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The Buddha of Suburbia’s main protagonist is a bisexual British Asian youth called Karim Amir, who describes himself in the opening lines as ‘an Englishman born and bred, almost, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories’. The location is largely multicultural London in the 1970s, though some chapters are set in New York. The novel falls into the literary tradition of the bildungsroman in that it explores the personal development of its protagonist, in this case in relation to issues of ethnic, cultural and sexual identity.
The Buddha of Suburbia won the Whitbread First Novel Award, and in 1993 the BBC commissioned its adaptation as a television series.
The novel’s original title, ‘Streets of The Heart’, can be found written in pencil on the cover page of this manuscript. The revision reveals that ‘Streets of My Heart’ was also considered. At the bottom of the page Kureishi has noted, ‘Started 27.XII.87’ (although his diaries reveal that he had been gathering material and ideas for the work since he was a teenager).
Kureishi used the title ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ in February 1987 for a short story that was published in the London Review of Books and resembles the novel’s first chapter.
Shown here is Chapter One, in which Karim and his father, Haroon, attend one of Eva Kay’s ‘spiritual’ parties, where Karim witnesses his father’s affair, smokes a joint for the first time, listens to Pink Floyd, and sexually experiments with his school-friend, Charlie, who he is in a kind-of-love with. As summarised in a pencil addition at the end of the chapter: ‘I’d glimpsed something, a certain world, that I wanted to see more of’. In this draft, Eva Kay is interchangeably named Cheryl, Ann and Eva, and Charlie is named Paul.
The draft is largely typewritten, with Kureishi’s handwritten revisions and additions made in pen and pencil throughout. Some later passages have been sellotaped onto the sheets. There are subtle, but revealing differences. Charlie, for instance, calls Eva ‘mum’, whereas in the published novel he coolly uses her first name. One line, in particular, shows Kureishi honing Karim’s teenage voice, full of self-involved drama and exaggeration: ‘It took me a long time ^months to get ready. I changed my entire outfit three times.’
We can see how Kureishi later revised certain details that, although small and mundane, heighten the comedy – and also strengthen the 1970s period setting. For example, the draft phrase, ‘But before we could get out, Cheryl came back in and turned off the lights,’ is finally published as, ‘But before we could get out, Eva came back in and turned off the standard lamp.’ At the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham, ‘It was full of kids dressed like me, both from my school and other schools in the area; most of the boys, so nondescript during the day, were now in [?] velvet and satin, and wild colours’. Kureishi tags on ‘& bed-spreads & curtains’ to end of this description.
Many of Kureishi’s pencil additions build up the novel's many pop culture references. In Charlie’s room, Kureishi inserts the detail that, ‘^There were piles of records & the four Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper period were on a wall like 4 gods.’