Books 24 May 2024 4 MIN

There’s a new literary darling, and he has Indian roots

Nicolas Padamsee’s debut novel captures the Twitter era, dark web, and cancel culture through a tale of two troubled teenagers  

Even before you finish reading his debut novel, it’s easy to tell what kind of music Nicolas Padamsee enjoys. The first clue is the title, England is Mine, which is inspired by the lyrics of a song by The Smiths (‘Still Ill’). Second, the story opens at a concert, vividly bringing alive that feeling of communal euphoria, of hugging strangers and swaying in unison with a large crowd. And shades of British indie-rock icon and The Smiths’ frontman Morrissey are unmistakable in Karl Williams, the singer-songwriter Padamsee characterises as his protagonist’s idol. The 33-year-old writer, already feted as one of the The Observer’s best new novelists for 2024, wrote his debut work to the soundtrack of vinyls (The Smiths included) and playing a lot of Call of Duty for research. “So that even if the writing was going bad and no words were coming out, at least I would have enjoyed some music,” he laughs, as we sit to discuss England is Mine, which hit bookstore shelves in India this week.   

A highly topical and a well-researched debut, it is the coming-of-age story of David and Hassan, two troubled teenagers who go to the same school in East London. Their lives seem evidently disparate yet become inevitably intertwined. Do-gooder Hassan is a second-generation Muslim immigrant, while David is a lonely 18-year-old who spends his day playing Call of Duty with unseen “friends” and creating sock accounts (yeah, I had to Google that one too). When David’s musical icon, Williams, gets cancelled for a bigoted speech, the young boy starts spiralling into the toxic far-right corners of the dark web. David’s personality is based upon that of Williams, and for mainstream society to then ‘cancel’ that idol, “it can feel like your whole identity is being torn away,” says Padamsee, who, like Hassan, is a second-generation immigrant in the UK (he has a German mother and Indian father).    

Through 300-odd pages, Padamsee not only handles issues of radicalisation and immigration, echoing his literary predecessors such as the British Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi, he also deftly tackles the malaise of the modern world. In fact, every chapter seems to touch upon problems that plague teenagers today—from social media echo chambers to cancel culture, peer pressure to online extremism, toxic masculinity to freedom of speech. The book came out of Padamsee’s research on extremism in the social media age during a Creative Writing PhD at the University of East Anglia, and it’s evident that he spent a lot of time wandering the sewers of the Internet, on 4chan, endless Reddit threads, Discord and Telegram channels, and the echo chambers of Twitter.  

Padamsee admits that both David and Hassan’s mindsets were equally challenging to get into, but “Hassan was maybe harder to write, and I think that’s purely because I started writing David first, with his arc of radicalisation and extremism,” he adds. It shows: though eventually an antihero, David’s character always remains front and centre, while Hassan is developed as a counter voice in the novel, to show the reality of a second-generation Muslim living in London. The plot moves quickly, especially towards the denouement. And the reader, who can kind of see what’s coming, oscillates between feeling sympathetic and frustrated for both the boys.  

Not one to sit still, Padamsee has already started work on his next project, a book in which he intends to address another problematic Internet subculture that has spread through online anonymity: incel and femcel culture. “I think it’s really interesting, and there’s a sort of nihilism in it that I wanted to explore,” he signs off.    

England is Mine is published by Serpent’s Tail, distributed nationally by Hachette India, available in stores; ₹899