The Buddha of Suburbia
The Buddha of Suburbia
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in 1970s London and its suburbs; published in 1990.
Narrated by Karim Amir, son of an English mother and Indian father, the novel relates Karim’s experiences with sex, drugs, music, theater, and a wide-ranging and colorful cast of characters in late-twentieth-century London.
Hanif Kureishi was born in Bromley, a South London suburb, in December 1954. His mother was British; his father, an immigrant from India with family in Pakistan, was a civil servant whose true obsession was writing novels. The younger Kureishi read philosophy at King’s College of the University of London, where he embarked on a career as a playwright. His play Outskirts won the George Devine Award in 1981, and in 1982 he became writer-in-residence at the prestigious Royal Court Theatre. In the mid-1980s he turned to screen-writing, debuting with My Beautiful Laundrette (1984), which garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. Other films followed: Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987); London Kills Me (1991), which he directed; and My Son the Fanatic (1997), based on one of his short stories. The Buddha of Suburbia was Kureishi’s first novel. He would subsequently write three more novels, The Black Album (1995), Intimacy (1998), and Gabriel’s Gift (2001), and publish two short-story collections, Love in a Blue Time (1997) and Midnight All Day (1999). Throughout his career, Kureishi has also written essays. His novel The Buddha of Suburbia explores the new London being forged in the 1970s.
Immigration and racism
The Buddha of Suburbia takes place in the 1970s, but its events are in many ways determined by changes in England’s
demography dating to the years after World War II. The ravages of that war called for massive efforts at rebuilding, but depleted the supply of potential workers. To meet the shortfall, Great Britain called upon citizens in its colonies and former colonies; by the mid-1950s, around 10,000 immigrants per year were arriving from India and Pakistan. India had just recently (in 1947) achieved independence from British rule and divided into two nations, India and Pakistan, now both members of the Commonwealth— those nations formerly under British rule. British recruitment combined with administrative changes in the dispersal of passports (the process was now localized in India and Pakistan rather than being centralized in London) helped stimulate a massive influx of new citizens. Roughly one million immigrants entered England in the decade from 1958 to 1968. As a result, Great Britain became a country increasingly ethnically mixed. Yet, as Kureishi remarked in 1990, it did “not yet have a vision of itself as a mixed place. The feeling is that blacks and Asians were invited to Britain to work, but maybe they’ll somehow go back again. Britain still hasn’t re-cast itself as a multiracial, multi-cultural society” (Kureishi in Collins, p. 20). This was true particularly in the 1940s and, ‘50s, when white Britons harbored appalling racist stereotypes of their new neighbors’ former lifestyles. A 1948 survey suggested that many whites thought of those in the former British colonies as people who practiced cannibalism, lived in mud huts, ate strange foods, had “primitive” sexual urges, and were illiterate and uneducated. White Britons, moreover, were often not sensitive to the differences between various ethnic groups and tended to treat immigrants as if they were all alike.
The truth was that lifestyles and beliefs among the immigrants, as among white Britons, varied greatly. The immigrants hailed from various countries, spoke an assortment of languages, and practiced different religions. Nor were their experiences in their new home uniform. Some adopted the customs of their new environs, seeking to assimilate; others built communities based on customs from their homelands. Many found their economic footing in Britain by opening ethnic corner shops, grocers, restaurants, and laundrettes (the latter of which are celebrated in Kureishi’s first film, My Beautiful Laundrette); others, like Haroon, the father of The Buddha ofSub-urbia’s protagonist, worked in better-paying jobs such as the Civil Service. In either case, people maintained ties with their heritages through Asian newspapers, which proliferated in Britain in the 1960s. The Urdu-language weekly Mashriq was followed by eight other weeklies in various Indian languages, as well as the English-language India Weekly.
The changing mix of British society frightened a portion of the native British population, who held racist views of Asian and African immigrants. In fact, the British government had to take official measures against racism. A 1965 Race Relations Act banned discrimination in public places, made the promotion of ethnic-based hatred an offense, and instituted a Race Relations board to handle complaints. A 1968 act banned ethnic discrimination in housing and employment, and a 1976 act called for a Race Relations Commission to further equality of opportunity and harmonious relations. Though these measures tried to address a current of disharmony, they did little to stem the mounting racism. Economic distress in the 1970s meanwhile fanned the fires of discontent. Inflation was rife, and attempts to reign it in were accompanied by rising numbers of unemployed workers. Unemployment soared from 3 percent in 1971, around the time the novel opens, to 5 percent in 1979, when it ends and Margaret Thatcher assumes power. It would climb still higher to 12.3 percent in 1983, after Thatcher mounted a no-holds-barred attack on inflation (Williamson, p. 202). Partially in reaction to this hardship, white extremists vented frustrations on Asians and Africans. Blaming them for joblessness, the extremists resorted to “Paki-bashing” and acts of violence. The Asians responded variously. For many, the 1970s became a decade of alienation in which Asian immigrants and their descendants felt they “had to look to their own defences and find strength in their own communities”; others, especially the young, saw a need for “more racial mixing and tolerance” (Williamson, p. 222).
Included in mainstream society were those who agreed with this last attitude. Racism was by no means a uniform response among white Britons. An anti-racist current manifested itself in such movements as Rock against Racism, a musical reaction to singer Eric Clapton’s endorsement
THE NATIONAL FRONT AND ENOCH POWELL’S “RIVERS OF BLOOD” SPEECH
The Labour and Conservative parties were not the only ones on the British political scene of the 1970s. A notable feature of the decade was the emergence of the National Front, whose platform was almost solely anti-immigration, which prompted people to associate the party with fascist or neo-Nazi groups. The thuggery of some of its younger adherents, and their police-protected march through Lewisham, a South London suburb, on August 13, 1977, are featured in The Buddha of Sub urbia. The National Front capitalized on sentiments that attained a veneer of respectability from such politicians as Member of Parliament (MP) Enoch Powell, who, Kureishi asserts, “helped to create racism in Britain and was directly responsible not only for the atmosphere of fear and hatred, but through his influence, for individual acts of violence against Pakistanis” (Kureisi, “Rainbow Sign’ pp, 74-75). Powell articulated his racist policy In his famous rivers of blood’ speech (the phrase is from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid), delivered in Birmingham on April 21, 1968, Here am the closing fines, in which Powell lambastes the Race Relations Bill of 1968 for “showing that the immigrant communities can organise… to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and ill-informed have provided”:
As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see, ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’ That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now.
(Powell in Cosgrave, p. 250)
Some white Britons took such “officially” expressed sentiments to be endorsements of their own racism, which manifested itself in acts of violence against nonwhites “Powell’s awful prophecy was fulfilled: the hate he worked to create and the party of which ha was a member, brought abottt his predksion mourns Kureishi “The River Tiber has indeed overflowed with much blood—Pakistani blood” (Kureishi, “Rainbow Sign” p. 94).
in a 1976 concert of the racist immigration policies that were being promoted by Enoch Powell. There was also the Anti-Nazi League (1977), which sought to alert voters to the fascist tendencies of the increasingly popular National Front Party. Indians and Pakistanis themselves fought back politically, forming, for example, the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London in 1976, which took to the streets, demonstrating against police harassment and ethnic attacks. Key to all this activism were Asian British women, represented aptly in The Buddha of Suburbia by the militant Jamila. Late in the decade they helped form the Organization of Women of Asian and African Descent (1978-83), which would foster “an increasingly positive sense of self and blackness” and led to the formation of other, similar groups. Meanwhile, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations became an indelible part of the landscape in 1970s London, as dramatized in Kureishi’s novel. It is during this turbulent era that its protagonist Karim comes of age.
British politics of the 1970s
The Buddha of Suburbia opens around the time that the Conservative Party regained control of Parliament via Edward Heath’s election as Prime Minister in June 1970, and ends on May 3, 1979, the day Margaret Thatcher assumed the conservative mantle and reset the nation’s course. This was a tumultuous decade, marked by inflation and industrial upheaval. The Heath years witnessed the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and a miners’ strike in the winter of 1973-74, which together exerted enormous pressure on his government. Heath called an election in 1974, but lost to Labour’s Harold Wilson, who was succeeded by James Callaghan in 1976. But neither Labour leader could reign in inflation; so great union unrest ensued, culminating
THE BROMLEY CONTINGENT: BOWIE AND THE BUDDHA
In the essay “The Boy in the Bedroom” 1944), Kureishi speaks about his circle of friends in high school, called “The Bromley Contingent” by (ohnny Rotten, lender of the punk group Sex Pistols. The more adventurous members of The Bromley Contingent formed spin-off pop music groups—-Siouxie and the Banshees, and Generation X. Nor were these the only pop heroes to emerge from Kureishi’s Bromley school. Billy Idol, then known as Bill Broad, was one of his grade-school mates (“although I haven’l seen him since I was 16,” Kureishi remarked in 1990 Kureishi in Coffins, p, 20)), In fact, Idol is a major model for Charlie Hero in The Buddha of Suburbia, Even Kureishi’s art teacher had cachet in the pop mysic world; he was Peter Framptoi& father, Certainly the most notable figure to emerge from Bromley was Davfd Bowie. “Bowie, then called David Jones, had battended our school several years before refates the narrator of The Buddha of Sutwibia “Boys were often to be found on their knees before this praying to be made into pop stars and for release from a lifetime as a motor-mechanic, or a clerk in an insurance Urm, or an architect” (Buddha, p, 68), As a result of Kureishi’s 1993 Interview with Bowie, the pop star composed an original soundtrack for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s television version of The Buddha of Suburbia.
in the “winter of discontent” of 1978-79. As the novel’s narrator puts it, “the bitter, fractured country was in turmoil: there were strikes, marches, wage-claims” (Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, p. 259). When the Liberal and Nationalist parties broke away from their alliance with Labour in March 1979, Callaghan’s hold on Parliament collapsed, and he was dismissed by a vote of no-confidence.
Pop music and theater galvanize a generation
Both the novel’s Karim and Kureishi himself are self-conscious products of the remarkable flourishing of the arts in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. Kureishi relates that when he started to write in the early 1970s, he worried that “this tiny skill” was “elegantly useless,” but he was aware “of the potency and influence of another language that spoke to millions—pop music (Kureishi, Plays, p. xii). At stake was the political empowerment of a generation and a nation.
In the essay “Eight Arms to Hold You” (1986), Kureishi says that the Beatles not only entertained British youth, but also “came to represent opportunity and possibility. They were careers officers, a myth for us to live by, a light for us to follow” (Kureishi, “Eight Arms,” p. 110). In fact, the music’s importance to Kureishi, and to many of his generation, is more powerful than as a guiding light. Kureishi’s second novel, The Black Album, characterizes pop music (its title refers to a bootlegged album that originated with the musician Prince) as a means of liberation that defends the individual against the fascist mindset of religious fundamentalism. In the early 1970s, rock music was indelibly associated with developments deemed “’progressive’ or ‘experimental’”—whether they were the “drum solos or effeminate synthesizers” of the music or liberal approaches towards sex, drugs, and politics (Buddha, p. 130). By the late 1970s such attitudes would themselves have become mainstream (and seemed narcissistic) enough to be cast aside by the punk movement and its anarchic tendencies, most explosively in the Sex Pistols’ album Anarchy in the U.K. and in the 1977 single “God Save the Queen.”
British theater, too, had a major impact upon postwar British society (and a more tangible one upon Kureishi than pop music). The production of John Osbome’s Look Back in Anger in London’s West End in 1956 signaled the arrival of the British stage as a powerful cultural force. The play, which features Jimmy Porter of working-class heritage and his turbulent marriage to the upper-middle-class Alison, became renowned for Jimmy’s condemnations of the social status quo. Subsequent plays, such as Edward Bond’s Saved (1965), Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (1965), and Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) proved unsettling, even shocking to theatergoers.
In the 1970s, Kureishi writes, fringe theater seemed the best venue for exploring the changed Britain, “which involved violence, the contamination of racism and years of crisis. The questions that a multi-cultural society had to ask had hardly been put” (Kureishi, Ploys, p. xvi). In large part because it explored such issues, fringe theater also served as fertile soil for supposedly radical political ideals—ones that, Kureishi seems to believe, adherents tended not to put into action in the world outside art. Thus, in his novel’s portrayal of a fringe production (ironically of the non-radical Jungle Book), we find a Trotskyite hoping that society becomes as miserable as possible so that a communist revolution will transpire in Britain.
The Buddha of Suburbia is divided into “In the Suburbs” (South London) and “In the City” (the metropolis itself), both parts narrated by Karim Amir. At the opening of the novel, in the early 1970s, Karim is a 17-year-old living in the suburbs of South London. His mother, Margaret, is a British woman neglected by her family; his father, Haroon, is a civil servant who immigrated to Britain from India in 1950. Karim also has a brother, Allie, who is preoccupied with fashion. The novel’s title refers to the events of chapter one, in which Karim accompanies his father to the home of another white British woman, Mrs. Eva Kay, where Haroon dispenses “Eastern” wisdom to groups of suburbanites. Here Karim learns that his dad and Eva are having an affair and has an exciting sexual encounter of his own with Eva’s charismatic son, Charlie, who is a burgeoning rock star.
Other vivid characters soon enter the picture. Anwar is Haroon’s business-minded friend from their childhood days together in Bombay; his wife, Jeeta, runs their grocer’s shop. Anwar mocks his friend’s new role as “Buddha,” or dispenser of Eastern wisdom. At a second suburban gathering, Margaret’s sister Jean shows up with her husband Ted in order to monitor and report on Haroon’s activities to Margaret, who knows that her husband is “impersonating a Buddha” and carrying on with another woman (Buddha, p. 44). The gathering is eventful for Karim. He meets Helen, who becomes his girlfriend for a time, and whose father (“Hairy Back”) heaps racial epithets upon him. Helen is as smitten with Charlie, the burgeoning rock star, as Karim himself.
Karim’s concern over his father’s infidelity is soon superseded by the appearance of Jamila, daughter of Anwar and Jeeta. Radical political activist and sometime lover of Karim, she has just learned that Anwar has arranged for her to marry 30-year-old Indian man (who will, he hopes, be helpful around the shop as well). Her father has undertaken a hunger strike to force her to submit to his wishes. Jamila decides to capitulate. So into the picture comes Changez, nicknamed “Bubble,” whose laziness and one good hand render moot Anwar’s hopes that he himself will benefit from this union. Changez, eager to discover London, becomes good friends with Karim, although it seems that he will never become intimate with his new wife. Karim makes matters worse by having sexual relations with Jamila after the marriage.
Meanwhile, Haroon and Eva have moved in together at Eva’s, and Margaret has left the house to live with Ted and Jean. Eva, having enlisted Ted (who had quit his plumbing job at Haroon’s urging) to renovate her house, decides to move her new family to London, in search of both a more sophisticated lifestyle and her son Charlie, “who was only rarely around now,” because he clearly believed that “our suburbs were a leaving place” (Buddha, p. 117).
Part Two, “In the City,” begins at Eva’s dingy new flat in West Kensington, located around the corner from a club at which Karim and Charlie witness the explosion of punk music. Charlie runs off with the band and is next seen as “Charlie Hero,” its leader. Meanwhile, Karim’s own road to fame begins when Eva’s friend Jeremy Shadwell casts him as Mowgli in a play that is adapting Rudyard’s Kipling’s The Jungle Book to the stage. Karim especially enjoys getting to know Terry, a Trotskyite, who becomes dismayed when the famous director Matthew Pyke chooses Karim over him for a new production.
Pyke instructs Karim to choose someone from his own background, “someone black” as a model for his role, whereupon Karim muses, “I didn’t know anyone black, though I’d been at school with a Nigerian” (Buddha, p. 170). Pyke’s romanticized prejudices about race are revealed when he specifies that Karim should choose someone from his own family. Anwar on his hunger strike, thinks Karim. But when Tracey, the troupe’s one black actress, accuses Karim of portraying black people as “irrational, ridiculous, as being hysterical,” he switches models to Changez, despite his Indian friend’s refusal to grant permission (Buddha, p. 180). Karim begins an affair with Eleanor, a fiery redhead; but especially after a bizarre gathering that involves group sex together with Pyke and his wife, Karim becomes suspicious of the power games lying behind the supposedly progressive mindset of this group of artists.
After attending mosque one day, Anwar decries Changez as a “useless cripple,” and attempts to bash him with a walking stick (Buddha, p. 209). Changez returns the blow; having visited sex shops, he whacks his father-in-law smartly over the head with a newly-purchased dildo. Alas, the blow is fatal. This situation prompts Jamila to move to a commune, and, at Karim’s urging, she allows Changez to accompany her.
Back on stage, Karim winds up basing his character “Tariq,” on the “Dildo Killer,” though he gives Changez his word of honor that this is not the case. In the wake of an attack on Changez by National Front thugs, Karim agrees to join Jamila in protesting a neo-Nazi party march scheduled for the following Saturday. When Karim tries to enlist Eleanor, her response is strange: suspicious, he skips the protest, instead gathering evidence that she is sleeping with Pyke. Their own affair, Karim informs Eleanor, is over.
After the play’s opening night, Terry, the Trotskyite actor, enjoins Karim to ask Pyke and Eleanor for money for “the Party”; Changez, obliviously delighted by the performance, tells Karim that Jamila and he are expecting a baby (not his own, though); Jamila berates Karim for failing to march against the National Front; and Margaret wonders why her British son is playing an Indian character.
“Wasn’t I good, eh, Mum?”
“You weren’t in a loin-cloth as usual,” she said.
“At least they let you wear your own clothes.
But you’re not an Indian. You’ve never been to India…”
“... Aren’t I part Indian?”
“What about me?” Mum said. “Who gave birth to you? You’re an Englishman, I’m glad to say.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m an actor. It’s a job.”
“Don’t say that,” she said. “Be what you are.”
(Buddha, p. 232)
Karim and the troupe later accept Pyke’s invitation to perform the show in New York. Once there, Karim seeks out Charlie, who has moved to America, birthplace of blues and rock’ n’ roll: they can be “two English boys in America, th land where music came from, with Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Johnny Rotten living round the corner” (Buddha, p. 249). Since his play runs fo just a month, Karim spends a lot of time with Charlie, but this does little to mitigate Karim’s depression and self-hatred. Two events make him return to England: Charlie’s physical brutality towards a journalist who chases him in a street for a story, and the pop star’s night of sadomasochism with a prostitute as Karim looks on.
Upon returning to London, Karim lands a lucrative job in a television soap opera. He also finds London a changed city, politically and aesthetically. “I walked around Central London and saw that the town was being ripped apart; the rotten was being replaced by the new, and th new was ugly. The gift of creating beauty had been lost somewhere. The ugliness was in the people, too. Londoners seemed to hate each other” (Buddha, p. 258).
Eva, the home-refurbisher, is interviewed about her work by reporters who are keen to learn about Charlie Hero; Haroon has decided to quit his job; and Margaret has a new boyfriend. Karim goes to Jamila’s commune, where he meets the new baby and witnesses Changez’s unwavering, yet unrequited, love for Jamila, who has taken a lesbian lover. The novel ends on the day Thatcher is elected the new Prime Minister. Karim invites his father, Haroon, and Eva, his brother, Allie, Allie’s new girlfriend, and his friends Changez and Jamila to the most expensive restaurant he knows in Soho (Jamila is too busy with politics and the baby to join them).
“GOING SOMEWHERE”: H. G. WELLS AND SUBURBIA
Karim twice reminds his readers that H. G. Wells was from Bromley, his own home. “I got off my bicycle and stood there in Bromley High Street, next to a plague that said ‘HLG Welfe was born here” he telfe us Just before the encounter with his father in the phone booth (Btfi that p. 64). Later, tn describing his new environs in West Kens ingtom “Unlike the suburbs where no one of note—except Wells—had lived, here you couldn’t get away from VIPs (Bud p 126). Wells is perhaps most famous today for such science fiction works as The Time Machine (also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), but he was also a noted social commentator. Some of his comments, from The New Mdchivelti serve as an apt backdrop to Kariitt’s own reaction to suburban life:
The outskirts of Brotmtead were a maze of exploitation roads thai ted nowhere, rtiat ended in tarred fences studded with nails (E don’t remember barbed wire in those days; I think the Zeitgeist did not produce that until later), and in trespass boards that used vehement language. Sroteri glass, tin cans, and ashes and paper abounded. Cheap glass, cheap tin, abundant fuel, and a fee imtaxed Press had rushed upon a world quite unprepared to dispose of these blessing when the fulness ol enjoyment was past
(Wells, pp. 44-45)
The phrase “roads that led nowhere” resonates powerfully in Kureishi’s novel, whose Karim describes himself as “from the South London suburbs and going somewhere” (Buddha, p. 3). Karim goes on say that he is “restless and easily bored. Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and bored. Or perhaps it was being brought up in 1he suburbs that did it” (Buddha, p. 3). The novel bears out the sense that it not an either/or situation: suburbia is the English landscape’s embodiment of the sense of “belonging and not” that is an JndeJibfe aspect of Karins life, of the experience erf immigrants and their descendants, and even of England ilseli In his essay The Rainbow Sign Ktireishi extends this sense of separation inherent in the English suburban condition beyond geography t0 include time itself: A boy in a bedroom in a suburb, who had the King’s Road constantly on his mind and who changed the picture on his wall from week to week was unhappy, and separated from the 1960s as by a thick glass wall against which he could only press his face” (Kureishi, “Rainbow Sign p. 86). The threat of being held captive by this suburban glass wall hovers over Karim and ChartSe in the novel “You’re not going anywhere—not as a band and not as a person’ Karim taunts his friend in very Wetlsian language in the novel (Buddha, p. 121) But soon after, the tables are turned: when Karim questions Charlie’s enthusiasm for punk rockers, Charlie “turned on me with one of his nastiest looks, ‘Yore not going anywhere, Karim, You’re not doing anything with your life because as usual you’re facing in the wrong direction anct going the wrong way” (Buddh&, p 132), The Buddha of is fundamentally about finding the roads that lead out of the Bromley of. Welts, David Bowie, and Kyreishi; of breaking through the glass wall, facing in the right direction, and carving ant new paths to follow.
Their table becomes the center of attention, and Haroon announces that he and Eva will be getting married. Karim closes by observing that he “felt happy and miserable at the same time. I thought of what a mess everything had been, but that it wouldn’t always be that way” (Buddha, p. 284).
Racial violence, class, and assimilation
A disturbing current of racial violence runs through the otherwise very comical plot of The Buddha of Surburbia. While the violence itself is a fact of life in Karim’s England, a number of approaches to the problem are represented among his family and friends. Karim himself is at the opposite spectrum from Jamila on this issue:
Compared to Jammie I was, as a militant, a real shaker and trembler. If people spat at me I practically thanked them for not making me chew the moss between the paving stones. But Jamila had a PhD in physical retribution. Once a greaser rode past us on an old bicycle and said, as if asking the time, “Eat shit, Pakis.” Jammie sprinted through the traffic before throwing the bastard off his bike and tugging out some of his hair, like someone weeding an overgrown garden.
(Buddha, p. 53)
Karim’s mother Margaret, on the other hand, seeks to distance her husband from popular stereotypes associated with the immigration wave of the late 1940s that inspired overt prejudices. Haroon’s family, she claims, was
higher [in social class] than the Churchills… . This ensured there would be no confusion between Dad and the swarms of Indian peasants who came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and of whom it was said they were not familiar with cutlery and certainly not with toilets, since they squatted on the seats and shat from on high.
(Buddha, p. 24)
Changez, the only recent immigrant in the novel, takes to the extreme assumptions about the value of assimilation into the upper-class world of white “Englishmen.” To be accepted, he asserts, the Indians and Pakistanis he sees walking to their menial jobs have to take up English ways.
[They need to] forget their filthy villages! They must decide to be either here or there. Look how much here I am! And why doesn’t that bugger over there look the Englishman in the eye! No wonder the Englishman will hit him!
(Buddha, p. 210)
In his 1986 essay “The Rainbow Sign,” Kureishi explores the premise behind Changez’s belief: that if the British could see among the Pakistanis “the rich, the educated, the sophisticated, they wouldn’t be so hostile.” His Pakistani companions “couldn’t understand when I explained that British racists weren’t discriminating in their racial discrimination: they loathed all Pakistanis and kicked whoever was nearest” (Kureishi, “Rainbow Sign,” p. 93). The Buddha of Suburbia dramatizes this point only a few pages after Changez’s outburst, when he is attacked by a gang of National Front thugs “who called him a Paki, not realizing he was Indian” (Buddha, p. 224).
Another variation on this attitude is articulated by Allie, lover of high fashion. Allie disdains the “selfpity” of “people who go on all the time about being black, and how persecuted they were at school, and how someone spat at them once” (Buddha, p. 267). Unlike the Indians who were kicked out of Uganda, Allie says to Karim, “no one put people like you and me in camps, and no one will. We can’t be lumped in with them, thank God” (Buddha, p. 268). Allie combines the attitude of his mother (differentiating between his own social background and those of less fortunate immigrants) with the scorn for others of his own race shared by Changez, except that Allie’s antipathy is targeted against idealists and artists rather than the lower classes. Like Margaret and Changez, he takes refuge in the fantasies that his difference from the truly oppressed exempts him from racism: “we can’t,” he says, as noted above, “be lumped in with them.”
Finally, there is the approach of the two genuine immigrants, Haroon and Anwar. “Maybe there were similarities between what was happening to Dad, with his discovery of Eastern philosophy, and Anwar’s last stand. Perhaps it was the immigrant condition living itself out through them,” observes the narrator. By taking on the roles of “Buddha of Suburbia” and hunger-striker, respectively, Haroon and Anwar are fulfilling many of the stereotypes that Britons held of the East: hence the pain the 19-year-old black actress Tracey feels upon seeing Karim portray Anwar on stage. “Now, as they aged and seemed settled here, Anwar and Dad appeared to be returning internally to India, or at least to be resisting the English here” (Buddha, p. 64). Their attitude reflects a phenomenon that Kureishi describes in “The Rainbow Sign”: the belief among British-born Indians and Pakistanis that “they are in exile, awaiting return to a better place, where they belong, where they are welcome” (Kureishi, “Rainbow Sign,” p. 100). This view, he continues, contains much “illusion and falsity,” for it denies “the extent to which [they] have been formed by England and the depth of attachment [they] feel to the place, despite everything” (Kureishi, “Rainbow Sign,” p. 100). On the other hand, neither Anwar nor Karim’s father “expressed any desire actually to see their origins again. India’s a rotten place,’ Anwar grumbled” (Buddha, p. 64).
The final word of The Buddha of Suburbia on this topic, then, must be the first: “1 am an Englishman born and bred” (Buddha, p. 3). It is not a question of immigrants or their children becoming like Englishmen, or distancing themselves from the peasants, or seeking to return to a homeland, whether internally or literally. The point is that the very meaning of “Englishman” has fundamentally changed, both with regard to Karim’s world and the world of English literature: “Being British is a new thing now. It involves people with names like Kureishi or [Kazuo] Ishiguro or [Salman] Rushdie, where it didn’t before. And we’re all British too” (Kureishi in Kaleta, p. 7; for Ishiguro and Rushdie, respectively, see Remains of the Day and Midnight’s Children , also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). The Buddha of Suburbia is a comic and often poignant celebration of that fact, as well as a lament that so many do not yet acknowledge it.
Sources and literary context
The Buddha ofSuburbia’s first incarnation was as a short story by that name, published in Harper’s in 1987. Kureishi recollects that he conceived of the idea for the novel “on the balcony of a hotel room in Madras, my father’s birthplace… . Ever since [the short story] had appeared in print the characters and situation remained with me”; he knew he had material for a whole book but needed to find a way to organise it” (Kureishi, “Something Given”). The material sprang in large part from the author’s own experiences coming of age in the 1970s: as noted, Billy Idol became Charlie Hero; Kureishi’s father became Haroon; Kureishi’s apprenticeship in the Royal Court Theatre gave rise to the Matthew Pyke plot. But Kureishi warns against putting too much stock in autobiographical elements; actually whether a writer’s work is autobiographical, seems an odd, “redundant” question to him—from where else could the work come? As to Karim’s being based on Kureishi, the author notes, “There’s one difference, one main difference, between me and that guy in The Buddha, which is that when I was young, from the age of fourteen, I fully knew that I wanted to be a writer. And so I had a great sense of purpose and direction in my life all through those years” (Kureishi in Kaleta, p. 74).
The Buddha of Suburbia extends the strong contemporary tradition of immigrant voices, represented by such writers as Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie (see Midnight’s Children , also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). Rushdie celebrated the prominence of these immigrant voices in his essay “The Empire Writes Back With a Vengeance” published in The Times (3 July 1982, p. 8). According to A. Robert Lee, this tradition “has somewhat too often had the effect of laying down a pre-emptive configuration, that of post-independence, first-generation immigration, with a kind of internal colonialism to follow” (Lee, p. 72). Much of the impact of The Buddha of Suburbia, by contrast, lies in its status as one of the harbingers of a group of writings in which “indigenous lives ‘of colour’ [are] pursued and articulated wholly, or almost wholly, as from inside the very grain of British society” (Lee, p. 71). Lee places Kureishi together with David Dabydeen and Mike Phillips, whose fiction “speaks out of, and to, the absolute centre of ‘England’. That is, whatever their author’s literal place of birth, they proceed from, and inscribe, a quite ineradicable and historic multicultural Englishness or Britishness” (Lee, p. 75). Nor are such voices limited to the medium of literature: “One consequence, on the page and in theatre and music has been the rise of new, hybrid styles” in music (e.g., “a pop tradition embracing east-west Beatles lyrics and groups from The Two Tones to Steven Kapur’s Apache Indian”) and in theatre (Jatinder Verma’s “Indian” version of Moliere’s Tartuffe).
Thatcherism and its opponents in the 1980s
With the fall of Prime Minister James Callaghan in 1979, The Buddha of Suburbir’s Terry says, “The chickens are coming home to die. It’s either us or the rise of the Right” (Buddha, p. 258). It was the latter, by far, for upon her victory a few weeks after Terry’s remark, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher invoked her policies of economic rationalism—wholesale attention to fiscal responsibility, whatever the costs to the society supposedly being served by the government. Thatcher undertook to dismantle Britain’s socialist structures by selling its share of public utilities to private companies, and undermined what she saw as the labor unions’ stranglehold on the economy, most dramatically by crushing the miners’ strike of 1984-85. The narrator of Kureishi’s 1998 autobiographical novel Intimacy reflects upon the ways in which Thatcherism unhinged his generation:
We were dismissive and contemptuous of Thatcherism, but so captivated by our own ideological obsessions that we couldn’t see its appeal. Which isn’t to say we didn’t fight it. There was the miners’ strike, and the battles at Wapping [1986 industrial strife after the dismissal of 5,500 workers by the media conglomerate News Corporation in the wake of its relocation from Fleet Street to Wapping, near London’s Docklands]. We were left enervated and confused. Soon we didn’t know what we believed. Some remained on the left; others retreated into sexual politics; some became Thatcherites. We were the kind of people who held the Labour party back. Still, I never understood the elevation of greed as a political credo.
(Kureishi, Intimacy, pp. 53-54)
Fathomable or not, Thatcher would stay in power until 1990, the year The Buddha of Suburbia was published.
The combination of the economic turmoil of Thatcher’s early years and her own attitude towards racial minorities ensured the racial tensions of the 1970s would not dissipate under her tenure: indeed, Thatcherism in large part rendered the National Front moot. In January 1978, the future Prime Minister said on television that the white community’s fears about being “swamped” by non-whites were legitimate. Two years into her ministership, severe economic strains upon the working classes led to a rash of about 20 disturbances in British towns and cities, notably in Brixton, a multiracial community near London with a high population of unemployed young blacks. In April 1981, 279 policemen and large numbers of civilians were injured in serious disturbances there, and 28 buildings were damaged or destroyed by fire (Young, p. 233). Many white Britons, including members of Thatcher’s administration, saw evidence in such violence not of the dramatic economic hardships the nation’s non-whites were being forced to endure, but rather of the supposition that there were, in the words of one unemployed white moulder in 1982, “too many Indians”; Those riots at Brixton,” he added, “I’d send all them darkies back home” (Williamson, p. 237).
Given the prevalence of such attitudes, it is hardly surprising that the non-white residents of council-housing estates continued to experience racial abuse. As in the 1970s, Asian homes and businesses were petrol-bombed, and verbal abuse was hurled at their owners and inhabitants. There were Asians who reacted by rising above the racism.
Yet children of the first wave of postwar immigrants continued to assimilate into mainstream British culture. Some intermarried, with as many as 20 percent of British-born Indian and African Asian men wedding white women by the early 1990s. The novel’s Haroon, an immigrant himself, marries two white women, the first in the 1950s, the second in the 1970s. Such developments in the novel reflect aspects of real-world society in mid-to-late twentieth-century Britain. Though the era was one of economic and social hardships for Pakistani and Indian inhabitants, they nevertheless managed to become an integral part of contemporary British society, which has been irreversibly changed as a consequence. But they continue to face uncertainties—a fact that surely contributes to the unresolved conclusion to Karim’s story.
1989: The end of the Cold War
Between the first draft of The Buddha of Suburbia in December 1987 and its publication in April 1990, two events indelibly changed global society, and the role of literature in the world. The first was the collapse of the communist-democratic polarity, the competition for world leadership that ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. This fall had a domino effect, leading to the collapse of Soviet-style communism in eastern Europe, and indeed of the Soviet Union itself. Here, The Buddha of Suburbia’s Terry could not have been further off the mark with regard to his hopes for the rise of the Communist Party in Britain. In retrospect, the Soviet collapse, while widely heralded as a triumph of freedom, confused many of Kureishi’s generation, just as Thatcherism had. In a passage of his novel Intimacy the narrator remarks, “We were the last generation to defend communism” (Kureishi, Intimacy, p. 53).
1989: The Fatwa against Rushdie
The other event of 1989, to which Kureishi felt much more immediately connected, occurred on February 14. Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a /atwa (death sentence) upon Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie because of the supposed anti-Muslim blasphemies in his novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was forced into hiding, emerging only in 1998. This event “was devastating for him, for all of us,” remarked Kureishi in 1990, whose family had long known Rushdie’s. In 1986, Kureishi’s own film My Beautiful Laundrette had been picketed by the Pakistan Action Committee in New York City because of its frank treatment of sexuality and characterization of immigrant culture. “People think you’re supposed to show them exclusively as strong, truthful and beautiful,” observed Kureishi. “Looking back on it [the picketing], I can see in it the seeds of the Rushdie situation” (Kureishi in Collins p. 20). The Buddha of Suburbia dramatizes precisely such a reaction. According to the young black actress Tracey, Karim’s depiction of Anwar shows black people as being “irrational, ridiculous, as being hysterical. And as being fanatical” (Buddha, p. 180). In retrospect, Tracey’s use of the term “fanatical” strikes an especially ironic chord, since the Rushdie affair would show that a fanatical approach towards or reaction to creative representation can be deadly.
The Buddha of Suburbia garnered mostly positive reviews in the press, winning the Whitbread Prize for best novel of 1990. Not all the reviews were favorable, however. In the Times Literary Supplement, Neil Berry described the plot as “chaotic”; in the past, complained Berry, Kureishi has written “with elliptical brilliance about being at once English and Asian, and about the bankruptcy of Britain’s traditional self-images. Such challenging topics bob tantalizingly into view in The Buddha of Suburbia—and as quickly vanish” (Berry, p. 339). But others praised the novel as sharp satire on racial relations, and within a decade many recognized it as an attempt to redefine Britishness. “This reform (ulation),” explains Anuradha Dingwaney Needham, “insists that riven as Britishness is with mixtures which are a product, in large part, ‘of migration and miscegenation,’… a ‘singular sense of Britishness’ ought to be unacceptable” (Needham, p. 114). The Buddha of Suburbia advances this reformulation by featuring a protagonist in the process of shaping his identity, one that acknowledges his diverse heritage. More generally, it aims for minorities in Britain to be seen as not deviant from the norm but rather an integral part of it.
Berry, Neil. Review of The Buddha of Suburbia. Times Literary Supplement, 30 March 1990, 330.
Collins, Glenn. “Screen Writer Turns to the Novel To Tell of Race and Class in London.” The New York Times, 24 May 1990, 17, 20.
Cosgrave, Patrick. The Lives of Enoch Powell. London: Bodley Head, 1989.
Kaleta, Kenneth C. Hanif Kureishi: Postcolonial Storyteller. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
____.Hanif Kureishi Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.
____.“Something Given: Reflections on Writing.” Available on the internet at: [http://www.hani-fkureishi.com]. Accessed October 14, 2000.
____. Intimacy. New York: Scribner, 1999.
____.“The Rainbow Sign” and “Eight Arms to Hold You.” In My Beautiful Laundrette and Other Writings. London: Faber and Faber, 1996.
Lee, A. Robert, ed. Other Britain, Other British: Contemporary Multicultural Fiction. East Haven, Conn.: Pluto Press, 1995.
Needham, Anuradha Dingwaney. Using the Master’s Tools: Resistance and the Literature of the African and South-Asian Diasporas. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
Young, Hugo. One of Us: a Biography of Margaret Thatcher. London: Macmilian, 1989.
Williamson, Bill. The Temper of the Times; British Society since World War II. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Wells, H. G. The New Machiavelli. London: William Clowes, 1911.