The Buddha of Suburbia | Study Guide

Hanif Kureishi

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The Buddha of Suburbia | Symbols



Karim Amir dislikes the suburbs for their particular brand of commodity culture, where shopping for domestic goods is the prized pastime. In the first chapter he takes on suburban values with verbal irony when he notes Haroon Amir is as proud of his chest "as the neighbors were of their kitchen range." Karim longs for London, where he imagines anonymity is achieved, in part, by costume. To dress in the style of the moment is to be classless. Race doesn't count if you are in hippie garb or punk rock gear. You have achieved an identity separate from one given at birth. Karim is focused on clothing as presentation of self. Wherever he is, he identifies individuals by how they dress. He believes that in London, race and class are transcended by a change of clothes.

The distinction between presentation of self and authentic self may be noted in Karim's description of Eva Kay when he meets her at the door when she welcomes Karim and Haroon, and then later in the garden where Karim sees Eva undressed. At first, focused on her kaftan, her wild hair, and her makeup, she appears to him as "either the most sophisticated person I'd ever met, or the most pretentious." Later, something closer to the truth is revealed in her missing breast and joyful "bouncing" sexuality.

Karim himself takes three changes of clothing to prepare for the night out at Eva's, which reflects his paralyzed self-consciousness and his shifting sense of identity—a projection of others revealed when Eva admires his "exotic" look. His casual response indicates the difference between what he feels and what he reveals. The importance of dress in contrast to the naked facts also offers a moment of low comedy. In the attic at Eva's, Karim masturbates Charlie Kay after Eva's son advises Karim on how to dress. Karim is equally grateful for the advice and the sexual opportunity. Haroon, on the other hand, clearly understands the importance of dress as performance of identity. He wears suits and well-matched shirts and ties to work in London; he shifts from the grey corduroy pants and black turtleneck for his first "appearance" at Eva's to the Indian pajamas and silk waistcoat for his second "guru appearance." Uncle Ted and Auntie Jean make the social error of appearing "dressed for a wedding" at Carl and Marianne's, where the rest of the guests are in modified bohemian array suitable for lounging on cushions on the floor.

In the final chapter of the novel the matter of dress and identity is summed up and addressed generationally. Haroon has been persuaded by Eva to wear his Nehru jacket to a celebration of Karim's return. Dressed in that fashion, Haroon—Karim believes—will be treated as though he were Indian royalty. "Little Allie," Karim's younger brother, is a commercial success. He is a clothing designer, and he is surrounded at the restaurant gathering by beautiful models. All's well that ends well as Haroon and Allie are reconciled and social status reinvented—with a new equity in the system mocked by a now-familiar situational irony. Haroon, once the son of a well-established Indian family, sports a jacket that is a reminder of an old system of British values. During the Raj (British rule of India, 1757–1947), only aristocratic Indians were socially acceptable to British rulers. Haroon's jacket is of the style worn by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), and reserved in India as formal attire for the well-placed Indian. Karim, headed for a career as a character actor, is comfortable performing his hybridity in his new role, and Allie has achieved success that trumps heredity as a measure of class. He is the unselfconscious hybrid, a new Brit, an icon of the materialist culture of the 1980s.

Social Mobility and Place

Just as a constellation of signifiers for dress inform Karim's sense of identity as performance, the nature of place, the physical location of London's suburbs and neighborhoods, symbolizes Karim's ambitions. Eva is Karim's social mentor. Her successes in restoring and decorating old flats in gentrifying neighborhoods reveal her ambitions. Karim is like her in wishing to move up into a world of intellectual and sensory stimulation. With Ted and Eva he acquires the skills needed to bring old houses up to fashionable standards. Just as Karim intuitively develops sensitivity to clothing style and social groups, he learns how homes reflect lifestyle—a grand category that includes social groups who tend to congregate in communities of the like-minded. As Eva moves from the suburbs to the city, she attracts artists and academics and other professional types. She knows what she wants; the suburbs are merely a place to leave.

Karim envisions the same for himself as not merely the ambiance of Eva's homes improve, but her social circle grows increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse. Initially, his dream is pure adolescent fantasy about London. Still, his incisive attention includes awareness of the neighborhoods of London and their distinctive populations. He has left school, but he is still studying.

Karim's attention to the details that matter begins in Part 1. In the progression from the suburbs to the city and the range of options London offers, Karim's tastes develop alongside his ambition. Unlike costume, these lists are not so much about performance of self as they are about a developing sensibility in a world of choices. He comes to know himself by studying other lives. He clearly recognizes menace as part of life in the poor suburbs where working-class whites and diverse people of color struggle against each other for a piece of the economic pie.

The other side of menace, however, is the political activism these neighborhoods breed. Jamila's and Terry's activisms are survival strategies and important rebukes against what doesn't work in poor neighborhoods.

"Moving up," a term that describes Eva's social climbing, is less apt for Karim. For him, moving up becomes a sorting of value. A step up from Bromley is the wealthier suburb of Chislehurst, home to Eva, Auntie Jean and Uncle Ted, and Helen. At this early point in his attention to place, he is in suburbia and caught up with material signs of social status.

Karim does move up from the suburbs to the city but turns to circle back from the Pykes' elegant modernist digs and the stereotypically grand Manhattan lifestyle on Central Park South to home. The visits to the Pykes serve as reality tests for Karim, and the events at Central Park South and his rescue by Charlie Kay become the turning points in his journey. After Karim's first visit with the Pykes and his sexual experience with the couple, his awe of the surroundings turns, literally, cold.

Karim's first trip to New York reveals the "innocent transgressions" of the rich and famous. In terms of moving up, he can't get much higher. He arrives for a cast party at an appropriately grand apartment on Central Park South. The home of a former academic and "enthusiast for the ethnic arts" is a repository of ethnic artifacts and the scene of an exploitive performance of ethnicity by five black dancers. Karim is out of place—and out of body: "It made me feel like a colonial watching the natives perform." In this moment, as an observer rather than a performer, he is renamed, a projection of the ignorance of supposedly smart people; he was not in charge of his own identity.

Karim's journey moves full circle. Working-class racism is physical—Paki bashing and feces in letter boxes—while upper-class violence is exploitative. Preferring the stereotype to the individual, white racism reduces or erases the individual. Karim thus begins his emotional turn to London and the racism he knows. He returns refreshed by a sense of himself and most importantly by a sense of humor. He is not a victim of racism and the projections of uninformed others. In his new work he has accepted a role in which his race is a part of his performed identity. He is in control. Also, London is a safe place where he can be known authentically among friends and family who inhabit familiar neighborhoods and stable places in each other's hearts.

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