About 30 minutes into our interview Gautam Malkani reclines on his faux leather sofa and exhales loudly, momentarily lost for words. “This feels like a therapy session,” he admits.
Plastered on the stark living-room wall behind him are draft pages from his new novel with words such as “self-doubt, blame, isolation and social exclusion” highlighted in bold. Discarded manuscripts and Post-it notes litter his desk and the surrounding concrete floor: the detritus of a book that has taken nearly 12 years and innumerable rewrites.
Back in 2006, Malkani was the next big thing. His first book, Londonstani, detailing the lives of young tearaway Asians in his native Hounslow, west London, had just been published to rave reviews. His publisher, 4th Estate, paid him a mammoth advance for a two-book deal. Astronomical numbers were quoted at the time including by American magazine Time, which cited $675,000. Instead, he assures me, “it was in the very low six figures”.
At the same time, he was building a career at the Financial Times, a newspaper he joined as a trainee after graduating from Cambridge. The year before the book came out, he had married and was embarking on a new life in a new home.
With his stock so high and a deal for his second book already in place, Malkani decided to change tack and write about a different and difficult subject. The end result is Distortion, published last month, a novel about a young teenager secretly caring for his terminally-ill mother. The 42-year-old stresses it is a fictionalised story, and one he researched conducting interviews with some of the estimated 700,000 young carers across Britain who are looking after a sick, incapacitated or addicted parent.
But it is also mirrors his childhood. At the age of 13, Malkani discovered his mother, Meena, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. He and Bharat, his younger brother, who lived alone with their mother following their parents’ divorce, became her carers, assisted by assorted uncles and aunts. She passed away when he was 21.
“I knew what life was like as a young carer, and that world was never portrayed in pop culture,” he says.
The process of writing the book has taken a clear toll. After presenting his former publisher with three different drafts, they opted not to pursue it. In 2012, he and his wife separated and later divorced. Two years ago, he opted for voluntary redundancy from the FT, where he had worked for 19 years. After moving out of the marital home, he is now back living in his flat in south London. “To re-live it when I hadn’t even dealt with it myself was dumb,” he says. “The guilt, the anger, the regret, the remorse. It’s like there’s a Mexican cockfight in your head between guilt and resentment.”
His present living arrangements may resemble the proverbial writer’s garret, but Malkani rails against the cliche of a tortured artist and insists his “book-related breakdowns” did not cause the divorce. “They just amplified my crapness as a husband,” he says.
Malkani eventually turned to crowdfunding publisher, Unbound. In total, with 319 pledges of support, he raised around £10,000. The novel is written with the same verve and dark humour that whipped up such a publicity storm around Londonstani. While the former was dedicated to the memory of his mother, Distortion carries a tribute to “the hidden army of young carers in Britain”.
“I’m not just trying to tell young carers that they aren’t on their own,” he says. “I’m also trying to tackle all the guilt and toxic thoughts by saying to them that even if you do your worst, you’re still doing your best.”
His protagonist, Dillon, is a 19-year-old dysfunctional undergraduate at the London School of Economics who grapples with various identities between work, study and caring for his mother — a secret he keeps even from his girlfriend.
The secrecy, Malkani remembers well. For five years, he didn’t tell a soul what he was coping with until, in the sixth form at Isleworth and Syon School, “the wheels came off” and he was forced to confide in an English teacher. “The thing with young carers is it is hidden,” he says. “You don’t tell your friends because you don’t want people making fun of you. You also keep it hidden from yourself. There is a lot of lying.”
The book focuses on the intimacy of caring, which young children are often confronted with; helping their parents wash, dress and eat. Malkani says he and his brother were shielded from the more visceral aspects of the disease by relatives. Instead, it was more about providing emotional support as their mother, a radiographer who took them on holidays to Disneyland and the seaside and danced around to Barbra Streisand, fought her illness.
“It’s the crying, the emotional caring,” he recalls. “There’s the bit when they assure you everything is going to be OK. But also the bit when you assure them. The thing with being a young carer is it makes you more serious. Even on the best days, there is still a heaviness because of the things you’ve seen and crying you’ve heard.”
For Malkani, this translated into studiousness. Following A-levels, he accepted an unconditional offer to read social political sciences at Cambridge. While studying at university, he would phone home every day and his mother would write letters twice a week. It was the mid-Nineties and only the rich students had mobile phones, so Malkani would queue up at the payphone after lectures.
Much of his book examines the way in which young carers cope in the technological age, and he admits it is a relief to have grown up before the advent of social media. “Technology filters our view of ourselves,” he says. “It amplifies everything so it amplifies the guilt. It is judge and jury.”
His mother survived to see him graduate. On a rainy day in 1997, they were photographed together with Malkani in his graduation robes. She died not long afterwards. “Our mum would often say ‘Just one more hill to climb and we will be fine’,” he says. “When it happened, I fell apart.”
His own turmoil aside, following the publication of the book it is the other stories of young carers whose plight Malkani hopes to shine a spotlight on. Among those he interviewed was a 14-year-old called Bruno from Peterborough, who wakes up at 5.30am to do his homework, as the rest of his day is spent caring for his disabled mother. Or Becky, a 16-year-old from Oxfordshire, hoping to go to university but grappling with the guilt of being away from her mother.
Hundreds of thousands of children perform what he calls this “lonely and emotionally complex wire act” every day.
Now it is finally out there.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Gautam Malkani’s novel, Distortion, is out now.