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The Buddha of Suburbia

by Hanif Kureishi

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The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
© Penguin
Penguin, 1991

Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia is a multi-layered novel of place, race, and sexual exploration. It is at once a comedy and a coming-of-age story that chronicles the tangled affairs of a single Indian family in London during the 1970s.

Or rather, to the city's suburbs, because, as indicated by the novel's title, this is where the story begins. The unlikely Buddha in question is Haroon Amir, an Indian man who came to London from Bombay some 20 years prior to study law and ended up a clerk in the civil service. A doctor's son, Haroon knew great privelage in Bombay and was set adrift upon his arrival in London with Anwar, the best friend of his boyhood. He found his anchor in Margaret, a pretty, working-class girl from the London suburbs. And that is where they settled to raise their two boys, Karim and Allie.

At 17, Karim, the narrator of Kureishi's story, is up for anything - music, drugs, sex - these are the currency of the times and the tonic for the confusion that is his own identity. So when Karim's father begins to parlay his Indian heritage in the adoption of the persona of an Eastern mystic, an enlightened yogi who deigns to grace the appointed homes of London suburbanites with meditation sessions, Karim, though he derisively calls his father "a renegade Muslim masquerading as a Buddhist," is happy to accompany his father on his nocturnal excursions, particularly if it means seeing Charlie.

To say that Karim, sexually-ambivalent as he is, has something of a crush on Charlie, is an understatement. In Karim's words, Charlie is "a boy upon whom rapture had breathed such beauty - his nose was so straight, his cheeks so hollow, his lips such rosebuds - that people were afraid to approach him, and he was often alone. Men and boys got erections just being in the same room as him; for others the same effect was had be being in the same country."

Charlie is the sone of Eva, a woman Haroon met at a "writing for pleasure" class in the upstairs room of a pub. Charming, sophisticated and, in no small amount, pretentious, Eva orchestrates Haroon's "performances," arranging the homes at which he will appear and the guests who will be invited. She is, in effect, Haroon's handler.
And so something of a suburban soap opera unfolds amongst these players - Haroon and Eva, Karim and Charlie - and other families. Anwar, the childhood friend of Haroon's, married Jeeta soon after their arrival in London. She is an actual Indian princess, whose family rode on horseback to their wedding, and who now sits each day freezing with fingerless gloves to tend the cash till at Paradise Stores, the grocery Anwar bought in South London. To Karim, she is Auntie Jeeta, the mother of Jamila - or "Jammie" - who, though like a cousin to Karim, becomes another sexual partner, a relationship complicated by Jammie's arranged marriage.

The Buddha of Suburbia is a novel in two parts. The first part fills the stage and sets up the complex interplay of these characters. In the second part, Kureishi moves the stage to central London where, as relations between these characters evolve for both good and ill, the author drives the novel more deeply into themes of race and class, along the way evoking a transportive sense of time and place. “London seemed like a house with five thousand rooms, all different; the kick was to work out how they connected, and eventually to walk through all of them.”

The real exploration that takes place within these pages is through the loves, frustrations and betrayals interweaving this colorful cast of characters. The Buddha of Suburbia won the 1990 Whitbread Award (now the Costa Book Awards) for Best First Novel and was thereafter made into a miniseries by the BBC, for which David Bowie recorded the soundtrack.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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