with its very tempting cover of vivid saree-appropriate orange. And not just ordinary saree-orange. Saree-orange speckled with graffiti-ed words and doodles. A cow accompanied by a “no beef” sign hung out next to a cassette tape, and a microphone floated somewhere above it. More important, however, were the blurbs. I would like to consider myself blurb-proof. Apparently, I only am blurb-proof when the blurb reads: “A lyrical portrait of an ordinary American family in the heart of the Midwest rocked to the core by sudden revelations and secrets from the past.” Coconut Unlimited’s blurbs were penned, though, by hip names – Joe Dunthorne of Submarine and Riz MC, star of Four Lions, for one thing – and embellished with choice words. The choicest of them being the phrase, “the Brit-Asian Rotters’ Club”, courtesy of Niven Govinden. What to do? I bought the book. I am not blurb-proof. I am not impervious. Altogether, say it to me: Hubris will be thy fall, etc.

The combined effect of colour + cover + blurbs leads the susceptible-to-covers reader (me) to believe she’s about to read THE BEST NOVEL EVAH. So it’s hardly surprising that Coconut Unlimited did not quite live up to the hype. It had its journey very well-mapped out, and it followed closely to the prescribed path. This was meant to be a warm, comedic, light-hearted yarn about three Indian boys in a posh public school in Harrow banding together to form a rap group as a buffer against the virulent British-strain of public school classism and racism. And so it was a warm, comedic, light-hearted yarn. Yet, interwoven threads of cultural differences and immigrant blues underpinned the yarniness, and it felt like the narrative would have sometimes liked to go down a different a path – a little less slap-your-knee funny, a little more turbulent and chaotic – but it seemed to have been firmly yanked back into warm, comedic, light-hearted yarn territory. Still, it must be acknowledged the flood of acclaim that came out for Coconut Unlimited book probably points towards the need among readers for adolescent school stories featuring less-than-lily white characters, for stories situated outside of the sphere of the white British experience trotted out as being representative or typical.

As far as male friendships go, Coconut Unlimited is a fine tribute to the ties that bind. Amit, the protagonist who presents this tale to us in a narrated flashback, and his two buddies Anand and Nishant, are ready-made outcasts in their posh collegiate environment because of their race and skin colour. The three are intermittently geeky and surprisingly smooth, and the dialogue between the three form some of the best parts of the book. Amit is witty and adept at summing up his social condition in a few well-chosen words:

At private school, the only thing to rebel against was wealth, which made all the white kids turn to angsty guitar music about upset stomachs and parental resentment. We three had no wealth to rebel against. We were the victims of our parents’ desire to ensure we had a good education, meaning all their money was spent on private school. No holidays, no proper nights out, no musical instruments, no frivolity – only austere learning. We rebelled against the stigma of being the three Asians.[i]

Being brown and not black isn’t enough to withstand white contempt, or at the very least it only invites a different kind of contempt that is rooted in unflattering comparisons to curry – and so Amit and his crew decide to go black via rap music and “street” culture. Problem is, neither one of them can rap – and neither one of them has experienced “life on the street”. But where adolescent energy finds its destiny, nothing can stand in its way, and so Amit, Anand, and Nishant are on their way to being Coconut Unlimited by careful and disciplined appropriation of black culture and rap music as gleaned from TV and music magazines.

Coconut Unlimited is set in the 1990s, so for these cash-deprived Indian boys of Harrow, cassette tapes are the medium by which music is discovered and consumed. Hey! Much like it was for cash-deprived Indian girls of Malaysia. Amit and his friends trade mix tapes and record songs off of bought albums and spend hours listening to beats and memorising lyrics. The mix tape is the site in which the self is continuously being remade. This isn’t surprising as music-obsessed adolescents of the 80s and mid-90s attempted to build, demolish, and reconstruct new identities in tandem with their shifting interests and obsessions with newly-discovered music, and the cassette facilitated easy acquisition and dispersal of music to suit rapidly-changing needs. Press play, hit record, or rewind – it’s there one minute or deleted and recorded over the next. The Coconut Unlimited trio also record their self-made music using cassette tapes, figuring out creative ways to layer rapping over vocals and beats in an awkward and adorable attempt at bricolage. But what’s interesting is that Amit’s father does the same, using his cassettes as a way of maintaining ties to a place – in this case, India – by copying Bollywood albums brought over by friends, and then circulating and trading these tapes amongst his friends. In Amit’s father’s case, the mix tape is a means by which he rediscovers what probably constitutes the lost self of a first-generation immigrant to Britain.

Amit’s always-present anger and confusion is often sublimated into crafting rhymes that sound good in his head but also tend to stay in his head – Amit is a failed rapper before he can even begin – which is interesting, of course, and funny. But this aspect of Amit’s character also feels overly-prescribed, as if Shukla’s attempt to rewrite the comic English novel to the key of brown prevents him from exploring (or wanting to) the boundaries between laughter and shame, or laughter and pain. After all, the immigrant experience of being the outsider constantly reminded of one’s “otherness” is not always summed up with a catchy rhyme or deviated with a few laughs. When I think about what is one of the most successful depictions of both vivid pathos and humour as it plays out in the daily lived experience of the immigrant, I think of The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. The Lonely Londoners tells the story of the working-class, however, and Coconut Unlimited tells the story of young men who aren’t poor but who are trapped within limited economic circumstances that seriously circumscribe their ability to be “pretty cool”.

Perhaps there is never really any true pathos in the experience of the marginalised-yet-pampered second-generation Indian immigrant, only sublimated anger and resentment. Pitching the narrative at one particular emotional note throughout the book doesn’t seem to have done justice to Coconut Unlimited’s scope and imagination. Sometimes the racist bullshit that the boys endure are not so much of a laugh, haha. The familial tensions that arise out inter-generational conflicts are tiny stabs to the heart, and not so much of a laugh, haha. That’s not to say that Shukla shouldn’t have set out to write a comic novel undercut by humiliation and marginalization (two situations ripe for humour), but the comedy faltered at points. From a reader’s perspective, it felt like the comedy faltered at precise points where comedy needed to sit back and allow a little pathos to seep in through the gaps. But those emotions aren’t given permission to expand to fit those gaps, and what remains are absences in the text that don’t so much as engage curiosity as shut it down.

This is partly a problem with Amit, who drops tiny bombs throughout the narrative about his displeasure for Asian and Indian girls. He meets the daughter of his parents’ friends, a girl whom he considers sexy, only to remind us that he only considered her “sexy for an Asian girl.” Amit spends a lot of his time wanting to distance himself from his white male counterparts – and white male culture in general – while generally only desiring white females and holding Indian/Asian girls in contempt. Amit’s dislike and contempt for Indian and Asian girls is constant – he derides his sister’s Indian friends as stupid and giggly, and derides the Indian girls at a Gujarati cultural event he attends as stupid and giggly, and objects to Anand’s first girlfriend on grounds of simple jealousy, but also because she’s Indian. This is interesting, and one wonders if it’s an expected immigrant malaise to sexually reject the people who are most like you and desire those most unlike you as you grow up in a culture that valorises the people most unlike you.  The Lacanian construct of “desire is the desire for the other” seems to bear out most convincingly in immigrant or post-colonial communities. No surprise then that the teenage Amit reveres white girls more than others – except that the grown-up Amit, who narrates this story and comes back to join in the final chapter, has fulfilled teenaged Amit’s dream by marrying a white woman. One can’t help but wonder about the buried subtext of this after an adolescence spent imagining Indian/Asian women to be somehow deficient – capable only of provoking Amit’s disgust and scorn.

Amit’s pretty astute in realising that he’s mocked for appropriating black street culture while living in the comfortable suburbs of Harrow, and is aware enough to feel embarrassed when his mom says unthinking sort-of racist things about black people and black culture. At the same time, it’s a fairly common adolescent rite-of-passage to rebel, strongly and loudly OR subtly and wimpily, against one’s parents and by extension, one’s culture – since most parents tend to fill the role of cultural gatekeepers – and also to rebel against all that undercuts your sense of self and rubs your face in daily misery. In Amit’s case, the latter is realised by his posh white classmate and the entire racialised structure of his private school experience. But Amit also performs some of his own (unconscious, perhaps) cultural gatekeeping when he evaluates his Indian peers, mocking them for their fondness for vacuous R‘n’B music and appropriation of bling-bling culture:

The boys: gelled spiky hair in a variety of angles and shaved sides, jumpers with logos emblazoned near their nipples, Moschino or Ralph Lauren or Armani – s’ all bout da laaaaabels blud – jeans with insignias all over them, gleaming white trainers, gold rings on every finger displaying religious iconography.

The girls: grey or green contact lenses, foundation like pate, catty eye make-up and the rest all in black, their long small fingernails painted golden, their hair straight and middle-parted, small, all under five-foot – all so generic, so exactly the same that there was nothing even remotely attractive about them.

Sure, people might argue that Amit is young – it’s practically a requirement for him to be an ass.[ii] But young or no, one hopes to excavate other character traits that would make him interesting to be with for the duration of the narrative, if not exactly a pleasure to be with. Shukla gives us an Amit with a sparse history and with very few engagements in life beyond this sudden manic obsession with rap music as a means of attaining cool factor and redeeming his social standing. Amit seems intangible, almost a figment of authorial nostalgia and memory, while the people around him – Anand, Nishant, his parents, even Pentil the racist bully in his school – are sketched out in strong, sharp strokes, imbuing them with a stronger presence on the page than Amit ever achieves.

Shukla’s prose, however, provides the rhythm that propels the book’s narrative forward in a fairly entertaining way; the dialogue peppered with the steady and catchy beat of street slang (or at the very least, mimics the attempts of straightlaced good boys trying to speak in slang). There are some hilarious inclusions of Amit’s (misfired) attempts at crafting rhyme for their rap songs, and as expected for a comic novel well-versed and respectful of its tradition, rapid-fire wit and humour are in abundance. Amit’s mother’s constant irritation with her son’s speech style, “What do you mean ‘what’s up?’ Why must something always be up?” got a smile out of me each time. The general tenor of her dialogue is affectionately and tenderly executed; she isn’t framed as being silly or nasty (as some Indian moms appear to be when seen from the perspective of their beloved sons… or yes, daughters), just stolidly and comfortingly present.

So is Coconut Unlimited the Brit-Asian The Rotters’ Club? I remember the latter creating a world of juvenile angst, confusion, lust, desire, and the manic teenage enthusiasm for 70s British punk. It was absorbing; I read it very quickly and without many breaks while I listened to XTC in the background, and came out of it fully-convinced I was a young English male on the cusp of an exciting future. Coconut Unlimited peeled off only very outer layer of its characters’ complicated lives, and as a result I only wanted to give it my very superficial attention. It’s like expecting a lunch of rice and sambar made from scratch, only to be given sambar-from-a-box. You eat it… but there’s some crucial element missing. There’s very little room in Coconut Unlimited for the characters to feel genuinely bad for more than two seconds, and because of that the book is somewhat inadequate. From other reviews I’ve read, I seem to be in the tiny minority. But I can’t say I don’t look forward to see what Shukla will come up with now that he’s exorcised the ghost of his adolescent past with this book.

[i] Note that Amit is British yet refers to his public school as a private school, although I do believe that a public school in Britain is the term used for private school, but perhaps public schoolers in Britain refer to their public schools as private schools in private. I do not know. The alternative explanation is that this was a concession made in the text so as not to confuse non-English readers, who are more likely the easily-confused Americans. Ha! Just kidding. No, not really.

[ii] This definitely leads one to wonder if that’s the reason why there’s been a recent wave of books by adult men for adult audiences – Proper Books, mind you, without brain injury involved – featuring adolescent males as main characters filtering the world through an adolescent male experience.

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