An introduction to the Buddha of Suburbia

An introduction to The Buddha of Suburbia

Rachel Foss sees The Buddha of Suburbia as a coming-of-age novel with a distinctly late 20th-century spin. In this close reading of Kureishi’s work, she shows how he identifies new ways of being British, through his characters’ explorations of ethnic identity, class and sexuality in 1970s multicultural Britain.

‘My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.’

The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) tells the story of Karim Amir, a 17 year old boy of mixed race parentage, growing up in the suburbs of South-London in the 1970s and longing for an escape to the city. During the 1980s, Hanif Kureishi began to establish himself as a writer in the theatre, writing primarily plays and screenplays.[1] He shifted his focus to prose in the 1990s, coming to regard the novel as a superior form and wishing to exploit the creative possibilities it offered for a direct, unmediated relationship with the reader.[2] In Buddha, the use of the first person narrator creates a privileged relationship between the protagonist, Karim, and the reader. However, Kureishi’s skilful deployment of a number of stylistic devices – including his use of humour, the juxtaposition of farcical plot elements with a naturalistic evocation of an historic setting, and the polyphonic layering of voices in the text – continually disrupts and complicates the narrative viewpoint, thereby representing the unstable, ever-shifting nature of truth, identity and the self, which is the overarching motif of the novel. Buddha is a coming-of-age novel with a postmodern spin[3], which dramatises constructions of gender, class, sexuality and, above all, race through a portrayal of post-war multi-cultural Britain. The experience of the first and second generation Asian British community was a new subject in contemporary fiction at the time and Kureishi paved the way for a generation of writers who came after him, including Zadie Smith and Monica Ali among others.

Typescript second draft of The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Typescript second draft of 'The Buddha of Suburbia' by Hanif Kureishi

Opening paragraphs, heavily revised in Hanif Kureishi’s hand, from the second typescript draft of The Buddha of Suburbia (here titled ‘The Streets of the Heart’), 1987.

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‘The Suburbs are a leaving place...’

Kureishi sets up a number of oppositions in the novel that he then complicates and collapses. This occurs most obviously in the representation of place. The novel is structured in two parts: ‘In the Suburbs’ and ‘In the City’. The suburbs, where Karim grows up, are portrayed as dull and stifling; their inhabitants as narrow-minded, shallow and overly concerned with appearance. Karim cannot wait to escape the suburbs, feeling that his life is effectively on hold until he gets away.

‘The suburbs were over: they were a leaving place.’ (Buddha, p.117)[4]

Typescript first draft of The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Typescript first draft of 'The Buddha of Suburbia' by Hanif Kureishi

‘That night I didn’t go to bed, but sat up listening to Radio Luxemberg. I’d glimpsed something, a certain world, that I wanted to see more of’: Karim stays up all night listening to music on the radio and yearns to escape his suburban life, after he experiences an epiphany at Eva Kay’s party. From the first typescript draft of The Buddha of Suburbia, 1987.

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In contrast, the city – London – represents freedom, cultural sophistication, anonymity and boundless possibility. Part One ends with Karim leaving his bedroom in Bromley to seek his fortune in cosmopolitan London, his geographical progress mirrored in a social one. Moving from the margins to the centre, Karim becomes part of an aspiring metropolitan middle class. The anonymity of London promises an escape from the racism and snobbery of the suburbs, where people are measured ‘only in terms of power and money’, and opens up a world of social transgression.

There were kids dressed in velvet cloaks who lived free lives; there were thousands of black people everywhere, so I wouldn’t feel exposed; there were bookshops with racks of magazines printed without capital letters or the bourgeois disturbance of full stops; there were shops selling all the records you could desire; there were parties where girls and boys you didn’t know took you upstairs and fucked you; there were all the drugs you could use.

However, time and again the novel blurs and collapses any such easy distinctions and boundaries. Far from being homogenous, the suburbs embody subtle gradations of social status, affluence and cultural sophistication. Beckenham – where Haroon, Karim’s father and the eponymous ‘Buddha’ of the title, gives his first performance – is more affluent and more susceptible to snobbery than Karim’s home suburb of Bromley. At the same time, it is seen as a place where wild, transgressive things can happen: it produces the pop star, Charlie Hero, a David Bowie-like figure[5]; it is the first place to showcase Haroon’s mystical transports and it proves to be a site of hybrid identities and challenged allegiances as shown through the transgressive relationship of Haroon and Eva. Discovering them having sex, Karim reflects:

Was I conceived like this, I wondered, in the suburban night air, to the wailing of Christian curses from the mouth of a renegade Muslim masquerading as a Buddhist?

Penge, where Jamila and her parents live above their shop, is geographically closer to London but much poorer, with the ever-present threat of racial violence against the Asian population. Shown most powerfully in the character of Jamila, the suburbs are an incubator for politicisation and social radicalism. The sophistication of the London elite is punctured by the exposure of a crude racial prejudice in those whom Karim had idolized from his bedroom in Bromley. The theatre directors with whom he works, first Shadwell and then Pyke, are shown as no more able to look beyond the stereotype than the conventional suburbanite.

Karim’s linear progress from the suburbs to the city is interrupted on occasion by a detour to urban South London, represented by fellow actor Terry and his socialist workers, whose HQ is in Brixton, and by Jamila’s activist commune in Peckham. This liminal space offers the hope of something lasting and precious: a reconstruction of society with integrity and moral purpose at its core. Near the end of the novel, in the midst of his wanderings, Karim comments on Jamila and Changez: “It was only with these two that I felt part of a family. The three of us were bound together by ties stronger than personality, and stronger than the liking or disliking of each other.” (Buddha, p.124)

‘A new way of being British’

While recognisable boundaries are collapsed and de-familiarized, the novel vividly evokes a specific time and place in his text. The action unfolds against the backdrop of the social and political currents of 1970s Britain. Much of this is realised through Kureishi’s portrayal of fashions in popular culture. The novel chronicles the tail end of the hippie era, and moves through the social upheavals of the 1970s with the rage of punk to the pervasive materialism of the 1980s, signified by the demise of the Left and the 1979 General Election which heralded the era of Thatcherism, where culture and identity itself become commodities to be bought and sold like any other. Karim at the end of the novel lands a role in a soap opera. His schoolfriend Charlie Hero follows his career as a pop star to the United States, where his talent at ‘selling Englishness’ – as Karim notes – guarantees his success in spite of the mediocrity of his music. The novel is punctuated by references both to high and low culture, which meet, clash and – sometimes – co-exist, incongruous though the juxtapositions often seem. For example, when Karim’s Auntie Jean and Uncle Ted walk into one of Haroon’s guru sessions at a house in Chislehurst, they are described as being ‘like characters from an Ealing Comedy walking into an Antonioni film’. (Buddha, p.33)

Typescript first draft of The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Typescript first draft of 'The Buddha of Suburbia' by Hanif Kureishi

On their way to Eva Kay’s party Karim and his dad stop off at a pub where ‘little groovers’ hang out, wearing ‘velvet and satin, wild colours’, and Kevin Avers from Soft Machine is performing. The Three Tuns – a real pub in Beckenham – was frequented by David Bowie as a young man.

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The specificity of cultural detail is paralleled in references to historical events and political discourse about immigration and nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Karim’s father, Haroon, comes to England to be educated.[6] The influence of the Conservative Member of Parliament, J Enoch Powell, is felt in the novel. Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 predicted dire consequences for British society if, as he argued, mass immigration from the Commonwealth were to continue unchecked. Helen’s father, known to Karim only as ‘Hairy Back’, declares ‘We’re with Enoch’ as he shouts racist abuse at Karim. Later, on the passing of the Immigration Act 1971, Powell called for a ‘Ministry of Repatriation’ for non-white residents in Britain. Powell became a figurehead for the National Front and for right-wing extremists, and did much to exacerbate racial tensions in society. In his powerful autobiographical essay The Rainbow Sign, published in 1986, four years before Buddha, Kureishi recounts his own experience of racism while he was growing up, discusses the malign influence of Enoch Powell and calls for ‘a new way of being British’: one that recognises that post-war immigration to Britain transforms an exclusive, monocultural understanding of British identity to an inclusive, multicultural one.[7] The essay is a polemic, a call to arms, highlighting a fractured society which can yet be made whole if it can find within itself the generosity of spirit that will enable it to transcend itself and look outwards. In some ways this perhaps parallels Haroon’s teaching in Buddha, vague and much parodied though that teaching is: the crisis of the individual seems to be reflected and magnified in the corporate life of society as a whole.

Typescript draft of The Rainbow Sign by Hanif Kureishi

Typescript draft of 'The Rainbow Sign' by Hanif Kureishi

In ‘The Rainbow Sign’, the 1986 essay exploring his British Pakistani identity, Kureishi describes the rise of support for Powell in the late sixties and seventies, and remembers the racism that Powell incited.

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Identity and performing the self: ‘Paradox of paradoxes: to be someone else successfully you must be yourself!’

Race is represented as the primary vehicle through which individual identity is asserted, imposed and constructed. Identity is frequently also filtered through ideas of class, gender and sexuality as the characters experiment with a range of different selves, continually inventing and re-inventing themselves.[8] This is played out most obviously in the character of Karim, who chooses to pursue a career as an actor. He is urged to assume one kind of racial stereotype by Shadwell, in the production of The Jungle Book, and then another by Pyke, who encourages him to use as inspiration ‘someone from [his] own background’. Karim experiments socially, sexually and politically, trying to find his place in all spheres of life, frequently driven more by confusion than by an assertion of self.

This tendency to perform the self finds echoes in most of the characters in the novel. Haroon plays to type, evoking the exoticism of the East and purporting to show people ‘the Way’ (though, as Karim comments, he ‘couldn’t even find his way to Beckenham’). Anwar is described as suddenly ‘behaving like a Muslim’ in his desire to assert his authority over his family and see Jamila married. Eva is an inveterate social climber, adapting herself as she plans her advance through the various social milieux that she engineers around her. Her son, Charlie, disavows his middle class suburban background to assume a working class persona, complete with cockney rhyming slang, for the benefit of the American fans who buy his music. Even Karim’s mother, who figures little in the novel, re-casts herself after she is abandoned by Haroon, both in her appearance and in her attitude to life.

In the end, the search for a coherent sense of self remains unrealised. It is not clear whether these performances are empowering or ultimately unhelpful. Refusing any easy narrative solution, the rather subdued conclusion to the novel leaves Karim ‘both happy and miserable at the same time.’ He thus ends as conflicted as ever, with the hope of resolution almost tangible but still tantalisingly elusive:

‘I thought of what a mess everything had been, but that it wouldn’t always be that way.’ (Buddha, p. 284)

Footnotes

[1] Kureishi’s first play, Soaking the Heat, was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in 1979. In 1981 Kureishi became Writer-in-Residence at the Royal Court. His first screenplay, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), directed by Stephen Frears, received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and brought him particular acclaim.

[2] Kureishi has said: ‘I think what is great about the novel is that you can go anywhere with it and do anything. It seems to me to be a wonderful form, almost better than any other form for conveying human experience. You can go into people’s minds, the intricacies of their minds, describe shops, streets, anything...The novel is the most capacious, the most sensual form.’ (Sharon Monteith, Jenny Newman and Pat Wheeler, Contemporary British and Irish Fiction: An Introduction Through Interviews (London: Arnold, 2004), p. 94.

[3] Judith Misrahi-Barak has written about Kureishi’s appropriation of the Bildungsroman. See her essay, ‘Yoga and the Bildungsroman in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia’, Commonwealth Essays and Studies, SP: 4 (1997), pp. 88–94. The bildungsroman is a literary genre which tells the story of the moral education of its protagonist, charting the passage from youth to adulthood by encounters with life experiences.

[4] Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (London: Faber and Faber, 1990).

[5] David Bowie (whose real name was David Jones) was born in Brixton in 1947 but moved to the suburb of Bromley when he was six years old. He attended the same high school as Kureishi. In the early 1970s, Bowie co-founded the Beckenham Arts Lab at a local pub.

[6] Educated ‘... by the old colonial power’, as Kureishi writes of his own father in The Rainbow Sign.

[7] Hanif Kureishi, My Beautiful Laundrette; and, The Rainbow Sign (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), p. 38.

[8] Kureishi’s argument in The Rainbow Sign is that there is a need for an understanding of a hybrid self, a hybrid individual and national identity, that ‘is a more complex thing, involving new elements.’ My Beautiful Laundrette; and, The Rainbow Sign (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), p. 38.

  • Rachel Foss
  • Rachel Foss is Head of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts at the British Library

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