Bell-bottomed Bohemia in the suburbs
The Buddha of Suburbia was first published in 1990 to huge success. Critics applauded Hanif Kureishi for writing a piece of 'post-colonial' literature that captured the immigrant experience in the second half of the 20th Century. The novel won the Whitbread Award for the best first novel and a TV adaptation followed in 1993 with music by David Bowie but how does he novel stand up, some 17 years later, in its latest reissue as part of the Faber Firsts series?
The Buddha of Suburbia is a book in two parts, part 1 'In the Suburbs' and part 2 'In the City' and as such is a story about opposites; a paradox which defines every relationship, and scenario Kureishi creates.
Firstly there's Karim 'an Englishman born and bred, almost' in Beckenham in South East London. Karim is a fish out of water in the parochial suburbs not because of his ethnicity - 'having emerged from two kinds of histories' - but because of the promise of the city on his doorstep; never has the sensual pull of London, 'the door to the future', been so alluring. This longing is personified in Karim's obsession with his friend Charlie; 'I coveted his talents, face, style. I wanted to wake up with them all transferred to me', who is comfortable in his own skin in a way that Karim can only dream of.
His father Haroon (or Harry), the titular Buddha of Suburbia, lives in his own paradox. When the dream of a new life in England fades to mundane reality he turns his back on the colonial promise and searches for meaning in Eastern philosophy or 'that funny business with no shoes on in Chislehurst' as wickedly described by Karim's heating engineer uncle Ted. When Harry's brother, Anwar, fails to find a suitable husband for his free spirited daughter Jamilla he becomes ill and literally wastes away on the sofa whilst Harry abandons his safe and steady civil service career, leaves his wife and immerses himself in teaching yoga and meditation.
Karim finds his meaning in literature, music and the arts through which he escapes the banality of suburban dreariness and indulges his dreams of a metropolitan Utopia a few stops away on the train. Though Kureishi paints a hilarious and sniping portrait of life of suburban life in 1970s South London it is his observations of the class ceiling which Karim must break through to become a successful actor which are most interesting when read today. Kureishi's London cultural scene is played out at drinks parties and orgies where middle class white producers with their 'inbred bourgeois mentality' cast productions of plays like Kipling's The Jungle Book in which Karim finally gets his break.
Karim must come to terms with both his performance as an actor and as a man with Indian heritage being asked to play in nothing but a loin cloth. These cultural tropes are used expertly by Kureishi as signs and symbols through which to create new meaning that lose none of their resonance after almost two decades. As you follow Karim's journey from Beckenham to London and then New York you're hard pressed not to admire his tenacity and bell bottomed bohemian ideals.
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi published by Faber and Faber, 288 pages.
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