The Buddha of Suburbia | Study Guide

Hanif Kureishi

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The Buddha of Suburbia | Part 1, Chapter 5 : In the Suburbs | Summary



Karim Amir, who seems to sleep little, describes his nights avoiding studying for his exams and immersed in what he calls "another world." It is the world of Western culture: the music he listens to, the books he reads, the contemporary journalism with its accounts of resistance to past history and attention to the riotous present. His nights at home often involve blue pills (speed) and spicy tea.

After one such long night, he heads for Jamila's. She has a problem: Anwar's promise of his daughter to a man significantly older than she and about whom little is known except that he is fond of reading Arthur Conan Doyle. Karim rides his bike and surveys his situation, beginning with his recognition that both his father and Anwar, as they age, are "returning internally" to India while neither is intent on actually going back. At that moment he spies his father, his face wrapped in a scarf, talking in a phone box (telephone booth). Karim immediately assumes that his father is talking to Eva Kay, and when confronted, Haroon Amir admits he is in love. Karim learns in that exchange that his father is deeply troubled by concerns about his relationship with Eva. Similarly, Jamila is confronted by problems of the heart that Karim has vowed to help her solve.

En route to Jamila, Karim bumps into Helen, who is very glad to see him, although while in her presence he can think only of the assault of her amorous dog. He also encounters Charlie Kay. Charlie's rock group, Mustn't Grumble, is on the verge of success. After rebuffing Karim's show of affection, Charlie discloses that his father, who had been confined to a "head hospital," is preparing to go home and reunite with Eva. Charlie also acknowledges his parents' failing relationship and expresses the hope that Eva and Haroon might be together. Karim, pleased by the new information, entertains the appealing thought that "incest" would be his pleasure should Charlie become his brother.

Jamila's problems, however, are paramount. Jamila, Helen, and Karim decide to visit with Haroon and ask him what to do. Haroon proposes that people should live by their intuitions, with "real desires." He notes that unhappiness is the outcome of living by principle. Selfishness is part of happiness. Furthermore, he acknowledges that all people live in conflicts between pursuing happiness at the expense of others and serving themselves. With that, Karim understands that his father is going to leave the family. It remains unclear what choice Jamila would make.


Karim thinks about his father and Anwar, both well-settled into the habits of English life and still turning toward the past in their attitudes: Haroon taking up Eastern philosophy and Anwar choosing to live or die with the patriarchal attitudes of his Indian past. All of the transplanted Asian and mixed Asian/British characters face ambivalence, which Haroon comes to define as typical of the human race. Karim discovers his own ambivalence entrenched by daily experience. He cites particularly the racial and sexual violence that he suffers and comes to expect at school and in the streets of the South London suburbs.

For Jamila and Haroon the conflicts are rooted in tradition; the conventions of their Indian culture in conflict with their present lives have created excruciating, life-defining choices. Haroon, it would seem, has made his choice in adopting Buddhism as a source of comfort and conviction. Jamila, however, is faced with a tragic choice. Helen, along for the ride while Karim and Jamila seek answers, has the easy responses of a privileged white girl whose confidence is evident in the clarity of her opinions.

Meanwhile, Karim is lighthearted in his recognition of his options. Reveling in his bisexuality, he notes that he doesn't have to stress over which gender he chooses as a partner when he leaves a party. In his growing appreciation for his father's choices, he seems to be looking forward to what had initially filled him with dread: his father's desertion of the family.

Thus Karim's adventures create windows of opportunities—ways he may come to see himself as a true product of the liberation values that make him a character of his time and place. Haroon's westernization is complete and, oddly enough, rationalized by his Buddhist ethos but manifest in his decision to leave his family and take up with Eva, his soul mate. Karim is the new hybrid, giving himself over entirely, it would seem, to Western ways. In his easy promiscuity, his bisexuality, his love of western culture—books, music, politics—he is given over to the racy culture of 1970s London. There is little sign in him of an inheritance of Indian manners and morals. An obsession with spicy Indian teas and love of family are the immediate remains of his genetic inheritance. The contrast is Helen, the white, English girl whose categories are stable and who sees the world of choice, for better and worse, in black and white.

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