Title: The Buddha of Suburbia
Author: Hanif Kureishi
I recently saw an interview on France 24 with Hanif Kureishi discussing his writing. I remembered that I had one of his books, The Buddha of Suburbia, which I decided to read again. Funny how one’s impression of certain books is influenced by so many other factors: one’s age; current emotional state; country of residence; reviews read about the book…This one felt like a completely new book to me. I can’t even remember the last time I had read it. This time it resonated a whole lot with me. Maybe it is living in France, and that feeling of always looking in being the observer; or it is watching the French tackle multi-culturalism; or maybe even raising my children in a country that is not their own. Whatever it was, I loved how Hanif Kureishi’s observations on multi-culturalism in the UK then, circa 1970s, remain just as relevant now.
Kureishi’s protagonist is Karim, a sexually ambivalent teenager born of an English mother and an Indian father. Karim considers himself an Englishman, and despite racist encounters in his South London neighbourhood, he carries himself with a devil-may-care attitude that sees him carrying this same nonchalance towards his studies; towards the need to fit in, and towards his muted rebellion against conformity. His life is thrown into turmoil when his father, Haroon becomes something of a guru in his town – under the encouragement of Eva, a social climbing character with ambitions to take their ‘show’ beyond their immediate world. Haroon becomes the Buddha of Surburbia, hosting soirées organised by Eva, meditating on the need for people to desire less, as a means towards more fulfilment, and falling in love with another woman. Set in the seventies, perhaps at a time when alternative beliefs were becoming avant garde, Haroon’s and Eva’s popularity grows, ultimately resulting in Haroon leaving his wife to live with Eva.
Intermingled in all of this is Karim’s attraction and dalliances with Charlie – Eva’s teenage son; with Jamila, Karim’s cousin and best friend being forced into an arranged marriage; with Haroon moving in with his father and subsequenlty entering into the world of theatre through Eva’s introductions, and with a small re-awakening towards the potential he has to become a star, albeit typecast as an Indian – a characterisation he has never truly identified with.
Kureishi’s book is a hilarious look at the life in South London from the point of view of a mixed-race teenager. It touches on the discontent that permeates the middle class life and their search for spirituality, thus buying into Haroon’s guru sessions; and the marginal voices of those expressing their discontent with the status quo. This latter one is seen through Jamila’s rebellion, by going along with an arranged marriage but refusing to honour it in any real form; through Karim’s fellow actors in their impotent protests against both the racism they perceive in the theatre world, and in their fight against the ‘establishment’.
It is a hilarious satirical view of a changing London during the seventies; the pretentious art and theatre world; perception of gay relationships; the social climbing, and moreover the struggle of the immigrants to integrate in a constantly evolving multi-cultural society.
I vaguely remember some elements of this book from the first time I read it, but I enjoyed it a whole lot more the second time around. Being somewhat obsessive when it comes to writers whose writings I enjoy, I ordered a copy of Hanif Kureishi’s first novel; Love in a Blue Time. I am expecting delivery in the next couple of weeks. It’s been a month long wait, but I’m looking forward to it.