The first thing to say about Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 Whitbread award-winning novel The buddha of suburbia is that it’s pretty funny. It’s a comic satire – over-the-top at times, confronting at others. It has its dark moments, but it’s also brash, irreverent and ultimately warm-hearted towards its tangled band of not always admirable but mostly very human characters. I’ve come late to this book, and only read it now because my reading group decided to align one of our books with ABC RN’s bookclub, which this year is featuring novels from the subcontinent. Kureishi’s book was one of the few we hadn’t read, so it got the guernsey.
It’s a coming-of-age novel about Karim, who is seventeen years old at the start and the son of a Pakistani/Muslim father from Bombay and an English mother. He lives in the suburbs south of London, a place populated, in his eyes, by “the miserable undead”. He wants to live “intensely: mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs”. The dreams of a young man which, of course, run counter to everything his parents would wish for – except that his parents aren’t watching. His father leaves his mother early in the novel to pursue his own mid-life crisis enlightenment as a “buddha” dispensing wisdom to other suburbanites, while his mother sinks into her misery and her bed. And so the scene is set …
This is a rather raunchy, bawdy read in which characters push the sexual envelope with little concern for consequences. They engage in all sorts of sex for all sorts of reasons that represent a broad spectrum of human experience and behaviour, some loving, some brutal, some exploratory, some exploitative. The novel is set in early to mid 1970s England, before AIDS, at the dawn of punk, and just before Thatcher’s England (1979 to 1990). This could date it, but I don’t think it does, because its concerns remain relevant today: racism, multiculturalism, the stereotyping of “other”, materialism versus the search for meaning, the role of the arts in our lives, and of course, given the title, the urban-suburban divide.
So, what happens? Both a lot, and not much, in that this is a character and ideas-driven novel rather than a plot-driven one. Told first person by Karim, the novel has two parts – “In the suburbs” followed by “In the city”. In the first part Karim talks of his life in the suburbs, of his friends and family, and describes the breakdown of his parents’ marriage as his father moves in with the lively go-get-’em Eva. It’s a life characterised by racism:
The thing was, we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it.
Aspirations are low, and education is not seen as being useful:
This was the English passion, not for self-improvement or culture or wit, but for DIY, Do It Yourself, for bigger and better houses with more mod cons, the painstaking accumulation of comfort and, with it, status – the concrete display of earned cash.
The city, on the other hand, is a place where you can remake yourself. It seemed, to Karim, like “a house with five thousand rooms, all different”, far from the stultifying dullness of the ‘burbs. But the dichotomy is not as simple as it sounds. Having moved to the city, like his father and Eva, Karim continues to return to the suburbs to see friends and family. He experiences warmth and support there, while the city, where “the piss-heads, bums, derelicts and dealers shouted and looked for fights” can intimidate him.
Nonetheless, once in the city, Karim does start to remake himself – as an actor. But, as elsewhere in the novel, there’s a sting in the tail. The first role Karim is offered is Mowgli in The jungle book. He does well, and his white family and friends praise him, but his honest, feisty childhood friend Jamila sees it differently:
‘And it was disgusting, the accent and the shit you had smeared over you. You were just pandering to prejudices …’.
Karim, who has, earlier and somewhat defensively, described himself as “beige”, moves on to another theatre group where he is chosen because he is “black”:
‘We need someone from your own background,’ he said. ‘Someone black.’
‘Yeah?’ I didn’t know anyone black, though I’d been at school with a Nigerian.
I think you’ve got the drift now. The humour is sharp, with stereotypes being subverted, twisted or just plain skewered. The book is full of witty asides, clever but insightful quips, and some downright absurd situations. There’s tenderness too. I loved the “heart-ambulance”, in the form of a sister and brother-in-law arriving to take Karim’s mother home with them when her heart is broken.
There’s a fascinating subplot involving Jamila and the marriage arranged for her by her father, Anwar. She accedes, but when her husband, the physically disabled hapless but kind-hearted Changez arrives, she lays down the rules for their so-called marriage, and then sets about reinventing herself – in the suburbs – as a strong, independent, liberated woman.
I said at the beginning that this is a coming-of-age novel, but it’s more than that. It’s about transformation and shape-shifting for people of all ages. The only character among the central group, who is unable to accept the challenge of change, is Jamila’s father Anwar, and his ending is not a positive one. By contrast, his friend, Karim’s father, seeks enlightenment. He wants to be something more than a Civil Service clerk who will never be promoted above an Englishman. So, he sets himself up as a “buddha”, a “visionary” who will provide wisdom from the east. I loved the multiple satire here – the joke of suburbanites seeking wisdom from a so-called eastern mystic, and the subversive idea of a Pakistani Muslim setting himself up as that mystic, a buddha.
The novel is about other things too, such as the arts and culture, and the possibility they offer for salvation. While Karim develops a career as an actor, working out how he can or should use his “culture” to further his goals, his friend Charlie reinvents himself as punk star, Charlie Hero. Like Karim, though for different reasons, he discovers it’s not all as straightforward as he thought.
It’s also about love – romantic love, sexual love, parental love, and the love between friends. All the characters seek it, though not all find it. And underpinning all this is the “immigrant condition”, and the idea that, perhaps, “the immigrant is the Everyman of the twentieth century”.
But, in the end, what it’s really about is the desire for a meaningful life and, without giving away details, I think it’s fair to say that most of Kureishi’s characters achieve this, albeit somewhat messily. That said, I can’t help thinking that Karim’s conclusion that “I thought of what a mess everything had been, but that it wouldn’t always be that way” has an ironic edge.
The buddha of suburbia
London: Faber and Faber, 1990
ISBN: 9780571249398 (epub edition, 2008)