The peculiarities of Karim Amir’s identity Thesis
Updated: May 9th, 2019
Karim Amir is the protagonist of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, and all the situations and characters of the story are presented from Karim’s perspective.
Hanif Kureishi discusses a lot of significant social issues in his novel such as racism and interactions with the representatives of different social classes with references to the characters’ attitude to these questions and with depicting their inner struggles and searches for the personal, cultural, and social identity and belonging. From this point, the problem of Karim’s identity is one of the most controversial aspects of the novel.
Karim Amir was brought up in the family of the Indian immigrant Haroon, and his mother Margaret was the English according to her origins. Thus, growing in the atmosphere of the British suburbs near London, Karim always experienced the difficulties with identifying himself because his vision of his culture and identity was opposed to the visions of the people who surrounded him.
Karim’s search for his personal and cultural identity and his inner conflict
The problem of Karim’s identity is introduced at the first pages of the novel when the young boy describes himself. Thus, Karim states, “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”1.
The readers are inclined to pay attention to the word ‘almost’ and to the character’s emergence from two ethnicities. This statement accentuates the fact that Karim predominantly considers himself as the Englishman, but the peculiarities of his origin do not allow determining his ethnical and cultural identity strictly. He is not just the Englishman, but ‘a funny kind of Englishman’.
This position of Karim in relation to his identity is influenced by the peculiarities of his origins and by the public’s attitude to the representatives of the ethnicities which are different from the English one. In spite of the fact the author draws the readers’ attention to the fact of Karim’s ironical position according to his ethnicity and complex feeling of identity, it is possible to focus on Karim’s dissatisfaction with his status because of the stereotypes developed in society.
The protagonist’s inner conflict is emphasized with the help of Karim’s describing himself when he indicates, “Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs”2. It can seem that Karim does not proud of the fact that he was born and brought up as the Englishmen, but the development of the situation supports the progress of the inner conflict because being the real Englishman is the only way to shift the social position and overcome the effects of the racial prejudice.
Moreover, Karim is inclined to express rather negative comments on his own actions and behaviors which accentuate the development of the inner conflict. Karim states that he is “always the voyeur” or he is “a real bastard inside”3. The conflict is not expressed intensively, but it can explain the logics of Karim’s actions and opinions.
Karim’s search for his personal and cultural identity begins from his rejection of the traditions which are typical for the peaceful suburban life. The protagonist tries to explain his dissatisfaction with the opportunities provided in the suburbs with the help of stating his origin, “perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored”4.
That is why, he hopes to find the answers to the questions of his identity in the city where there are a lot of different opportunities. Karim is intensively involved in the search of his identity, and he is ready to a lot of experiments which can help him to understand himself. Associating this point with the problem of boredom, Karim states “I was looking for trouble, any kind of movement, action and sexual interest I could find, because things were so gloomy, so slow and heavy, in our family”5.
What is Karim’s attitude to his cultural background? Karim identifies himself as the Englishman because he was brought up in Britain, he speaks English and behaves like the Englishman. Moreover, he does not know the language of the Indians, he has never been to India, and he does not follow the religion of his father. The only cultural elements which connect Karim with the Indian cultural heritage are his preferences according to the spicy food and yoga.
That is why it is possible to concentrate on the idea that Karim feels himself like the Englishman, and he is rather distant from the Indian culture and he does not belong to the Indian ethnic heritage because the British surroundings affected the young boy significantly. However, it is also impossible to reject the impact of the Indian roots which influence with the help of Karim’s everyday interactions with his father, Jamila, and her family.
Understanding the peculiarities of the Englishmen’s attitude to the representatives of the other ethnicities, Karim tries to determine his own identity which is too complex and cannot be explained by the color of his skin according to which he is perceived in society. Hanif Kureishi portrays Karim as a person who is inclined to change his identities several times during his life because of the social impact and under the definite conditions.
Identity is a phenomenon which develops under the impact of different factors and with references to the person’s age6. That is why, the process of Karim’s complicated search for identity and its changing is reasonable. If Karim is depicted at the first pages as a person who is in search and ready for experiments, the boy is discussed in the last part of the novel as an individual who has learnt deep feelings, not only experiments of various kinds, and he supposes, “perhaps in the future I would live more deeply”7.
Karim’s position in society and the issue of racism
Karim desired to leave the suburbs and move to London because he wanted to change his social status. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of the social status of immigrants of the first and second generations depends on various components. Thus, in spite of the fact Karim belongs to the second generation of immigrants, and he does not consider himself as the Indian, the Englishmen are inclined to see the ‘other’ one, non-Englishman, in his personality.
Moreover, non-Englishness is also associated with a kind of prejudice and even social discrimination which is based on a lot of stereotypes. Karim understands that he will never be considered as the real Englishman because of his roots and the color of skin. This understanding of the differences between the Englishmen and the others is the part of his self-identity.
The young boy experiences the first signs of racism and discrimination at school. Thus, he “was sick to of being affectionately called Shitface and Curryface, and of coming home covered in spit and snot and chalk and woodshavings”, and moreover, Karim was happy to “to get home from school without serious injury”8.
The conflict between Karim and the people who surround him is complicated with the fact Karim feels himself like the Englishman, but he is rather indifferent according to this point because he experiences a lot of situations which connect the boy with his Indian roots. In spite of Karim’s father ideas and the boy’s own desires, the system of education is also based on the elements of the social prejudice.
Karim’s school education should not be opposed to the public’s expectations and attitudes toward the immigrants. Furthermore, Karim is personally oppressed by the parents of his ‘white’ friend Helen because they discuss him as unequal to their daughter. From this point, the author describes the complex picture of the social interactions between immigrants and the Englishmen at the territories.
The family of Karim belongs to the lower middle class that is why it is useless to hope for changing the situation, especially with references to their status of immigrants. However, the members of the family do not give up hoping and try to realize the social shift with the help of moving to London. Karim sees a lot of opportunities in this situation, but then he realizes that the distance between the upper classes of London, the world of art and him with his dream to become the actor is too significant.
Karim is perceived in any society as the Indian because of the obvious differences in his appearance. This fact provokes many facts of racism during his childhood and determines his social position during the youth and adulthood. Nevertheless, Karim is actively ready to admit the peculiarities of the other people’s behaviors and their customs in order to be close to the interesting and important people culturally and socially.
Karim’s vision of many aspects of the personal relations and social activities is rather progressive, and this flexibility helps him to feel more comfortable while interacting with the representatives of the other cultures and social classes. On the one hand, Karim’s flexibility in relation to his identity is beneficial for him because of providing a lot of opportunities for the social shift. On the other hand, Karim suffers from his hybrid identity because of his desire to live the life of the English star, but not of the ordinary Indian immigrant.
That is why, when Karim begins to interact with the upper social classes and has the relations with Eleanor he tries to hide any possible differences which can prevent him from communication within this class. Karim is different not only because of his appearance but also because of his accent.
When Eleanor pays attention to Karim’s accent he states that “at that moment I resolved to lose my accent: whatever it was, it would go. I would speak like her”9. Thus, it is more important for Karim to adapt to the peculiarities of the surroundings and get rid of the differences which prevent him from integrating to the new community than to preserve his identity.
Nevertheless, Karim cannot get rid of the color of his skin that is why his social identity is closely connected with the boy’s experience as an actor. On the one hand, the role of Mowgli is considered by Karim as the possibility to start his career. On the other hand, the proposition of this role is the evidence of his differences from the other ‘white’ people.
Hoping to get the roles because of the talent or definite skills, Karim understands that he can expect only for getting the roles because of his appearance. It is stated in the novel that the young boy is “cast for authenticity and not for experience”10. Karim’s ambitions are challenged by the reality of the world of actors and directors, and there is also the significant and influential social stratification in it.
From this point, Karim has to act the roles of Indians because he is limited by a lot of social stereotypes which are developed at all the stages and in all the spheres of the social life. It is even possible to speak about identifying the figure of Karim with the character of Mowgli according to the aspects of their survival in the strange surroundings.
People are inclined to develop stereotypes in relation to the different ethnicities because they usually divide the society into their group and the others. Such a division is the first step to the progress of the ethnical or racial prejudice which can even result in discriminating actions against the representatives of the ‘other’ ethnicity11.
All these issues are rather challengeable for immigrants, and Karim experiences all the stages of the prejudice while studying at school and then working as an actor. Karim’s ethnicity becomes the significant factor for the development of his further career because the young man’s professionalism is not discussed as the influential aspect for determining the roles for him, and Karim has to act appropriately, according to the expectations of the directors.
Karim experiences all those kinds of prejudice and stereotypes in the world of acting which he hates in society. The public expects this Indian boy to be the good Mowgli, but the things which can connect Karim with Mowgli in this situation are the color of the skin and ethnicity with which Karim does not identify himself because of his bringing up as the Englishman.
That is why, discussing the role of the Indian in the British society with references to the role of Mowgli, Karim states, “everyone looks at you, I’m sure, and thinks: an Indian boy, how exotic, how interesting, what stories of aunties and elephants we’ll hear now from him. And you’re from Orpington”12.
The roles of Indians which are got by Karim in the future reflect only the appearance of the young man, but it is not interesting for directors to observe Karim’s talent and address to his experience as an actor. The ethnicity and the social belonging of Karim become the factors of his social and professional discrimination, and they accentuate the man’s line as an actor to perform exotic Indians at stage and in films.
Karim’s sexual identity
The sexual identity is also the necessary part of the personal identity which can influence the individual’s perception of himself and of the other people. Moreover, the peculiarities of the sexual orientation can be discussed in society as significant for developing the certain stereotypes and biases. Those people who experience definite troubles with their sexual identity can reflect the peculiarities of their inner world because they do not perceive themselves as the mature personalities13.
The notion of identity has a lot of sides and the issue of the sexual identity is one of the most important aspects for determining the personality as the whole with all its desires and inclinations14. Karim’s sexual identity is also the hybrid of his visions of sexuality and his perceptions of men and women. There are no strict differences for him in the fact of having the sexual relations with women or men because his attitude to the sex is not mature.
Sexual relations are discussed by Karim as a kind of an experiment in order to reduce the feeling of boredom which follows him everywhere. All the young man’s sexual relations are based on the desire, passion, and the sexual interest, but not on some deep feelings as love.
In spite of the fact Karim says that he loves Eva’s son Charlie, his attitude to the man depends on the interest in the figure of Charlie as the remarkable personality which has the impact on Karim. Moreover, Charlie is the sexual object for Karim, and he expects that his relations with Charlie can help him to get rid of the boredom of the life in the suburbs.
Sexual relations are the important problem of the novel because their depiction is necessary for presenting the characters’ attitudes to their personal identities. Thus, Karim has no strict visions of his sexual orientation. He is neither heterosexual, nor homosexual, and this detail accentuates the general aspects of the young man’s hybrid identity.
It is possible to speak about the search of Karim’s identity from several perspectives, and his sexuality is one of them. It is not significant for Karim to state himself as the strict homosexual or heterosexual because his sexuality and the lack of the identity in this field help him to adapt to the situations.
Karim has the sexual relations with girls when he feels some feelings and wants to express his emotions. Karim’s most deep feeling is also directed to the woman Eleanor. Karim and his friend Jamila also have the sexual relations, but they are perceived as the part of the friends’ relations because the boy and girl do not discuss them as serious ones, but only as the result of the physical desires.
Nevertheless, Karim’s sexual relations with Charlie also cannot be discussed only as the experiments because the boy feels the real admiration for Charlie. Karim’s sexuality can be also examined from the point of the social processes of the 1970s and be discussed as the reflection of the tendencies. However, it is more relevant to refer to Karim’s sexual identity as the reflection of his unstable cultural and personal identity.
Does Karim feel that his sexuality is perceived by the other persons as unusual? What is his attitude to the question? In the first part of the novel, Karim states, “it was unusual, I knew, the way I wanted to sleep with boys as well as girls”15.
Nevertheless, the development of the situations supports the idea this fact does not hurt Karim much, but only reflect his uncertainty in relation to the other aspects of his life. Thus, the young man cannot determine not only his sexual orientation but also his cultural and ethnical identity. These issues influence the whole life of Karim and make him orient in the world according to his emotions and feeling, but not according to his cultural, religious or ethnical peculiarities.
The features of Karim’s identity and the culture of his father
The peculiarities of belonging to the definite culture or place affect the person’s style of living because he is often inclined to organize the life according to the peculiarities of the culture, historical development of the ethnicity, its customs and traditions. From this point, cultural customs and certain traditions are extremely important for everyone because they connect the person with the roots and surround him or her from the birth16.
Nevertheless, sometimes the ethnicity and the conditions of the bringing up are not associated to each other. This situation can be discussed as rather problematic for a person with the reference to the question of someone’s identity. The feeling of belonging to the place or to the definite culture is significant for people because the understanding of this fact gives them a kind of support17.
Immigrants of the second generation can have a lot of difficulties with identifying themselves in relation to the question of their ethnicity and culture because they are brought in the environment which do not reflect the peculiarities of their origins. The conflict of identities is stimulated by the absence of similarities in the appearance of the representatives of different races or ethnicities18.
Moreover, the conflict can be affected by the differences in identities of the parents as the first-generation immigrants and of their children as the representatives of the immigrants of the second generation.
Is it possible to state that Karim belongs to the culture of his father Haroon? The answer is negative because Karim does not strictly discuss himself as the Indian. Thus, the young man is rather the ‘unusual’ Englishman, but not the Indian. Moreover, Karim does not identify himself in relation to the definite religious views, and he cannot state that he is the Muslim. The language of his father is also unfamiliar for Karim because there is no necessity in using it in that environment where Karim lives.
The impossibility to present himself as the Englishman and be perceived in society as the representative of the British circles make Karim suffer from his uncertain identity. Nevertheless, he also has few similarities with his father in relation to the cultural and ethnical identity.
In spite of the fact Karim as his father uses the differences in the race and culture in order to earn money and win the position in the society, the young man is more frustrated with the results of his life because his appearance does not reflect his feeling of being the Englishman when Haroon behaves and acts according to his identity and his perception of himself as the Indian. The examples of Haroon and Karim help to understand the differences in the identities of immigrants of the first and second generations.
Discussing the peculiarities of Karim’s belonging and identity, it is possible to note that he refers to belonging to the suburbs where he was brought as the place rather than to any definite culture or ethnicity19. The peculiar features of the suburbia surroundings influenced the boy’s vision of the world more intensively than the aspects of his culture.
That is why, Karim does not feel himself belonging to the Indians. Nevertheless, the understanding of the personal identity can change during the life under the impact of various factors. The death of Anwar is the influential factor for Karim’s rethinking the problem of his identity, but it is almost impossible to start perceiving the world in a different way with references to the aspects of the cultural identity when the previous experience accentuates the other visions and ideals.
The fact of Anwar’s death helps Karim to think over his non-Englishness and remind him the peculiarities of his cultural and ethnical roots, but it does not change Karim’s uncertain identity. The one point which is realized by Karim is the idea that he belongs to the suburbs, but the understanding of his belonging is affected by a lot of different and problematic situations. Thus, once Karim states, “I wanted to run out of the room, back to South London, where I belonged, out of which I had wrongly and arrogantly stepped”20.
The life experience and background help Karim to realize the fact that his belonging to South London and suburbs is the one stable thing in his life, and the other sides of his identity are rather uncertain. Furthermore, Karim does not want to belong to London, but he states that it would be better when the city belong to him with providing a lot of the opportunities for his personal and professional development.
The comparison of the identities of Karim and Jamila
Karim and Jamila are the representatives of the second generation of immigrants that is why their perception of their identities differs from the identities of their parents because the fathers of Karim and Jamila suffer from living at the British territories and having strong cultural connections with their native territories. Karim and Jamila have no such connections, and they can analyze their ethnicities only with references to the public’s perception.
Karim’s identity is the mixed variant of the British and Indian traditions with references to the fact that the British traditions are close to Karim because his was brought according to them and his knowledge on the Indian culture is limited by the stories and visions of his father. Moreover, the family of Eva and Haroon has few similarities with the families of the Indian culture, and it is oriented to the British society with references to the culture and intentions to occupy the higher social positions.
The situation in Jamila’s family is quite opposite because her parents follow the traditions of their nation. However, Jamila as well as Karim does not feel her belonging to the Indian culture. The peculiarities of the Jamila and Karim’s surroundings make them suffer from the facts of prejudice and discrimination, but according to their own visions of their identities, the boy and the girl can be discussed as the cosmopolites who do not belong strictly to this or that culture or tradition.
That is why, the situation when Anwar imposes his will on Jamila and makes her marry a man according to the tradition of the arranged marriages is discussed by Karim and Jamila as a kind of oppression. Nevertheless, Jamila perceives her new role as the way to demonstrate her definite social, political, and personal visions when Karim cannot admit the situation at all because all these customs are rather strange for him as for the man who grew in the society where the main accents were made on the personal independence.
Karim’s feeling of identity is the complex combination of his attitudes to his origins, roots, the perception of his figure within the society, and his reaction to the issues of prejudice and discrimination. Moreover, the young man’s personal identity is complicated by his uncertain sexual orientation which he cannot determine as homosexual or heterosexual.
Trying to make the shift from the lower middle classes to the upper classes of London and then of New York, Karim feels frustration because of experiencing a lot of situations when he is discriminated due to the color of his skin. The young man feels himself as the Englishman, but he understands that he differs greatly from the other Englishmen, and the peculiarities of his life are based on the concept of the ‘otherness’.
Identity as the phenomenon develops during the whole person’s life, and Karim’s perception of his identity also changed, but it did not acquire the definite form or peculiar features. From this point, Karim’s identity cannot be determined strictly, and it depends on the aspects of the origins, bringing up, and surroundings.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. USA: Routledge, 1994.
Childs, Peter. “Introduction: Colonial History, National Identity and English Literature”. In Post-Colonial Theory and English Literature: A Reader, edited by Peter Childs, 1-31. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
Dion, Karen K., and Kenneth L. Dion. “Gender, Immigrant Generation, and Ethnocultural Identity.” Sex Roles 50, no. 5-6 (2004): 347-355.
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”. In Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Padmini Mongia, 110-121. USA: Arnold, 1996.
Hashmi, Alamgir. “Hanif Kureishi and the Tradition of the Novel.” Critical Survey 5, no. 1 (1993): 25-33.
Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. USA: Faber Paperbacks, 2000.
Moore-Gilbert, Bart. Hanif Kureishi. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.
Stein, Mark. “Posed Ethnicity and the Postethnic: Hanif Kureishi’s Novels.” In English Literatures in International Contexts, edited by Heinz Antor and Klaus Stierstorfer, 119-139. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 2000.
Thomas, Susie. Hanif Kureishi: A Reader’s Guides to Essential Criticism. USA Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Yousaf, Nahem. The Buddha of Suburbia: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2002.
1 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia (USA: Faber Paperbacks, 2000), 3.
2 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 3.
3 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 37, 104.
4 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 3.
5 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 3.
6 Alamgir Hashmi, “Hanif Kureishi and the Tradition of the Novel”, Critical Survey 5, no. 1 (1993).
7 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 284.
8 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 63.
9 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 178.
10 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 140.
11 Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (USA: Routledge, 1994).
12 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 141.
13 Karen K. Dion and Kenneth L. Dion, “Gender, Immigrant Generation, and Ethnocultural Identity”, Sex Roles 50, no. 5-6 (2004).
14 Stuart Hall,“Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, in Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Padmini Mongia (USA: Arnold, 1996).
15 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 55.
16 Peter Childs, “Introduction: Colonial History, National Identity and English Literature”, in Post-Colonial Theory and English Literature: A Reader, edited by Peter Childs (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999).
17 Susie Thomas, Hanif Kureishi: A Reader’s Guides to Essential Criticism (USA Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
18 Bart Moore-Gilbert, Hanif Kureishi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001).
19 Nahem Yousaf, The Buddha of Suburbia: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Continuum, 2002).
20 Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, 148.
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