The Buddha of Suburbia
The experience of being a woman
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.
Redefining the Relationship Between Colonial Margin and Metropolitan Center in ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’
Societies are formed by a mixture of several cultures and people from different countries, as well as cultural backgrounds. But in some cases, the unity of society gives way to culturally hybrid societies that causes identity problem and creates ambivalence and in-betweenness in the inner and social life of individuals. This hybridity discusses the rising of new transcultural forms occurred by the impact of colonization and can even be associates with the work of Homi K. Bhabha, who states that ambivalence gives a description of the complex structure of attraction and repulsion. Therefore, the relationship between colonizer and colonized is characterized by the concept of hybridity. Moreover, it is defined as ambivalent since the colonized subject can never completely resist to the colonizer.
As multiculturalism is not a new phenomenon in European history, neither are its literary and artistic manifestations, where the suburban and metropolitan novel The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi, lies in escaping the limitations of postcolonial ethnicity dictated by the immigrant condition. In this novel, ambivalence and in-betweenness of the hybrid identities in multicultural Britain is represented through the main character Karim where his cultural mixture in terms of social, ethnic and even national identity seems to be mistreated and even swallowed by his pride to find somewhere he can belong to. Thus, in what ways has Hanif Kureishi sought to redefine the relationship between the colonial margin and the metropolitan center?
Firstly, what makes the novel so valuable is Karim portrayed as a middle-class Indian-Pakistani boy who cuts into the ambivalent experience of Britain’s South Asian community. From the beginning, Karim does not give the impression to be particularly interested in his own heritage, but shows a strong desire to escape the shabbiness of the suburbs, where “people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness” (Kureishi 1999, p.8) The novel is presented from a raced perspective through Karim’s consciousness, while being the son a British woman called Margaret and an Indian father called Haroon. He is not only together with his father’s Indian friends, Anwar, Jeeta and their daughter Jamila, Karim’s best friend and sexual partner but also with his unhappy and alcoholic British relatives Jean and Ted. In addition, it is important to mention that it is full of humorous depictions of racial identity confused or in some way multiple (Indians who want to be more English and English people who find satisfaction in the rejection of their ethno-centric British inheritance).
From the beginning of the novel we can depict Karim’s hybrid identity that causes ambivalence in his attitudes towards life and people, when he introduces himself at the very beginning of the novel: “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories.” (p.1) Through this statement he gives the first clue to the reader: his sense of incompleteness that escorts him through the whole story. Karim’s subversive actions are undefined and completely unsystematic. In fact, according to Glabazňa (2010, p.68), this is a fact that may not be the bet ground for anti-colonial politics and resistance, but is fully legitimate in a postcolonial world where any kind of subversive activity must necessarily dismiss all essentials as illusions, and “utilize instead its own fragmentation, ambivalence and indeterminism”.
Regarding his life in Britain, we can distinguish two opposite parts as center and margin: metropolitan and suburban together with multiple conceptions of England. Therefore, the image of the immigrant first trying to assimilate and fulfil the expectations of the host country and then rejecting this role to look for his origins is, according to Karim, the problem of “The immigrant condition” (p.64) and the creation of identity on the margins of society. As his world is full of class and racial tension, he is caught in a society that either patronizes or accepts the other, provided that the other responds to mainstream assumptions and to commercial notions of exoticism. For Karim the multicultural freedom offered by life in the city is based on the possibility of undoing stereotypes; however, it involves the humiliation of being labelled as “ethnic” or the minority. Nevertheless, over the course of the novel Karim learns to suffer and tolerate any indignity that might help him succeed and escape suburbia. For instance, as an actor he states that he wanted the part, whatever part it was. (p.139) On the contrary of what it may seem, Karim does not want to conform but to be different, because he craves adventure and cannot wait to be elsewhere.
When he left his suburban world, he became aware of the dangers of entering a strange territory, especially after meeting Eleanor, he decided to move up the social ladder by losing not his Indian accent, like his father did, but his suburban one. (Zas Rey 2004, p.99) Lured by the fantasy of glamorous, bohemian metropolitan world, Karim – as well as his suburban friends – are desperate to escape to the city in search of the posh artists’ world of central London, at all costs.
As a matter of fact, he exhibited how difficult it is for a person of color to elude the prejudice imposed on himself, when Shadwell (the theater director) with his cultural racism sees Karim as the perfect actor to portray Mowgli in The Jungle Book theater production. As a consequence, Karim is appalled by the idea and tempted to come back to the suburbs where he belongs, yet the offensive implications of playing such undignifies role disappeared soon. This role is a clear attempt for Karim to appear ‘more Indian’ on the stage with his accent and covered “in the brown muck” (p.146) even asking him to hiss like the snake who saves Mowgli’s life. In this way, Kureishi reflects the cultural racism of white society. The director himself claims the he has been casted for authenticity not for experience (p.147). Both Shadwell’s caricature of an Indian accent and his choice to stage such a product of colonialism as Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, as well as the misconception of Asians as caricatured, “exploited immigrants constitute ordeals which Karim has to undergo in order to leave the suburbs and improve his career and life”. (Zas Rey 2004, p.100) But there is another interesting aspect behind this: Karim was the one who chose the artistic career to avoid the destiny of half-cast in England (Kureishi 1999, p. 141). Notwithstanding, it is quite ironic that Karim gains respect and a new identity through being an actor of Asian stereotypes in the metropolis.
Following Kureishi’s line of thought where he plays with this notion of representation, Pyke (another theater director) asked the group of actors – which Karim belonged to – to “’concentrate on the way [they] think [their] position in society has been fixed” (pp. 168-169) In this way, Pyke shows us how he understands the world: divided into binary groups (oppressors-oppressed, master-slave, colonised-coloniser).
On the other hand, Karim and his father enjoy the benefits of being different, because Haroon managed to achieve success by selling exotic ideas of the spirituality and wisdom of the East to the “disenchanted British middle-class”. (Zas rey 2004, p.74) Consequently, even Karim is surprised when Haroon hisses his s’s and exaggerated his Indian accent, that he tried to suppress for so long, “trying to be more of an Englishman, to be less risibly conspicuous” (Kureishi 1999, p.21) In this way, Karim and his father utilize different forms of orientalist stereotypes and server them to the British public in exchange for cash, at first, but putting into a subversive play this whole history of British colonialism. Hence, Graham Huggan’s opinion regarding this issue becomes quite relevant: “Minorities are encouraged, in some cases obliged, to stage their racial/ethnic identities in keeping with white stereotypical perceptions of an exotic cultural other” (Oĝuz 2013, p.1177)
Moreover, the novel is full of other examples where the characters play with this in-betweenness. To mention some: when Haroon suggested that his English wife should wear a sari to be less English and ‘more acceptable’; when Ted anglicized Haroon by naming him ‘Harry’; when Karim or ‘Creamy’ renamed Jean and Ted to ‘gin and tonic’ (the typical and well-known British colonial drink).
Briefly, as Kureishi makes clear, the characters decide to fraudulently – or not, in some cases – exploit the obsolete oriental colonial conceptions of the East by adopting a false identity (as the Buddha of the suburbs), and these performances can be seen on one level as parodies of white expectations and, on another, as demonstrations of the performative basis of all identity formation and process.
Finally, when Karim decides to return from New York – where he experienced the true actor’s life and fame, as well as a sense of belonging because of Manhattan’s open space liberates the individual from his imposed artificial background – there is a very specific moment where he refers to his next role in a soap opera that “would tangle the latest contemporary issues: […] racist attacks, the stuff that people lived through but never got on TV” (p.259) Thus, it is quite intriguing that even after he managed to become more famous and recognized by his previous roles as an actor, he still had to perform as an Indian shopkeeper that would go through these ‘contemporary issues’.
After four years of questioning where he belongs, Karim manages to locate himself in relation to ‘here’ and ‘there’ by turning his own created ethnic identity to his advantage. His quest for self-identity manages to fuse the two sides (English and Indian, city and suburbs) which together constitute his essence. But the notions of whiteness as “holly and blackness [as] satanic” (Oĝuz 2013, p.1282) is the pure result of hybrid identities – biologically and culturally – that turned out to show in this story the permeability of class divisions and the new possibilities of social mobility in postwar Britain.
Kureishi managed to redefine the relationship between the colonial margin and the metropolitan center in this novel because not only it traces the tenacity and power of class distinctions, as the main character is constantly confronted with the differences between his roots; but also, it presents the possibility of undoing stereotypes – for instance, in New York – to conform an ambiguity which stresses the value of identity and location.
GLABAZŇA, R. (2010). THEATER OF IDENTITY: THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA. Silesian University in Opava. Moravian Journal of Literature and Film 2, no. 1, pp.65–77.
KUREISHI, H. (1999). THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA. London: Faber and Faber Editions
OĞUZ, A. (2013). AMBIVALENCE AND IN-BETWEENNESS IN HANIF KUREISHI’S THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA AND DORIS LESSING’S VICTORIA AND THE STAVENEYS. The Journal of Academic Social Science Studies, Volume 6 Issue 3(6), pp.1175-1183.
ZAS REY, S. (2004). PICARESQUE AND ROMANCE IN GOLDEN AGE SPAIN AND POSTCOLONIAL BRITAIN: A COMPARATIVE STUDY. The University of Hull.