Set in south London in the late 1970s, at the time when the Labour Government was just about to make way for a decade of Thatcherism, the Buddha of Suburbia is essentially a novel about a teenager’s incredulous drift through a world struggling to make sense of itself in an era of multiple discontents. It is probably one of Hanif Kurieshi’s most biting books, a real page turner featuring moments of razor sharp wit and empathetic metaphors. It is also an excellent insight into the variegated experience of Indians living within English society – having explored intergenerational and gender differences.
Not surprisingly then, Kurieshi placed the main character of the book, Karim Amir, at the centre of various conflicting messages by giving him a white mother, an Indian father and opinionated extended families on both sides of the divide. Kurieshi also afforded Karim the kind of time a comfy middle class philosopher needs in order to care about the kind of cultural issues that are raised in this book. The latter point is important for while all those around him flounder amongst the confusion and ambivalence of British society, Karim who was first and foremost a sensualist managed to escape with at worst a bout of slight melancholy and at best a stance of amoralism. Far from being degrading to his health or of deep concern to him, the desperate troubles of his contemporaries and family were merely a smudged canvas for Karim to muse over in stoical contemplation. Even when Karim did show slithers of emotion they were always glints, flitting in and out his head like the sun on a cloudy day. You never got the impression that anything grabbed his soul.
The nearest that he came to true emotion was when he considered the state of his family: stereotypically mundane. True the middle class family may be held up by many as the bastion of all great civilisations, but the more accurate point to be made in this book is that it is also the great production line of a nation full of apathetic and selfish bores. For example, Karim’s mother was so typical of the middle class mum: has a job, looks after the kids, does all or most of the housework, spends the rest of her time watching TV, doesn’t enjoy any of it, grumbles every now and then, but is too passive and scared of change to do anything about it. His father meanwhile slotted perfectly into the jigsaw as a cleric in the civil service, whose lack of interest in anything familial rendered him nothing much more than a money generator for the kids and his wife. They were well catered for in the material sense, but spiritually they were dead. The consequence of course, being the following type of scenario so often played up and down the country in those middle class morgues otherwise known as the home:
At supper we sat eating our curled-up beefburgers, chips and fish fingers in silence. Once Mum burst into tears and banged the table with the flat of her hand. ‘My life is terrible, terrible!’ she cried. ‘Doesn’t anyone understand?’ We looked at her in surprise for a moment, before carrying on with our food. Mum did the washing up as usual and no one helped her. After tea we all dispersed as soon as possible. (P. 19) Karim’s cynical viewpoint as to the state of his family gradually transformed itself into intermittent concern as events unfold and he realises that his father has been having an affair with another woman for quite some time. For while his mother was quite prepared to bob up and down like a disgruntled buoy in a sea of discontent, his father Haroon, was making a bid for freedom with the aid of Buddhist techniques and making new acquaintances who were prepared to fan the flames. One such was Eva, an extravagance on legs, an exhibitionist and someone with bags of money. Eva was very flirtatious, had a keen desire to be liked by prominent people, was a networker and was brutally honest with her emotions – something which Karim respected her for contrasting it with the state of his own family. Indeed, Eva was alive, she may have been snappy and responsible for destroying Karim’s family, but she was alive.
And so for this reason, it was only with a slight sense of cognitive dissonance that Karim was not too fussed when his father announced to his mother that he was moving out with Eva. It was this action which really bought into play the cultural juxtaposition of both Karim and his father. For while Karim had accepted the outcome, conflict came from other places. For example, Karim’s Auntie Jean (his mother’s sister) with her white middle class sensibilities and traditions was bitter in her reprobation of Haroon. How could he do such a thing as to disturb the sense of order and conventionality? Meanwhile, Haroon’s cousin Anwar, on a moralistic tip admonished Haroon for his actions. By all means take a mistress and treat her and your wife equally but moving out is unacceptable. And Haroon didn’t escape from his own doubts for while Karim’s father was of no doubt that he much preferred the Buddhist impulse to do what he wanted rather than be inclined to a conventionally framed future of purgatory: he also felt an eternal sense of guilt after having done it, and even a year later, having found out that his wife was now seeing someone else his heart dropped. The result of conflicting discourses tugging, the Buddhist philosophy says its OK, the traditional philosophy says you’re a bastard.
So while Haroon battled with the contrasts Karim revelled in them. He enthused in the cultural diversity of the people that he was mixing with. Not just his family but friends, political types and fellow actors. However, whether intentionally or not, the book raised an important issue time and time again, and that is whether or not any of this really mattered. Or more accurately it pointed out that having the time to indulge in so much high minded culturalism necessitates an open wallet. For example, Eva may have shared Haroon’s enthusiasm for the spiritual, spontaneity and sex, but whether she would have been able to afford such charms whilst working in a routine office job and coming home to a dull semi-detached is a different matter. Equally, Karim’s enthusiasm for the political and cultural mind games that those about him seemed perpetually to engage in, was more the effect of having a big fat wallet than something with tangible causes and consequences. This was probably right, because despite the oceans of discourse within which Karim swam, as a hedonist and essentially a selfish bastard he made little resolve to make any sense of it. Indeed by the end of the book – when Karim finds something vaguely approximating happiness his explanation of what that thing is, is just an articulate way of saying money. It was apt that as the Labour Government were about to succumb to a revolutionary ideology of British politics that Karim – the selfish bastard was sensing an era of great things to come.
The Buddha of Suburbia
Faber and Faber