Coconut Unlimited, Nikesh Shukla (2010)

British-Gujarati author Nikesh Shukla’s Coconut Unlimited is the funniest book I’ve read since Ngugi’s The Wizard of the Crow. It’s combines teenage-boy melodrama with second-generation British-Indian immigrant angst, racism and class commentary, and makes these heavy themes really, really funny along the way.

It is the mid-1990s and fourteen-year-old Amit lives in Harrow, on the outskirts of London. Unlike the other local Gujarati teenagers, he goes to a private school rather than the comprehensive. Being only one of three non-white boys at his school, he feels hemmed in and marginalised. With characteristic teenage obsession, he, Anand and Nishant, his other Asian school buddies, style themselves as hip-hop rappers. They are nerdy good-boys in reality, excelling at Latin, not daring to touch alcohol or weed, and wanting to live up to their parents’ expectations, yet imagine themselves to be black ghetto boys, rapping about guns and violence. Their Gujarati peers call them coconuts–brown on the outside, white on the inside–because of their private-school pretensions, while their white classmates mock them for being black-wannabes. They are experiencing the identity crisis of youth, compounded by being a minority within a minority. They aren’t exactly ashamed of their Gujarati heritage (though their parents’ Bollywood music makes them gag), but within school they aren’t given any room to be proud of it, being hounded by students and teachers alike for their difference. Their answer is to identify with the singers of their favourite rap music. Amit says:

“In our fictional social system we were the penniless, despite our privileged education, and thus aligned ourselves with the streets, in particular the streets of Compton and the Bronx. So, to prove to ourselves we weren’t coconuts, we tried to be brown on the outside and black in the middle. We knew we had soul, and hip-hop was our way of showing it. The worst thing for us, it seemed, was to be called wealthy and posh by our Asian peers, and equals by our white peers. We needed to be dirty and rugged, to maintain the oppression of our race, and hip-hop was perfect for that.” (p. 31)

All of this might sound a bit dark and sad if it wasn’t so hilarious. I suspect Shukla may have been writing about his own youth, as Amit’s awkwardness is sensitively and affectionately portrayed, the way that reminiscing about older versions of oneself calls for. You don’t really want to think about it, it makes you cringe (hell, I was of the Spice Girls generation!) but it makes for good comedy two decades later. Amit and co. name their hip-hop group Coconut Unlimited, in an attempt to embrace the stigmatised label and turn it into something positive. The trouble is, they really aren’t very good. When a white classmate of Amit’s shows an interest in rapping, Amit feels threatened and challenges him to a rap battle, 8-Mile style:

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHCOCONUTUNLIMITED

LISTEN

LISTEN

Listen

Listen

Yo, so Herman’s a munster, his mum’s a munter

Down the market he’s an ordinary punter

Who wants pizza? Herman’s got a pizza face

Herman always loses a race

Err…

Listen

YEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH COCONUT

Herman, Herman, you’re just a bit shit man

You got fingernails like you filed them with a flan

You can’t rap, you’re just crap

Who’s with me, feel me, BRRAAP

Yap, clap trap, dapper…

Map… lap COCONUT UNLIMITED”

(p. 146)

If this wasn’t humiliation enough, Herman replies:

“Mit Dogg, more like Shit Log

Take your skills outside into the thick fog

That your farting mouth just made

Look man, I’m getting paid and laid

And you’re just a whack little man

Who can’t rap, I’m like damn

Come on, these are the skills you’re bringing

That’s why everyday I’m winning…”

(p. 147)

I recommend Coconut Unlimited to teenagers of the 1990s, those who acutely remember the angst of youth (or need reminding), anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, or who just wants a good laugh.

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Published by

Elen

Travel writer at www.wildernessmetropolis.com. Editor, writer, traveller, reader, literary critic.

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