The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi – an Analysis
Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia is not simply a maturation story; it is a maturation story painfully compounded by the protagonist’s ‘hybrid’ or ‘multi-cultural’ heritage. Discuss some of the obstacles that Kamir Ali faces in his journey toward maturity and self-knowledge. What do these obstacles tell us about English society at the time?
Part Bildungsroman, part state-of-the-nation novel, The Buddha of Suburbia is a maturation story, but Kamir’s mixed race background tells us a lot about English society in the 1970s. Whether it is correct to say that his story is ‘ painfully compounded’ [my italics] by his heritage is another matter: this is a broadly comic novel and, while parts of English society are shown to be racist, Kamir himself is very rarely the victim of acts of racism – we tend to hear from other characters about racist incidents – and, by a certain section of English society, Kamir is treated as a desirably exotic Other because of his hybrid heritage. It gives him advantages and legitimacy in the circles in which he is moving by the end of the novel. Of course, Karim’s hybridity is not just a question of his mixed race background, but embraces many other things: his bisexuality; his sense of being an outsider because he lives in the unfashionable outer suburbs of south London; his complex relationship with Islam – complex not because Karim finds it complex, but because he is faced with conflicting examples of what it means to be a Muslim in 1970s Britain. This paper will argue that Karim does not achieve maturation at the end of the novel and that the process of growth that he undergoes in the novel is not ‘painfully compounded’ by his hybridity: it is enhanced by his hybridity and the liberality of the artistic and intellectual circles he moves in by the end of the novel.
Karim’s bisexuality might be an obstacle in some societies, but it causes him no problems in the England of the 1970s. He puts the problem very light-heartedly when he comments early in the novel about liking boys and girls. He says: “I felt it would be heart-breaking to choose between one or the other, like having to decide between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.” (Kureishi p. 55) This is not to say that his love-life is smooth and happy: he is upset that Eleanor does not reciprocate his feelings towards her and he feels violated after the bizarre party with Pyke and his wife, but it is not Karim’s bi-sexuality in itself that causes these problems at all. He gives every impression of being happy with his sexual identity and his promiscuity. Indeed, in the second half of the novel, he moves in social and artistic circles where both men and women want to sleep with him because of his exotic hybridity, so we can hardly argue that his sexual maturation is ‘painfully compounded’ by his hybrid heritage. People might sleep with him for the wrong reasons (just because he is of mixed race), but Karim does not seem to mind – in fact, he likes to be promiscuous and sexually inventive.
Carey (quoted in Thomas p. 72) stresses the racial obstacles that Karim confronts and argues that the novel takes place against a back-drop of a racist England:
Violence, then, was a necessary and integral element of Karim’s internal and external landscapes. Punks, swastikas, shit and burning rags shoved through Asians’ letter boxes, piss-heads, bums, derelicts and dealers, rockers, skins and leather chains, racist graffiti and pigs’ heads thrown through Muslim shop windows are woven into the fabric of the text in a nightmarish, fetish-like fashion. Anarchy and revolution loom threateningly.