Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla

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Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Amit Vyas
Reviewed by Amit Vyas
Summary: En guarde, musketeer, gendarme

Best believe I'll strong arm
You - tone, cut you filleted
Don't mess with Coconut Unlimited.

Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 200 Date: October 2010
Publisher: Quartet Books
ISBN: 978-0704372047

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It is the early 1990's and Amit, Anand and Nishant are three young Asian boys in an all white private school. As such they are considered massively uncool by default. Too bad then that their Asian peers in the North London Gujarati enclave known as Harrow think that they are a bunch of stuck up toffs. Soft. Weak. No street cred whatsoever. Worst of all they are labelled as 'Coconuts' (brown on the outside, white on the inside). There's only one thing for it - start a hip-hop band. The fact that they don't have any songs, talent or initially any idea what hip-hop actually sounds like isn't really a problem. As everyone knows, forming a band makes you 'pretty cool' and after that the girls simply fall at your feet.

Amit and his friends are driven by the frustration of being excluded from every teenage scene. They have no interest in being one of the 'Harrow set' who all dress, act and talk the same and follow roughly the same course through life. Nor can they rebel against their parents' wealth by listening to angsty guitar music like their peers at school. Rap music and culture fills the vacuum, helping them relate to each other and their situation. The boys learn to talk in their own street dialect and the text is peppered with their home made hip hop flows.

The story is told from Amit's perspective. Along the way we get an insight into his home life and the pressures of being a British born Gujarati with parents stuck in the rural past. Speaking as an Amit who went to school in London in the 1990's, I can vouch for the authenticity of fictional Amit. Some of the most enjoyable scenes are whenever Amit interacts with his parents. They are the amalgamation of every Gujarati parent I knew growing up. Everything rings true. The expectation on the kid to become a doctor/lawyer/engineer and look after parents in their old age. The pressure to lead an austere life of studying knowing that your parents scrape by in order to provide for your education. Having to hide the fact that you've vasted your money on new music. The character of Amit's mum in partcular is pitched so perfectly that she often threatens to steal the show. In one scene she marches her son into a trendy London clothes shop, walks up to the assistant and states, 'young man, I vant to buy my son some jeans.' It just gets more and more embarassing from there.

I suspect that the main character in particular is drawn from real life experiences of the author's childhood. This is the coming of age story that I know. Its the story of many of my peers. Teenage angst magnified exponentially by being part of both British and Indian cultures. With none of the lazy tropes that are usually associated with writers from the Indian sub-continent. No arranged marriages or patriarchal fathers or monsoon weddings here. This isn't Brick Lane or Londonstani. Coconut doesn't try to be worthy or evoke the mysterious East in order to sell books in Tunbridge Wells, and is all the more admirable for it.

This does not mean that you have to be from the same cultural background or listen to hip-hop in order to 'get it.' I feel as if the author has gone out of his way to be accessible. The book is written in a clear style that is so much fun to read yet the prose is deft enough to be both tender and tragic on the turn of a sneaker. Shukla has a story to tell and everyone is invited. There is even a handy mini-guide to the top five words in Guj-glish and their usage for the uninitiated.

This is a book for anyone who is a teenager or was one once. No matter your age or background, through the aid of three hapless Asian hip-hop wannabes you can relive your own experience and remind yourself of why it all mattered so much back then. Read it you pendoo!

This book was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa First Novel Award and I'd like to thank the publishers for providing a review copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: If this book appeals then you might enjoy Greetings From Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor

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Buy Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla at Amazon.com.

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Jill said:

I absolutely love this review! And I wish I'd grabbed the book to read now!