The Buddha of Suburbia | Study Guide

Hanif Kureishi

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The Buddha of Suburbia | Context

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Autobiography

Hanif Kureishi was principally intent on portraying the effects of racism on its targets, and his focus was on family, the one he knew best. The autobiographical basis for The Buddha of Suburbia is widely accepted. The refutation of the novel by Kureishi's immediate family members is confirming evidence. Rafiushan Kureishi, strenuously objecting to the portrayal of Haroon Amir in the novel, did not speak to his son for nearly a year after its publication. Although Kureishi's mother has complained that he misrepresented the family—that she had never worked in a shoe factory and that the family was of higher social class than the Amirs—she forgave him. Kureishi, however, remains estranged from his sister, Yasmin, who in press interviews has described The Buddha as a transgression of privacy, a representation of the family "for the entertainment of the public or for Hanif's profit." Clearly, the portrayals in the novel were too close for anyone's comfort. In the novel, Changez and Karim have a conversation on the problem of art and whether it should fully reference an individual life, which is relevant to this real-life strife.

Besides the narrative parallels between the Kureishis and the Amirs, the novel vividly evokes 1970s Britain. The behavior of specific characters provides quick sketches of the prevailing "social currents." Charlie Kay in his Charlie Hero persona is the epitome of punk rage. Allie's success as a clothing designer, his style and his cohort, personifies the materialist generation of the 1980s.

The outrage of racism and violence are personified as well. When Helen's father, the racist "Hairy Back," attempts to bully Karim to keep him from dating his daughter, he yells, "We're with Enoch." He's referring to Enoch Powell (1912–98), a Conservative member of Parliament whose urgent anti-immigration stands ignited longstanding racial tensions. In his 1986 essay "The Rainbow Sign," Hanif Kureishi describes his experience of racism and, pointedly, Enoch Powell's pernicious brand. In this polemical essay Kureishi calls for a "new way of being British": one that recognizes "that post-war immigration transforms an exclusive, monocultural understanding of British identity to an inclusive multicultural one."

Realism and Farce

Alongside the realism operating out of characters and situations, there are stretches of farce in The Buddha of Suburbia: broad and surprising comedy that reveals the absurdity of a situation. The reader is driven to a state of self-consciousness by the outrageous nature of a narrative situation or simply a description. Tension-intensifying laughter traps readers with its incongruity—placing side by side ideas that may be bizarre, discordant with each other, or inappropriate. The immediacy of farce does not allow readers to use denial or rationalization to resist its humor. Readers are stuck with a living truth—revulsion at their own inappropriate laughter. A vivid example occurs with the encounter between the character Helen's Great Dane and Karim. Rather than the bathing slobber typical of the breed or the attack commanded by Helen's father, "Hairy Back," the dog embraces Karim from behind and ejaculates all over his jacket.

This play on transgressive affection—the kind that crosses boundaries—is compounded by the suggestion of ambivalence when Karim recalls his erotic fascination with famous men with pronouncedly hairy backs. Helen's father's racism is repellent, yet because of his hairy back he is at the same time curiously attractive to Karim. Karim's mixed feelings raise the question of who, in fact, holds power and under what circumstances.

A simple description of ordinary behavior reaches the level of farce in Chapter 1 when Karim considers Haroon's yoga practice and provides verbal irony as commentary as well. Inappropriate and incompatible terms collide when Karim compares his father's body to that of the average Englishman. Here Karim's ambivalence with respect to identity emerges as a matter of race and class as he compares the two physiques with pride.

Characters who use vulgar language provide another commentary on race and class. The diction, or word choice, of the character Marlene Pyke is a parody of middle-class liberalism. Her ordering Karim to the fridge as though he were a servant reveals her well-meaning and not necessarily well-practiced democratic values with respect to race and class. In Part 2, Chapter 16 Karim retaliates, playing on the radical, middle-class sympathies of the Pykes to extract a substantial contribution from Matthew Pyke for Terry's Marxist agenda.

Writing about Racism

The Buddha of Suburbia addresses how the violence of racism affected the Indian immigrants who were a visible minority in Great Britain's major cities by the 1960s. The novel successfully broke a silence that enabled a generation of following writers to take up the trials of racism from the point of view of its victims. Realism and farce, taken together, constitute a strategy and style for Kureishi's groundbreaking novel. He employed realism and farce to negotiate the violence of "Empire attitudes," that is, the attitudes of the British who thought they were superior to Asian immigrants. In the novel familiar currents of pop culture and aspects of domestic life present a credible, realistic setting, and farce invites the reader to laugh over serious matters—that is, to take in the violence without the denial that makes particular brands of racism possible.

Certain types of diction, moreover, participate in denial of brute reality. "Paki bashing," for example, is street vernacular of the 1970s for street violence, gratuitous attacks by roving groups of working-class white men on people who appeared to be Indian. Kureishi's stated goal for the novel was to make visible the "casual racism" pervasive in British culture at the time. Kureishi's postcolonial, coming-of-age novel displays, beyond the ordinary self-doubt of middle-class youth, a full range of the specific issues of race and class that a traumatized population must negotiate.

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