The Buddha of Suburbia is a novel written by Hanif Kureishi in 1990, which tells the story of a young man, named Karim Amir. Karim was born in England, as he describes himself in the book, “I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.” He is the son of an Indian father and an English mother. This book has an extremely accurate timeline, it is set in the 1970’s, and narrates the English cultural changes together along with the characters’ experiences, as the transition from the peaceful 1960’s to the revolted 1970’s, from the end of the hippie era to the start of the glamorous era, and the birth of the punk movement.
However, one of the remarking things this novel shows are the diverse characters’ personalities. Kureishi managed to create unique and very distinctive characters, each one of them representing their culture. In my opinion, the most interesting of all, are women. Luckily, in this novel, we are able to see many female characters, and all of them are very different from one another. Their experiences as women are diverse and from very different perspectives. For instance, Eva Kay and Margaret Amir are two women like chalk and cheese, but they have one thing in common: they have the same love interest.
Eva Kay is a middle-aged woman who was born in England, but has the lifestyle of an Indian one. When she had breast cancer, one of her breasts had to be removed and she lost her willingness to live. Her husband often beat her and the two of them were sexually inactive, so, when she meets Karim’s father, Haroon, in a “writing for pleasure” class, she finds a true friend who helps her win her desire to live back. Eva convinces Haroon to leave his job and start giving Buddhist meditation and yoga classes, providing him clients. Eva finds out that she enjoys spending her time with Indian people, so she organizes meditation classes at her own house. The first one she organizes, she invites Haroon to teach, and they end up having sexual relations.
Their relationship starts as an affair, although both are in love with each other. Moreover, Haroon is so attracted by her and the fact that they share the same interest in Eastern Philosophy that he decides to break up his marriage with Margaret and leave his family to live with Eva. She wins Karim’s heart, and he starts seeing her as a mother. She helps him to get into college and afterwards encourages him to try the acting career. She is extremely supportive towards him and, in my opinion, Eva looks more after Karim than she does after her own son, Charlie. Nevertheless, she is very supportive of her son too, wanting him to be successful at all cost because she feels he deserves it truly.
She has a very exciting life, combining mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs. Haroon falls in love with her due to her personality and enthusiasm. Eva also desires social mobility as does Haroon, mostly through his associations with Eva; Haroon’s own social goals are slightly more ambiguous, but he and Eva function socially as a unit and she directs them upward. Eva seems to be a bit of a social climber. She represents, in a sense, enlightenment as she lives her very exciting life, luring artists and intellectuals into her circle.
Her personality seems to engender many changes in her life, and one was, for instance, to move from the suburbs to London. She felt like she needed an upgrade on her living situation, since she wanted to obtain success. Once they arrive, they move to an area where many important people live, and she decides to invite several of them and make her seem like an influential woman. Furthermore, after redecorating and improving the look of their flat, she begins working as an interior designer for other people, and that makes her integrate in higher classes, which was her first aim once they moved to London.
Eva’s character represents changing social mores, as she is not the conventional English woman society would expect in the 1970’s. She is extroverted, mysterious, attractive, very imaginative, and has no shame of herself. She also exceeds the limits of what is normal, she is a very modern woman to her era, caring about prestige and enjoying life, as well as the falling away of boundaries between parent and child demonstrated in her way of being a completely open-minded parent with Charlie as well as with Karim. Eva is a woman with many ideas of how to spend life and how to help other people, but she is also interested in some more superficial aspects of life as it is social status and reputation.
On the other hand, there is a completely different character, named Margaret Amir. She is Karim’s mother, and Haroon’s wife. She is a very shy, hard-working and compliant person. As Kureishi describes her, “a plump and unphysical woman with a pale round face and kind brown eyes” (Kureishi, 1991). Although she was born in England, she took over the Indian traditions because of her marriage with Haroon. She is a very submissive and compliant woman. She would put her family first always, and she is the one in charge of keeping her family together. A proof of this is her job in a shoe shop to finance Allie’s school, who wants to become a ballet dancer.
Although she is aware of her husband’s extra-marital affair with Eva, she makes no mention of it whatsoever. However, she expresses her pain and deepest feelings by drawing pictures and writing a personal diary. When Haroon leaves her, she utterly comes undone. The reason it is so devastating to her when Haroon leaves is because her sole identity was as a wife and mother, even if she was unhappy in the role. She stays with Ted and Jean and withdraws from daily life, which means that she fails at trying to cope with her problems. She spends several days without getting up from her bed nor eating any food after the separation, assuming her life was over. She not only felt that she lost Haroon, but Karim too, as he was aware of the affair and betrayed her by not telling her. Also, Karim grew a lot closer to Eva, and in a way replaced Margaret with her.
Fortuitously for her, in the end, she is able to deal with her past and the previous events. She learns to be happy again and she even starts a new life with her boyfriend Jimmy, which makes Haroon regret or at least doubt the decision of leaving her for Eva, especially after finding out that he is an Englishman and has not the same traditions and interests that he has.
We can define Margaret as a sympathetic character stuck in an unhappy marriage. She has a weak personality, but starts to become more confident after she recovers from the painful divorce. She also re-casts herself after she is abandoned by Haroon, both in her appearance and in her attitude to life. Ultimately, the divorce proves to be an advantage, as she is able, once she recovers from the devastation of the failed marriage, to find happiness as an individual, and love herself the way she is.
Still, Margaret is, in fact, what we can define as a typical English woman of that period. Even though the 1970’s were an era of many changes and positive improvements for the feminine gender, several women were used to do things in a certain old-fashioned way, like being the ones who took care of the house, raising their children with conservative values, not talking about sex, alcohol, or drugs with them (something Eva was keen on doing regularly), having a regular job, and accepting that their major success in life would be to get married and have children, and after that, they would be their only duty. That is exactly how, in my point of view, Margaret is and intends herself to be. She is a conservative and serious woman, who does not believe in her own happiness above her family’s. Fortunately, she learned to give more credit to herself and accept herself in the way she is, and be happy again.
To sum up, these two women are the perfect depictions of two completely different women living in the same era. In the one hand, there is Eva, whose goals and achievements are to make herself an excellent reputation and win prestige, even if that means leaving the quiet life in the suburbs and move to a more noisy London. And, on the other hand, there is Margaret, whose goal in life is to get married and have children, and never think of having to leave the suburbs, because life is simple the way it is there. They are also different in several other things, for instance, their way of loving. While Margaret is a typical wife who shows her love by her daily actions, Eva is a much more passionate and sexual individual. Moreover, as it was previously mentioned, their way of parenting is completely different, and while Margaret is closed-minded, Eva is the complete opposite. Last but not least, differences are also found in the purpose of their job; Eva started working to make a name for herself while Margaret started working in order to pay her son’s education. Hanif Kureishi succeeded in describing two types of women (along with many more in the book) who coexisted in the same era despite their differences, and helped to show a more unique and varied society.