Thursday, October 06, 2011

Boys in the hood

In its searing editorial the New Statesman magazine described the recent riots in Britain thus: “The looting was, on one level, pure nihilism; on another, it was a crude attempt by rioters to mimic the conspicuous consumption exercised by the affluent and credit-rich.”

To understand the unholy chaos that rages within the hearts of urban poor youth and how they have been disenfranchised by globalisation you can do far worse than picking up Gavin Knight’s Hood Rat.

Knight, a journalist, brings to life (and how!) his two-year experience of being embedded with police units in inner-city London, Manchester and Glasgow. He handpicked a phalanx of characters whom he encountered and documented their lives, albeit with fictional names. In Manchester, Anders Svensson, a silver-tongued detective, has taken it upon himself to rid the city of drug baron Merlin and his lieutenant Flow. The reader is witness to the harrowing and pointless life of a detective. Svensson gets his high from arrests but it dissipates soon enough when the peddler is back on the streets after successfully evading the rightful course of law.
In London, Knight’s focus shifts towards Pilgrim, a Jamaican, who immigrated to London and is well on his way to becoming the poster child of gang violence. After Pilgrim is shoved into a jail for six years, 14-year-old Troll, a Somali, takes over and his gang of miscreants continues Pilgrim’s macabre job. Then Pilgrim finishes his sentence and finds himself back in the mix. That’s when he has an epiphany — that a gangster’s sell-by date is very short. In this story, the inner-city drug abuse and the vagaries of wasted childhoods are seen at their brutal best. The Punjabi junkies in Southall represent the book’s most miserable lot. This is something Bollywood should bring to light rather than churning out trash like I- Proud To Be An Indian and Patiala House.

The third part of Knight’s sprawling triptych takes place in Glasgow, where detective chief superintendent Karyn McCluskey has lot of sweeping changes in her mind to rid the city of its embarrassing statistic: the highest murder rate in Europe. Square-eyed readers might find parallels for Merlin and flow in the characters of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell in the brilliant HBO series The Wire — there are too many coincidences to ignore. Merlin is brash like Avon while Flow has just the kind of brains that Stringer does. What McCluskey sets out to do is uncannily similar to what Major Colvin does to the kids in Baltimore. The British ghetto lingo is more or less similar to what is shown in Baltimore (the setting of The Wire). But then, be it Bradford or Baltimore, the cokeheads and druglords tend to be the same in the Western world.

Not the cops, though. It was a huge rebuke to the Metropolitan Police when British Prime Minister David Cameron asked the American supercop Bill Bratton to help overhaul a demoralised police force and to cut crime. The adage that “the police are the public and the public are the police” is seemingly forgotten these days and Hood Rat is a timely reminder. The way McCluskey tries to instill sense into the kids and stop them from taking the road to cocaine is a harbinger of hope in these desperate times. Svensson’s indefatigable attempts at handholding gangsters to a better future show that all is not lost, yet.

Hood Rat has nothing particularly new to offer to readers who are acquainted with Sudhir Venkatesh’s masterly Gang Leader for a Day and movies like This Is England and, of course, The Wire. What, however, sets Hood Rat apart is Knight’s direct and stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of writing. “These girls have bought into the image of gang life that rappers like 50 Cent or Akon present, where women are treated like princesses, driven in Aston Martinis and Playboy cigarette speedboats and bought expensive presents. But the reality isn’t like that. The reality is being chased by the police, ten men from the Tactical Support Group in visors and helmets charging in the front door of your council house at 5 a m. Being beaten, being left alone for days,” Svensson says about the vagaries of ghetto life.

Another high point of Hood Rat is its humour, which is as dry as striking two sticks to light a fire. “A twelve-year-old cannot wait to step up, shoot a general and get a reputation for himself. It’s like X Factor,” muses Svensson about the really young demographics of the criminals. This unflinching book gets so cinematic at times that you might wonder where your popcorn has gone. A few chases are so vividly described that the reader will inadvertently feel a part of the proceedings. On the flip side, the book doesn’t throw any new light on the problem of inner city crime, apart from a few terms that are limited to respective police organisations. It tends to drag at times as well. But then, it lives up to the Kafka golden rule: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it?” Do remember to play “Way Down In The Hole” by Tom Waits when you are peering through this eye-opening window into a world of absolutely no hope.

Gavin Knight
298 pages


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