Thursday, August 25, 2011

London calling

There are parts of our society that are not just broken but frankly sick. When we see children of 12 or 13 looting, it’s clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society.” It wouldn’t be far- fetched if you thought this was a statement from the head of a war-ravaged or drought-prone country. But these observations were made by David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom, one of the world’s most developed countries. He was expressing his anger after surveying the damage during the recent urban riots in the UK.

Against the backdrop of this pillage, Stephen Kelman’s debut novel Pigeon English makes for a timely read. Even otherwise it would have been an almost brilliant book. By illegal means, 11-year-old Harrison Opoku arrives in London from Ghana along with his mother and older sister Lydia. As movies on immigrant angst like This Is England and Harry Brown and books like Londonstani and Brick Lane show, the inner-city housing estates of London are a self-contained universe where debauchery and depravity are deemed virtues. Yet to grapple with the realities of a white-dominated locality, Opoku is in a culture shock of sorts.

During one of those addled days, he is a witness to the knifing of a senior at school. Along with his friend Dean he tries to find the killer, “CSI-style”: collecting spit samples, fingerprints et al. Kelman’s plot includes a handful of characters for whom Opoku is the centripetal force. There is Lydia, who falls into those Justin Bieber demographics, cooing over girlie things and forever at odds with Opoku, a mother who is spooked by London ghetto life but determined to give her children a better life, Opoku’s cousin Jordan, who is on the fast lane to self-destruction, and the eponymous pigeon that visits Opoku every day and is his subconscious shining light in the darkest of times. There are also blink-and-miss characters like Connor Green, whose supposed wisecracks always fall flat but will still entertain the reader, and Dean, who is, in turn, condescending and appreciative of Opoku’s detective brain.

With a plot set within a time span of just four months, Kelman deals with a multitude of issues plaguing inner city society in an engaging rather than sanctimonious manner: mindless killings, urban dystopia, dysfunctional families, adolescent violence, xenophobia, illegal immigration, racism and homophobia. All these issues are witnessed through the fresh and non-judgemental eyes of Opoku. “Mamma says the CCTV camera is just another way for God to watch you. If God’s busy in another part of the world, like if he’s making an earthquake or a tide, his cameras can still see you. That way he can never miss anything.” In a country, where there’s a CCTV camera for every 13 people, this is a convenient explanation for the Big Brother side of the state.

The greatest strength of Pigeon English is the author’s vice-like grip on the proceedings. There were moments when the story grabbed me by the scruff of my neck. A major reason is Kelman’s rooted language, which evokes the HBO TV series Wire and Emma Donoghue’s Room (fittingly, she wrote a blurb for the book). The pidgin is authentic and so are the kids’ ruminations that never grate even if they oscillate between the sublime and the ridiculous. Throughout the book there is a certain Ghanaian lingo peddled, which should make it to in no time. “Asweh” is short for I swear, “bo-style” is the coolest fad in the town, “dey touch” means “are you crazy?”, “hutious” means frightening, “Gowayou” is the short for, yes, go away, you.

Opoku’s relationship with his sisters forms the book’s emotional core. Although he is not overly protective about Lydia, he does make his presence felt and, on the other hand, his thoughts are forever dominated by the well-being of Agnes, a younger sister whom he left behind in Ghana. The best part about Pigeon English is that what purports to be a find-the-killer sort of book, actually ends up with Opoku finding his moral moorings.

Opoku tries hard to be accepted in the local gang, Dell Farm Crew, as that would lend his meek disposition a veneer of audacity but, as luck would have it, he fails to live up to the “missions”. If there’s a misstep in an otherwise flawless book, it is that the pace lags a bit in between. The entire episode of Opoku finding a love interest in Poppy, a classmate, sounds a bit far-fetched. Also, the killer is found way too easily and in an abrupt fashion. Having said that, Pigeon English is most definitely the Catcher In the Rye for the Internet generation. This heady cocktail of dystopian innocence and strange sadness could only have been whipped up by Cormac McCarthy among living authors. This book wraps its crooked fingers around your heart and keeps tugging at its strings.

Stephen Kelman
263 pages; Rs 499


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