“Where are you going as a person, Karim?”
When the novel, The Buddha of Suburbia begins, Karim, the child of an upper-class Indian father and a working class British mother, is in his teens. Karim watches his parents’ marriage disintegrate while his father becomes a minor celebrity who teaches yoga and offers platitudes to middle-class suburbanites. With British culture serving as a backdrop, author Hanif Kureishi weaves together issues such as the end of empire, racism, and the explosion of Punk Rock while charting Karim’s acting career.
To describe The Buddha of Suburbia as a coming-of-age novel is correct, but such a description doesn’t do justice to this witty, wise, sharp tale. Karim matures in the turmoil of the 70s, and his confusion deepens following his parents’ divorce. Morally adrift, Karim records the progress of several of his relatives–Jamila, his radical cousin, her arranged marriage to the hapless Changez, Jamila’s parents–Auntie Jetta and Uncle Anwar who operate a rundown grocery shop surrounded by hostile natives, and Eva–Karim’s father’s extraordinary girlfriend. While Karim is an observer of events in these people’s lives, he also struggles to discover his own identity. He’s never even been to India, but he’s selected to play token Indian roles–such as Mowgli from Jungle Book, and he discovers that many chose to define him by the colour of his skin, rather than who he really is.
I loved the unforgettable, entertaining characters in this book, and Jamila and Changez deserve a book of their own. Jamila is introduced to various radical political ideas by a progressive teacher, and consequently activism defines her soul: “Under the influence of Angela Davis, Jamila had started exercising every day, learning karate and judo … she was preparing for the guerilla war.” Jamila’s father begins an ill-advised hunger strike to coerce his daughter to submit to an arranged marriage. The bridegroom is the bumbling, fat, Conan Doyle addicted Changez. Could a more unlikely match exist? Changez probably couldn’t manage any westernized wife–let alone the fierce Jamila. Changez’s feeble attempts to exact obedience from Jamila fail miserably, and Karim begins to educate Changez to Western ways by giving him Harold Robbins’ novels. Soon Changez sees “Britain as we see Sweden: as the gold mine of sexual opportunity.”
Some readers may be offended by the novel’s descriptions of frank sexuality, but this is a story of Karim’s exposure and experimentation with life, so nothing seems overly gratuitous. Kureishi has also written many screenplays–including My Beautiful Launderette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Intimacy and The Mother. If you’re familiar with those films, then you know that Kureishi doesn’t shy away from sexual themes. There’s also a British television film of The Buddha of Suburbia, and it’s highly faithful to the novel. The film, however, does not possess the novel’s power, and Karim is portrayed as an observer with less emphasis on his reactions to events. It’s still well worth watching and is excellently cast, so if you enjoy the book, I’d recommend tracking down a copy of the film too.