The Buddha of Suburbia | Study Guide

Hanif Kureishi

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The Buddha of Suburbia | Themes


The themes of The Buddha of Suburbia are interrelated. The different ways in which racism operates across individuals and social groups intersects with how ambivalence complicates and modifies racial and class identity. And finally, the interplay between racism, ambivalence, and transgression, or crossing boundaries, in diction and narrative generates an interactive experience for the reader. The novel demonstrates the indignities and trauma inflicted by racism to individuals and to humanity at large.

Racism and Assimilation

Forms of racism are as various as the people and groups they target. In the novel overt racism is obvious in the violent menace of Eleanor's protégé Heater, who likely himself experiences class prejudice and condescension as Eleanor pushes his interests. At the same time, he threatens Karim Amir out of envy and repugnance for an interracial involvement. Potential violence is also the threat of Hairy Back, who fears Karim's interest in Helen. Subtler is the behavior of the white liberal theater folk. Jeremy Shadwell and Matthew Pyke exploit Karim's appearance in contrast to the violent men who reject it with racist slurs. Eleanor's attraction to men of color seems to be a contrary version of her color blindness to demonstrate worldliness. British author Zadie Smith (b. 1975) comments on Jamila's notion that her teacher wanted to "eradicate" what was foreign in her. This notion of assimilation by education as threat to authentic identity is not an issue in Karim's view. In a biracial family such a development would be natural: general education and colonization may indeed have some overlap. For Jamila, who prizes a multicultural, multifaceted worldview, assimilation is a threat.

Haroon worries that he will be taken for Pakistani and attacked on the streets. Haroon, a Muslim, arrived in London in 1950, just three years after Partition, the division of India into current-day India (for Hindus) and Pakistan (for Muslims). His identity as Indian is lifelong; he does not consider himself Pakistani. He does consider himself somewhat of an internationalist. He works to recover his Indian accent and advertises his recently established Buddhism. Still, he cannot find his way around London. He is hardly British though he has wishes for assimilation for his sons.

Haroon's worry about being identified as Pakistani is also the reminder that for the racist, all people of color look—or are—the same. Haroon as a potential victim imbibes that identity. His rational fears leave him no choice. Anwar is equally worried when the population of Penge begins to change and the grocery is targeted. Economic competition and lack of familiarity compound his fears. Jeeta, under the tutelage of her daughter and with the help of her son-in-law, is able to successfully adapt.

Ambivalence, Attraction, and Racism

Perhaps the most successful aspect of the novel's anti-racist position is the recognition that in a culture of binarism—one in which white is good and black is bad—ambivalence is seen as weakness or confusion. In contrast, the ability to make up one's mind, or to be one pure thing, is a virtue. A culture of us versus them feeds racism. The novel, however, provides many instances of ambivalence and a muddling of conventional oppositions in its characters. They are not confused; rather, they experience truths or points of equal value side by side. The most obvious is Karim Amir's easy—at least for that time—bisexuality.

Less clear is Karim's odd rumination about the attraction of men with hairy backs after labeling Helen's racist and repulsive father "Hairy Back." Kureishi, a self-proclaimed dedicated follower of Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), may be alluding here to the forbidden nature of sex as part of the attraction. That is, in changing times and with Karim's openness to sexual experimentation, repulsion could well be part of attraction. Lots of hair, which in the 1960s suggested liberation and sexual freedom, was very much a positive attribute. Power, moreover, is invested in the figure of the virile white man, and Karim, a small and physically beautiful brown man, is drawn to the figure of power even as he is assaulted by it. Desire and repulsion, then, are two sides of one very thin coin.

This attraction of power is basic to ambivalence of another sort. Karim is accused of racial self-hatred by Tracey, a member of the acting company Karim joins. In binary thinking, the dark figure who lacks power recognizes his color as a signifier of powerlessness. The "black is beautiful" movement of the late 1960s in America and Britain aimed to put to rest the notion of black self-hatred. Karim, as he rejoices in himself and his potential, seems immune to racial self-hatred. Although he is typecast as Mowgli and initially horrified at his skimpy costume, he recovers to enjoy the exposure.

Likely the most common example of ambivalence, of conflicting notions resting together, is the overt racism of Karim's Auntie Jean and the milder version seen in Uncle Ted. They both dote on their mixed-race nephew. Ted is in debt to Haroon's good advice and spiritual tutelage without being able to correct his wife's antipathy to her Indian brother-in-law. Jean seems somewhat assuaged by calling Haroon by the anglicized "Harry," and Ted does the same. At the same time, Ted is devoted to and involved in the Amir household and to the Kay-Amir household as well. Readers needn't generalize from these mixed loyalties but may accept the incongruity that racial hatred and family love can exist side by side.

Transgression and Perversity

According to British novelist and critic Zadie Smith (b. 1975), "perversity is the central sensibility of The Buddha of Suburbia." She finds perversity in Karim Amir's rudeness, his queerness, and his "refusal to play it straight." Transgression, the crossing of moral boundaries, lies at the core of fear of racial mixing. Although Britain saw a steady increase in interracial marriage in the 20th century, it was not always accepted. Ethnic rivalries and occasionally public objections would erupt in the suburbs south of London in particular.

Farce and bad behavior go together in The Buddha of Suburbia. Whether it takes the form of Anwar's death by dildo, Marlene's request for ice to cool off hot love, or the ejaculation of Helen's Great Dane, characters' misbehaviors and the author's crude language operate as critiques of sexual morals and the effects of racism on its targets. The two forms of ignorance, sexual and racial, are often paired to constitute a moral argument. Even schoolboy pranks are enlisted as part of the game, as when one of Karim's teachers has a heart attack in the classroom when one student puts another's penis in a vise. Gratuitous violence, physical or emotional, is at the center of narratives of transgression like The Buddha of Suburbia. Kureishi's accomplishment is to mix transgression with outrageous, farcical stories to create political commentary.

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