When we read fiction, what are we doing it for? To lose ourselves – to escape into some else’s finely crafted world – or is it to find ourselves? Do we naturally gravitate towards stories which can show us something about ourselves, as individuals or as a collective, as humans?
Arguably, a reader of today is doing a little of both. There’s a lot to escape from and, perhaps as a product of this, there’s a lot to be nostalgic about. So, when we got the chance to delve into the archive of one of the voices of the moment, Nikesh Shukla, we couldn’t resist heading straight back to the glorious nineties, where hip-hop reigned supreme and being in a band was ‘so cool’…
Coconut Unlimited, shortlisted for the Costa first novel award in 2010, tells the story of Amit, Anand and Nishant. Beginning on the eve of Amit’s wedding, the novel reunites the three central protagonists before setting them on a nostalgic journey which transports the reader right back to their upbringing in 1990’s Harrow.
Without providing too many spoilers, the plot centres on the three boys being considered ‘posh “coconut”’ a term which here references a westernised Asian, someone who is, to quote the novel “brown on the outside, white on the inside”. The boys are therefore considered outsiders in their school community but they have big dreams. They can’t imagine anything cooler than being in a hip-hop band… the only problem is they don’t actually know how to be in one…
As a child of the nineties, I was instantly transported. I remembered a time when I used to have ‘band rehearsals’ with my friends pre-setting my keyboard’s ‘jazzy’ melodies and warbling over the top, we really thought we’d go somewhere, the truth is the only place we were destined for was the garden! Therefore, whilst this is a novel about cultural differences, about being different in many ways – and a strikingly poignant and sharply observed one at that – it’s also about being a teenager, struggling to find yourself, desperately trying to fit in and doing anything to fit in. It’s also about how keenly our senses of how far we are willing to go for things kicks in. Take Amit, he loves hip-hop and is perfectly willing to emulate the style and lingo but wants nothing to do with the darker, criminal elements he soon discovers. In a novel where the characters seem to flounder in their comical coming-of-age story, their ability to define themselves comes extremely quickly.
Whilst Coconut Unlimited is a novel which riffs on juxtapositions and binaries: cultural diversity and symbiosis, self-identity and self-crisis , reality and dreams, there can be no duality to its success. An excellently observed and strikingly relevant novel, it is thoroughly recommended.
Coconut Unlimited is out now, published by Quartet Books.