Coconut Unlimited by Nikesh Shukla
6 January, 2011
There’s been a lot of buzz about this book in the UK, especially since it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. Sadly it just missed the award, but I thought it was a great little book and very, very orange!
What first drew my interest was that Coconut Unlimited was set in Harrow and the main character Amit and his two friends Nishant and Anand are the only three Asians in a public boys’ school. [N.B. In the UK, Asian denotes someone of South Asian origin and is considered politically correct to use. And a public school is a posh private school. Yup, confusing.] I went to a girls’ boarding school near Harrow so felt rather nostalgic reading about it.
Amit, Nishant and Anand are into their hip-hop and busy assuming the cultural identity of Black American hip-hop community to distinguish themselves from their white classmates and their brown family friends. They are set apart because they go to a public school and not the local comprehensive where most of their Gujarati peers are studying. Their parents work hard to afford the fees and have high expectations that they will one day become a member of the three main occupations which all South Asian parents dream of: doctor, lawyer or engineer. However all the boys want to do is sing in their band, Coconut Unlimited, and follow the hip-hop way. As if that isn’t hard enough, they must wrangle their way through hormones, racism, the local drug dealer who is a family friend and neighbour and fragile friendships.
Nikesh Shukla has written a darkly comic tale of identity, following your dreams and dealing with racism in a primarily sheltered part of modern Britain. It’s not exactly inner city London. Yet it’s not exactly paradise either.
There were bits that made me laugh out loud and bits that made me uncomfortable. Shukla deftly captures the early warm friendships that will forever remain a part of you. Yet there was something about Amit that left me feeling slightly perplexed. Even though it is his story, I didn’t quite ‘get’ him. But then, I guess at fifteen, none of us knows what we are doing, right? The only other quibble is the amount of lyrics that were in the text which I thought could have been edited a little more. The best bits were the family scenes with Amit’s mum which were hysterical. It reminded me so much of all the tales I’d heard from my school friends who grew up in Harrow. And the rudeboy dialect’s just crackin’.
Coconut Unlimited is a funny and bittersweet debut. Shukla knows his people and he knows how to present them to a generation of Asians who are caught between the land they grow up in and the land their parents dream of.
I would like to thank Quartet Books for kindly sending me this book to review.
This is my first offering for the South Asian Challenge 2011.