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the buddha of suburbia

I first stumbled upon Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 novel “The Buddha of Suburbia” in a jumbled cardboard box stuffed with novels that belonged to my father. The book itself was dog-eared; its spine was wilting yellowing pages. But it boasts a riotous storyline that bursts with life: pompous theatre directors and interior designers whose craft is “sublime, ” teenage boys looking for fame and female adulation, mothers whose children have strayed. The wicked humor of the novel makes it a fast-paced, engaging read.

It is narrated by the adolescent Karim Amir, who is “an Englishman born and bred, almost.” He is “almost” an Englishman because he has an Indian father (Haroon) and an English mother (Margaret). Such mixing of blood prevents him from truly belonging to either India or England: He is too dark to be an Englishman, and he has never been to India.

Haroon is the Buddha of the title. He beguiles audiences in Orpington with his knowledge of yoga, meditation, and Chinese philosophy. At its core, the story chronicles familial discord. Haroon leaves Margaret for Eva, a socialite who aspires to mingle with the fashionably intellectual crowd in London. Karim shares a tense, homoerotic relationship with his stepmother’s son, Charlie. In an intersecting storyline, Anwar, Haroon’s childhood friend, forces his opinionated daughter Jamila to marry Changez, a man 10 years her senior chosen for her by Anwar’s brother, to quell her rebellious instincts for activism. While tackling personal issues such as divorce and separation, the story weaves classism and racism into a cohesive narrative.

Karim is an intense, original, and observant narrator. At Charlie’s concert, he notes that several “extravagant” South American attendees were wearing soiled tampons around their necks. He often ironically laughs at destiny. He notes that the hard-working Anwar, who started a successful grocery store on his own, would have never imagined that his own aimless, sex-crazy son-in-law would beat him up with a dildo. Such hyperbolic juxtapositions seem oddly profound, almost as if Karim is reflecting on fate’s designs. “The Buddha of Suburbia” is a coming-of-age novel that reads like Karim’s personal diary, with disarmingly honest accounts of his inner conflicts and desires.

Karim seems to revel in the covert, unfiltered side of events. For example, he says that a tooth flew down Eva’s cleavage during Charlie’s concert and that the Thin Lizzy’s road manager has “hair growing out of his shoulders.” He treats such matters as if they are mundane, as if they are spoken of conventionally. This lends an irreverently comical air to the writing. He hoards gossipy information. At one point, he is literally an eavesdropper, lying behind a couch as Changez and Jamila argue. This further makes the book seem as though it is rich in illicit knowledge. The turbulence of its telling mirrors the turbulence of the story.

Karim’s relationship with his father forms one of the focal points of the novel. Karim understands that “behind all the Chinese bluster” is Haroon’s “loneliness and desire for internal advancement.” His misery is compounded by the fact that he grew up in an aristocratic Mumbai household. So while Karim understands his father, he cannot always forgive him for his actions. It irritates Karim when his father calls him the product of “his number-one seed,” when Haroon cannot even make toast or tea for himself. At such times, through his unsparing observations, he is inclined to make Haroon seem foolish or helpless. But he later expands this worldview to include everyone, when he says that his father “would never lack unemployment while the city was full of lonely, unhappy, unconfident people.” He states that Haroon should have thought of his family before running off with Eva.

He also expresses what it means to see Haroon growing older, a sentiment that rings true for many of us. It is one of the few times where we hear Karim expressing his affection for his father, whom he blames for the breakdown of their family. After we see Karim calling Haroon “a bloody wanker,” such musings seem more poignant and refined. This is especially true when he reflects on his communication with his father (“maybe you never stop feeling like an eight-year-old in front of your parents”).

Racism forms a large part of the narrative. Haroon and Karim are told to get back in their rickshaw by an enraged passer-by. Karim goes by “Creamy.” A theatre director insists that he emulate an Indian accent, despite his protests that he has never been to India. Anwar’s defiant, enraged response is fitting: He hounds young white men by running after them with a stick and screaming that he “is an Indian.” Social class also features extensively in the novel. There are descriptions of the squalid quarters of London. Karim also reflects on the importance of social capital when he compares Eleanor’s friends’ conversations to those of his own. The alienation and fury of the immigrant and minority communities is similar to that of those communities in the United States today, especially in the face of the conversations surrounding the upcoming election.

This novel also depicts much sex and sexual experimentation. Mr. Kureishi used to be a scriptwriter for porn movies. His training shows in the intimate scenes of the novel. Sex acts as a kind of liberation, a kind of coming-of-age. With Eleanor, Karim discovers the pleasures of sex and love. It also functions as a mere hobby or quirk that the characters fulfill. For example, Jamila and Karim regularly sleep together, and it is as if they are educating one another in the matters of sex. Karim and Charlie stroke each other, which leads Karim to realize that he is bisexual. Such raunchy aspects introduce the reader to the underbelly of society; Karim makes for an ideal observer because he comes from a downtrodden strata of society.

“The Buddha of Suburbia” is a rollicking read. It blends the personal and political in a darkly comical and sympathetic manner, so much so that it becomes uncomfortable yet poignant. Its entertaining wit introduces the reader to some of the turmoil of change in a completely original manner. Even though the novel is 25 years old, it portrays early accounts of the Western interest in yoga, meditation, and the salvation of the soul in the midst of worldly decay that has led to the proliferation of yoga centers throughout the United States and Europe. The novel plays with intersectionality theory through Karim (bisexual, biracial, and middle-class) and shows how such issues affect the individual. Its satirical, moving commentary on race relations is as relevant as ever in the light of the upcoming election; it depicts the progress that we have made and the work that is still to be done.