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Embracing Suburbia: Breaking Tradition and Accepting the Self in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia

Nathanael O’Reilly

In the preface to her recent interview with Hanif Kureishi, Susie Thomas claims that his body of work (which includes drama, screenplays, novels, short fiction and essays) is “the most wide-ranging and significant” produced in England during the past quarter century, and goes so far as to claim that Kureishi “has irrevocably altered the English self-image” (3). In Simon Frith’s analysis of Kureishi’s semi-autobiographical debut novel The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), he declares that it is “the most incisive suburban fiction of recent times” (271). Although Kureishi is unquestionably a significant writer and in many respects an innovator, The Buddha of Suburbia continues a lengthy tradition of British literary engagement with suburbia and contains many traditional and stereotypical representations. It is fitting that Kureishi examines London suburbia, since it was in London that the first modern suburbs developed during the eighteenth century (Ball 20). As the suburbs grew and multiplied, British writers used suburbia as both a setting and a subject, usually depicting it negatively. Suburbia quickly came to be identified in the public consciousness with the working class, and, more commonly, the lower-middle class.[1]

In Coming up for Air (1939), George Orwell describes a suburban road as “a prison with cells in a row. A line of semi-detached torture chambers” (Qtd. in Webster 2). Orwell’s disparaging attitude towards suburbia is part of a long tradition within British literature that originates in the nineteenth century, if not earlier (Webster 2). Rita Felski describes Orwell’s early fiction as “devoted to a ruthlessly detailed portrayal of the English lower middle class of the 1930s … The same landscape reappears in novel after novel, enfolding and stifling its inhabitants in the death grip of mingy decency. It is a world of identical small semidetached houses stretching into infinity” (35). Linking Kureishi’s novel to Orwell’s negative depictions of suburbia, Felski notes that “the petit bourgeois structures of feeling mapped out” described by Kureishi “are remarkably similar to those described by Orwell” (37). In categorizing the protagonist Karim Amir’s family as lower-middle class, Felski notes father Haroon’s occupation as a civil servant and mother Margaret’s position as a sales assistant (26). Felski argues that in Kureishi’s depiction, being lower-middle class “is still … marked by respectability, rigidity, and gray routine … [Kureishi’s novel contains] the same guilt about money, anxiety about status, and fear of the neighbors’ disapproval” as Orwell’s fiction (37).

The negative attitudes towards suburbia that Orwell and Kureishi depict persist widely in contemporary British culture. Dominic Head argues that many novelists continue to disparage suburbia, and that British literature has failed to recognize suburbia’s “sociological importance” (“Poisoned Minds” 72). In his recent survey, The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction, 1950-2000, Head acknowledges “the dramatic spread of suburbia” (209) and its influence on fiction, noting that British cultural connotations of the term are mostly negative:

Perceived as embodying a world-view, the “suburban state of mind” can be ridiculed, consigned to the intellectual margins, just as its actual physical space notionally occupies the urban margins. In the popular imagination, then, suburbia is Middle England; it is preoccupied with shopping and cars; it breeds narrow attitudes, and wears naff styles; and it is mystified by artistic endeavour. (213)

Head goes on to argue that British novelists “have played their part in establishing suburbia as an object of ridicule,” concluding that negative depictions of suburbia are problematic, since commentators tend to accord suburbia “a central place in the explanation of twentieth-century experience” (Cambridge 213, 214). Head describes post-war British fictional engagement with suburbia as consisting of stereotypical representations of suburban life that depict it as “deadening, unimaginative, [and] representative of a low or restricted common denominator” (Cambridge 218). As Simon Goulding notes, “The role of the suburbs in English fiction is usually that of a pejorative space.” Head questions whether suburban life can really be as homogenous as British fiction suggests, arguing that “a more diverse culture” actually exists “beneath the surface uniformity” (Cambridge 218). Moreover, Roger Silverstone argues that suburbia is central to contemporary culture and that understanding suburbia is an integral part of the project of understanding everyday life in contemporary industrialized and industrializing societies (“Introduction” 3; “Preface” ix).

In addressing the lack of cultural significance accorded to suburbia, Roger Webster states that it is usually understood in opposition to another zone, such as the country or city, and occupies “a space as much defined by what it is not as by what it is, constructed by difference and imitation rather than possessing innate and original features” (2). Susan Brook notes that the stereotype of suburbia “as homogenous and conformist is pervasive, not only in popular culture but also in contemporary literary and cultural criticism” (209). Brook notes that suburbia is represented as “the (often demonized) other of city life: safe where the city is dangerous; conformist where the city is heterogeneous; monotonous and enervating where the city is diverse and stimulating; the site of heterosexual family life where the city opens up the potential for sexual experimentation and possibility” (209). Like Head, Brook posits that false representations of suburbia as a homogeneous zone serve to conceal difference (212). In his essay entitled “Deep South,” Ged Pope argues that suburbia has been “an enormously popular and successful metropolitan habitat” for its inhabitants, yet fictional representations have “mocked, despised, scapegoated and stereotyped” suburbia, depicting it as “remote, unknowable, philistine, standardised and insignificant.”

Much of the action of Kureishi’s novel takes place in the suburb of Bromley, where Kureishi was born in 1954. Bromley’s geographical location, approximately ten miles from London Bridge, lead to its inevitable development into a London suburb during the late nineteenth century (Childs 101).[2] The Buddha of Suburbia participates in a long tradition of British fictional engagement with suburbia, and includes traditional and stereotypical representations by presenting the suburbs in opposition to the city, describing suburbia as a site to be escaped, and including depictions of suburban boredom, conformity and consumerism. Nevertheless, Kureishi simultaneously breaks with British literary tradition and embraces suburbia, depicting it in an innovative manner by demonstrating that it is a dynamic cultural site where a new hybrid British identity is constructed.

Traditional Suburban Representations in The Buddha of Suburbia
Kureishi divides his novel into two sections, “In The Suburbs” and “In The City,” setting up a binary construction that seems to privilege the city as the more authentic cultural site. From the first page of the novel, the suburbs of South London are frequently depicted as boring, conformist and consumerist. Phillip Whyte reads Karim’s suburban environment as “mediocre lower-middle class” (153). Karim’s mother Margaret, a white Englishwoman, is a typical suburban housewife: bored, depressed, and neglected. Margaret works in a suburban shoe store, but is usually depicted at home, where she engages in domestic chores, watches hours of television each evening, wears “an apron with flowers on it” and repeatedly wipes her hands “on a tea towel” (4). Karim claims his parents would not consider getting divorced, because “In the suburbs people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness. It was all familiarity and endurance: security and safety were the reward of dullness” (8).

Although a more complex character, Karim’s father, Haroon, lives the stereotypical life of a suburban father, walking to the railway station, commuting to a boring job in the city, and coming home to an unhappy wife and indifferent children. Peter Childs argues that Haroon conforms “to the stereotypical image of the commuting Civil Servant whose suburban boredom has to be enlivened by exoticism and extramarital sex” (103). Although he is an immigrant from India, Haroon has lived in the suburbs of South London for fifteen years and adopted a suburban lifestyle. In accordance with British literary tradition, Haroon finds his suburban existence unsatisfactory. Annabelle Cone argues that Haroon “yearns to overcome … a loneliness derived from his inability to find happiness as an Indian immigrant in an English, middle-class, postwar, suburban, materialist culture” (262). Aware of his father’s dissatisfaction, Karim wonders why Haroon “condemned his own son to a dreary suburb of London” (23).

Although Karim clearly equates suburbia with boredom, he recognizes that his physical and social environment is not entirely to blame, and posits that the real cause may be his hybrid cultural and ethnic background: “Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored” (3). Karim links boredom to a lack of excitement: “I was looking for trouble, any kind of movement, action and sexual interest I could find, because things were so gloomy, so slow and heavy, in our family” (3). Although one could read Karim’s yearning for action and excitement as another stereotypical characteristic of suburban teenagers, Karim attributes the lack of excitement to his family situation. The extent to which suburbia causes his family’s unhappiness is a matter open for interpretation.

Another way in which Kureishi conforms to traditional portrayals of suburbia is by highlighting suburban consumerism. Karim claims, “They were fanatical shoppers in our suburbs … Saturday afternoons … [were] a carnival of consumerism as goods were ripped from shelves” (65). When describing the houses in the suburb of Chislehurst, Karim focuses on the physical manifestations of affluence: “The houses … had greenhouses, grand oaks and sprinklers on the lawn; men came in to do the garden” (29). Karim and his family are not above being impressed by wealth, despite his derision of other people’s consumerism. He admits, “It was so impressive for people like us that when our families walked these streets [in Chislehurst] on Sunday visits to Auntie Jean we’d treat it as a lower-middle class equivalent of the theatre. ‘Ahhh’ and ‘oohh,’ we’d go, imagining we lived there, what times we’d have, and how we’d decorate the place” (29). In this instance, Karim and his family dream of moving up socially and financially, not of moving out of suburbia, but rather moving across suburbia into a more affluent zone.

The most obvious and notable way in which Kureishi conforms to traditional representations of suburbia is by situating the suburbs as a site to be escaped, and the city as the cultural centre where freedom and excitement are found. According to Barry Langford, Kureishi’s novel follows “a long tradition depicting suburban life as unfreedom and dissimulation, a picture easily duplicated across innumerable treatments of suburbia” (64). Likewise, Childs notes that South Asian writing (a category in which Kureishi is often placed) often positions “suburbia … as a place to be escaped” (98). Having grown-up in Bromley himself, Kureishi admits, “being a suburban boy, I’ve never lost the romance of London: the idea of coming to London and it always being exciting and it always being dull in the suburbs” (Qtd. in Yousaf 16).

Karim repeatedly expresses his desire and intention to flee the suburbs for the city, stating on just the third page of the novel, “I always wanted to be somewhere else” (5), then three pages later, “It would be years before I could get away to the city, London, where life would be bottomless in its temptations” (8). For Karim, central London represents excitement, opportunity, glamour and freedom, whereas he equates the suburbs with materialism, conformity, racism, dullness and low expectations. Although Karim is not able to leave the suburbs until halfway through the novel, his surroundings constantly inspire him to do so: “it did me good to be reminded of how much I loathed the suburbs, and that I had to continue my journey into London and a new life, ensuring I got away from people and streets like this” (101). Childs claims that most English novels set in suburbia contain plots driven “by fears of incorporation, stagnation, and resignation” that “turn on the yearning of one or more characters to flee to the city” (97). In The Buddha of Suburbia, Karim, Haroon, Eva and Charlie all dream of fleeing the suburbs.

Karim believes that escaping from the suburbs into the city will solve his problems and bring him happiness. Before Karim migrates into the city, he notes that Eva and Haroon have been frequenting London, “going to dinners and parties with all kinds of (fairly) important people – not the sort we knew in the suburbs, but the real thing: people who really did write and direct plays and not just talk about it” (113). Clearly, Karim sees London as the cultural centre, and perceives the city-dwellers as a separate and unique group of people who are not just more sophisticated, but more proactive. In the last paragraph of the first section of the novel, before Karim moves out of the suburbs into the city, he lies in bed fantasizing “about London and what I’d do there when the city belonged to me” (121). Undoubtedly, Karim believes that the city will give him opportunities for happiness and excitement that suburbia cannot.

Culture, Complexity and Variety in Suburbia
Despite the fact that The Buddha of Suburbia conforms to traditional British literary representations of suburbia in numerous ways, close reading of the novel reveals that Kureishi’s depiction of suburbia is rather complex and not entirely negative. Just as negative and stereotypical depictions of suburbia are present throughout the novel, so are more complicated and nuanced portrayals. The narrative begins with Karim recounting the prelude to an unusual and exciting evening at Eva’s house, where Haroon appears for the first time in his role as “the Buddha of suburbia.” When Haroon arrives home from work, Karim states, “I could smell the train on him as he put his briefcase away behind the front door” (3); however, this mundane ritual of suburban life is followed by a deviation: Haroon kisses his wife and sons with enthusiasm, and then strips to his underwear and practices meditating. As the evening unfolds, Karim watches his father successfully perform as a spiritual leader to a roomful of bohemian suburbanites, witnesses his father having sex in the garden with Eva, and initiates a homosexual encounter with Eva’s son, Charlie. Thus, in Kureishi’s suburbia, an evening may contain Eastern mysticism, an extramarital affair, interracial sex, homosexual experimentation, and the consumption of both drugs and alcohol; this is hardly boring, conformist behaviour. Nahem Yousaf argues that in order for the protagonist to want to escape from the suburbs, Kureishi has to portray them as “sufficiently banal,” yet he also claims, “some of the most surreal scenes take place in Karim’s neighborhood. In suburbia, Karim undertakes an apprenticeship in how to be transgressive” (40). Thus, beneath the seemingly boring and predictable surface, Kureishi’s suburbia contains a plethora of exciting and transgressive possibilities.

In opposition to traditional British literary representations of suburbia, Kureishi depicts the South London suburbs as a location of culture. Not all suburbanites spend their evenings watching television, like Margaret; many are engaged in the production and consumption of culture. Haroon and Eva meet at a “writing for pleasure” class in Bromley (7). The popularity of Haroon’s “performances” is evidence of an openness and appreciation amongst suburbanites of both spirituality and foreign cultures. During their journey across the South London suburbs to Eva’s house, Karim and Haroon stop at the Three Tuns pub in Beckenham. Rather than lower-middle class after-work culture-deficient drinkers, Karim and Haroon find that

The pub was full of kids dressed like [Karim] … the boys, so nondescript during the day, now wore cataracts of velvet and satin, and bright colours; some were in bedspreads and curtains. The little groovers talked esoterically of Syd Barrett. To have an elder brother who lived in London and worked in fashion, music or advertising was an inestimable advantage at school. I had to study the Melody Maker and New Musical Express to keep up. (8)

Although the suburban boys perceive London as the cultural centre, they are aware of the trends and participate in the culture from suburbia. Karim’s fellow suburban teenagers are so culturally engaged and aware that he feels ignorant in comparison. Thus, suburbia, which may seem uniform and boring, reveals much beneath the surface. Clearly, the suburbs are not devoid of cultural opportunities and pursuits. Webster argues that suburbia’s homogeneity is a “superficial myth” obscuring behaviour ranging “from the discordant and bizarre to the comic and tragic” (2).

Moreover, most of the suburban characters in the novel are cultured and educated. Haroon and Eva are both avid readers and amateur writers. Charlie becomes an international rock star and cultural icon. Even as a suburban schoolboy, Charlie possesses a confidence and sophistication usually (falsely) associated with the city. Karim’s younger brother, Allie, is also quite sophisticated, reading fashion magazines in bed while wearing “red silk pyjamas” and “a smoking jacket” (19). Further, Allie intends “to become a ballet dancer and … [attends] an expensive private school” (19); he eventually finds work in the fashion industry. Two minor characters in the novel, Carl and Marianne, the hosts of one of Haroon’s performances, live in a suburban home filled with “books and records” and take “trips to India” (34). Kureishi’s suburbia is a long way from Orwell’s.

Although Karim clearly takes his cultural cues from London, especially in terms of music and fashion, it is in suburbia, at Eva’s house, that he has an epiphany regarding how he wants to live: “I could see my life clearly for the first time: the future and what I wanted to do. I wanted to live always this intensely: mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs. I hadn’t come upon it all like this before, and now I wanted nothing else. The door to the future had opened: I could see which way to go” (15). Ironically, Karim mistakenly believes that he has to escape suburbia to obtain the kind of life he has glimpsed there. It is not until late in the novel that he realizes that the city does not have a monopoly on culture and excitement and that they have always been present in suburbia.

Although they reside in suburbia, Karim and his father mock other suburbanites and their shallow consumerism. Karim notes that his Aunt Jean “always made everyone take off their shoes at the front door in case [they] … obliterated the carpet by walking over it twice. Dad said, when we went in once, ‘What is this, Jean, a Hindu temple?’ … They were so fastidious about any new purchase that their three-year old car still had plastic on the seats” (41). Head argues that Haroon’s mocking of Jean is an example of his exposure of “the spiritual emptiness of the suburbanites” (“Poisoned Minds” 82); however, while Head may be correct here, not all of the suburbanites in the novel are spiritually empty. Haroon is obviously a spiritual leader of sorts, and his followers attempt to add a spiritual dimension to their suburban lives.[3]

Many of the youth of Kureishi’s suburbia are deeply involved in popular culture, especially music. Much of the music referred to in the novel, such as that produced by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and David Bowie, is considered to be groundbreaking art of the highest order. Karim states, “It was easy to get most of the music you wanted from the shops in the High Street” (62); a journey into London is unnecessary. The suburban youth in The Buddha of Suburbia are active participants in various forms of culture. In fact, Langford argues that suburbia is the location from which “many subcultures originate” (65). Although most of the aforementioned artists are not usually associated with suburbia, they are certainly not associated exclusively with the city either. Clearly, the notion that suburbia lacks culture, or that culture can be contained in a geographic space such as the city, is absurd.

The first section of the novel, “In The Suburbs,” contains a descriptive passage that some readers may interpret as evidence of suburbia’s monotony and conformity. Karim, Helen and Jamila walk past “neat gardens and scores of front rooms containing familiar strangers and televisions shining like dying lights” (74). Such a description may be read as evidence of suburbia’s homogeneity and consumerism; alternatively, it may be read as confirmation of suburbia’s multiplicity. Karim goes on to describe some of the inhabitants of his suburb in detail:

Here lived Mr Whitman, the policeman, and his young wife, Noleen; next door were a retired couple, Mr and Mrs Holub. They were socialists in exile from Czechoslovakia … Opposite them were another retired couple, a teacher and his wife, the Gothards. An East End family of birdseed dealers, the Lovelaces, were next to them … Further up the street lived a Fleet Street reporter, Mr Nokes, his wife and their overweight kids, with the Scoffields – Mrs Scoffield was an architect, next door to them. (74)

Karim’s description reveals a tremendous amount of variety amongst the residents of a single street. At least five different occupations are present, as are three distinct age groups and a family from Czechoslovakia; such a community is hardly homogenous or boring.[4] Kureishi’s representation of suburbia does not simply replicate the negative stereotypes repeated throughout British literature since the nineteenth century; instead, Kureishi create a suburban environment filled with culture, complexity and variety.

London Calling: Karim’s Urban Encounter
The second section of the novel, “In The City,” begins with Karim moving to West Kensington to live with Haroon, Eva and Charlie in a flat Eva has purchased after selling her suburban home. Isaias Naranjo Acosta argues that Karim’s journey into London is a kind of pilgrimage (54). Indeed, Karim has long fantasized about travelling into the city and making his home there. However, he soon finds that the reality of the city is less appealing than the fantasy. Eva’s flat “was really only three large, formerly elegant rooms,” like “a derelict cathedral,” with “ancient crusty mouldings” and “sad walls”; “It was like a student flat, a wretched and dirty gaff” (125). Not only is the flat run-down, there is no bed for Karim and he must sleep on the sofa.

Karim’s migration from suburbia into the city is interpreted by Ball as “an escape from the inhibitions of adolescence to adult freedom” (23). However, before leaving Bromley, Karim led a carefree life with few responsibilities, and soon finds that life in the city is more difficult. Although London does prove to be different from the suburbs in many ways and provides exciting experiences, it certainly does not provide Karim with fulfilment or a strong sense of belonging. Almost immediately after arriving, Karim feels “directionless and lost” (126), “depressed and lonely” (128). Karim finds that the city is intimidating and occupied by “piss-heads, bums, derelicts and dealers” (131); crime and violence are more prevalent in the city than suburbia. Ball claims that London “represents all that is English” and “continues to project and to be associated with images of the old imperial city at the fulcrum of world culture and political influence … even as its infrastructure declines, its Empire vanishes, and its global stature withers” (15). The traditional notions of Englishness represented by London contrast with the emerging hybrid British identity represented by Karim, who finds that he is an outsider due to his suburban upbringing and race. Karim’s self-perception as an outsider is emphasized by the difference between himself and the kids from London, whose appearance Karim describes as “fabulous; they dressed and walked and talked like little gods. We could have been from Bombay. We’d never catch up” (128). Ball argues that both Karim and Charlie suffer from an “inferiority complex … [with] roots in a centre-envy they felt in the suburbs” (21).

Anthony Ilona contends that “Everywhere in Part Two of … [the novel] London is celebrated as a location of cultural diversity without the stifling tensions seen in the suburbs” (101). However, such an interpretation is simplistic and ignores the racist treatment that Karim is subjected to by the theatre directors Shadwell and Pyke. In fact, one could argue that the presence in London of many educated upper class people, usually white, creates an environment that is more homogenous and less culturally diverse than suburbia. The upper class individuals Karim encounters, especially Eleanor and Pyke, expect him to play the role of the lower-middle class “Asian” or “Black,” making it difficult for him to be himself. By playing a number of roles, both literally and figuratively, Karim distances himself from his suburban roots, and, for a time, loses himself. Ball argues that Karim’s move to London “becomes a local, miniaturized version of postcolonial migrancy and culture-shock” (21). If in London Karim finds the centre of English culture, he also finds that, according to traditional notions of Englishness, he is an alien from the margins. Karim’s London encounter teaches him that the educated, cultural elite can be just as racist and narrow-minded as the lower-middle class whites of the suburbs, if not more so. Alamgir Hashmi contends that although Karim initially sees the city as “a final escape and an achievement,” his experiences in the city teach him that “he has still further to go in search of that which will suffice” (29). Thus, London is not Karim’s final destination, but a layover on his journey towards accepting his true identity. Ultimately, for Karim, London does not prove to be a more satisfactory location than suburbia.

Get Back: Karim’s Journey to Self-Awareness and Acceptance
The Buddha of Suburbia begins in the present tense, with Karim establishing that he is about to tell the story of his personal development. The narration shifts to the past tense in the second paragraph, and stays there until the novel’s conclusion. Thus, both the audience and the narrator are aware that a journey has been completed before the narration begins. If Karim’s journey begins in suburbia and takes him to London and then New York, where will it eventually lead him? Head argues that Karim’s personal development “is predicated on his progression from the suburbs of South London to the metropolitan centre” (82). However, Karim’s journey continues beyond London, concluding with a metaphorical return to the suburbs in the sense that Karim comes to accept suburbia as his formative environment, in addition to an acceptance and knowledge of his own personal identity, which is representative of the emerging hybrid British identity. Stuart Hall argues that identity should be thought of “as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process” (234). Kureishi’s depiction of Karim’s identity conforms to Hall’s theory; not only is Karim’s identity constantly evolving throughout the novel, the narrative finishes with an open-ended conclusion, suggesting that Karim will undergo further transformations.

The narrative thread focusing on Karim’s journey towards recognition and acceptance of his suburban identity is noted by Head, who argues that although Karim’s journey might suggest “the need for the ambitious individual to exorcise the suburbanite from his or her soul,” the novel contains “an undercurrent which runs counter to the theme of escape, and which implies the need for suburban roots to be recognised” (“Poisoned Minds” 82). Likewise, Langford posits that interpreting the novel as a celebration of Karim’s escape is a “deceptively simple” reading, since Kureishi actually undermines such an interpretation (68). Head goes so far as to argue that The Buddha of Suburbia “might incorporate an implicit celebration … of suburbia’s role in fashioning a new cultural mood” (“Poisoned Minds” 82). Similarly, Webster claims that suburbia’s “growth and ever-changing identity” have made it “an increasingly significant producer … of culture” (5). Thus, not only does the novel contain recognition of the importance of Karim’s suburban roots, it also highlights the central role suburbia plays in the production of culture, breaking with traditional literary representations of suburbia.

In order to become fully aware of his identity, Karim must leave his formative environment and encounter people from other classes, social groups and physical environments. Thus, Karim’s move to London allows the city and its residents to function as a mirror in which Karim can begin to recognize himself. As the narrative progresses, Karim gradually becomes more aware of his suburban identity.[5] After Charlie and Karim witness their first punk performance, Charlie claims, “‘we’ve got to change,’” suggesting to Karim that their suburban identity is insufficient: “‘What are you saying? We shouldn’t keep up? That suburban boys like us always know where it’s at?’” (132). In response, Karim states, “‘We’re not like them. We don’t hate the way they do. We’ve got no reason to. We’re not from the estates. We haven’t been through what they have’” (132). Whyte mistakenly argues that “the shock … [Karim] and Charlie feel when first confronted with the contempt of the London punks” is a symptom of Karim’s “inability to situate his origins” (156). However, what the situation really reveals is that Karim recognizes his suburban identity and his relationship to other social groups, and acknowledges the privilege and comfort of a suburban upbringing.

During one of the encounters in which he is demeaned by Shadwell, Karim again demonstrates a growing awareness and acceptance of his suburban identity: “I wanted to run out of the room, back to South London, where I belonged, out of which I had wrongly and arrogantly stepped” (emphasis added) (148). Additionally, Karim attributes his scepticism towards Pyke to his “South London origins” (189), acknowledging that suburbia has played a dominant role in forming his cultural attitudes. Head argues that Karim’s maturation at the end of the novel is “rooted in an implicit recognition of his suburban roots” (“Poisoned Minds” 84). In a rare moment of insightfulness, Karim comments on Eva’s attempt to abandon her own suburban roots: “I saw she wanted to scour that suburban stigma right off her body. She didn’t realize it was in the blood and not on the skin; she didn’t see there could be nothing more suburban than suburbanites repudiating themselves” (134). Ball claims that Karim’s use of the phrase “in the blood” is “a deliberately outrageous appropriation of race-politics language” (22); moreover, Karim’s use of the phrase also serves to emphasize his growing awareness of the depths of his roots in suburbia.

From the very first line of the novel, Karim makes the audience aware of his hybrid identity: “I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories … Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere” (3). Karim immediately establishes that he does not neatly fit into rigid racial or national categories, while also acknowledging both his suburban identity and his desire to escape. Readers soon learn that in addition to being the English-born child of an Indian father and an English mother, raised in the suburbs of London, Karim is neither heterosexual nor homosexual, and adheres to no religion. Thus, Karim frustrates easy categorization according to the markers usually used by both governments and individuals, namely, nationality, race, religion and sexual orientation. The only category into which Karim can be neatly placed is that of “suburban teenager.” However, it takes Karim much of the novel to realize that the identity that best describes him, places the least restrictions on him, and provides him with the most freedom, is that of suburban.

Karim’s hybrid identity is created by a number of factors; however, the most significant factors are the suburban environment and the cultural attitudes of the generation to which Karim belongs. Ilona describes Karim’s generation as one that views identity “as a relational and mutable concept. Different identities are easily assimilable, easily performed” (101). Not only does Karim adopt and discard various identities, but so do his peers, such as Jamila and the appropriately-named Changez,[6] and, especially, Charlie. Hall’s notion of identity as process applies particularly well to all of the characters of Karim’s generation. Langford argues that Karim’s most recognizable characteristic is his ability to accommodate to “the difference of others,” an attribute that is “enabled by a significant under-investment on his part in the notion of a coherent self” (72). Mark Stein claims that The Buddha of Suburbia “disrespects conventional boundaries and refrains from placing its characters exclusively within one type of formation, be it an ethnic group, a cultural group or a class” (123). While Stein’s argument generally holds true, and many of the characters do not exclusively inhabit a traditional category, most of the characters could also be placed in a category labelled “suburban,” particularly Karim, Charlie, Eva, Haroon, Margaret, Jean, Ted, and Helen.

In his essay “The Rainbow Sign,” Kureishi argues that British identity is evolving, and that the British must learn to accept a new identity: “It is the British, the white British, who have to learn that being British isn’t what it was. Now it is a more complex thing, involving new elements. So there must be a fresh way of seeing Britain and the choices it faces: and a new way of being British after all this time” (Qtd. in Childs 105). Kureishi clearly incorporates these ideas into his novel, most notably by creating a protagonist who is a racial, cultural and sexual hybrid. Berthold Schoene claims that Kureishi’s “greatest achievement” in the novel “is no doubt his creation of Karim, who emerges as a radically deconstructive presence in a world obsessed with clear-cut definitions of cultural or ethnic identity” (117).[7] Schoene describes Karim as “a herald of hybridity, the carrier of a cultural potential based on intercommunal negotiation rather than multicultural definition, on individual being-in-flux rather than communal stereotyping or (self-)oppressive role-play” (17-18). Kureishi has also claimed that “England is primarily a suburban country and English values are suburban values” (Qtd. in Ball 20). In Karim, Kureishi combines his ideas regarding suburbia and British identity to create a character embodying both. Langford describes Karim’s adaptability as “suburban malleability” and argues that Kureishi uses Karim to celebrate “ambiguity and hybridity” (73). Childs concurs with Langford’s assessment of Kureishi’s project, arguing that in Kureishi’s writing, Britishness has been “reimagined from a monolithic to a variegated identity which itself has often been positioned in, and in terms of, suburbia” (92).

The Buddha of Suburbia concludes with Karim accepting an offer to “play the rebellious student son of an Indian shopkeeper” on a soap opera (259). When considering the offer, Karim notes that the show would have an audience of millions; he “would have a lot of money” and “be recognized all over the country” (259). Head notes that the soap opera represents “popular suburban culture” which is able “to adapt itself; to engage with issues of ethnicity and opportunity” (“Poisoned Minds” 87). It is appropriate that Karim, representative of the new hybrid British identity, should have the opportunity to become a household name though a suburban medium. Head concludes that Karim is “the embodiment of suburban multicultural identity” (“Poisoned Minds” 87). Kureishi’s representation of British nationality is, according to Ilona, “in direct contrast to essentialist notions” (89). Thus, Kureishi not only breaks British literary tradition by producing a complex and cultured suburban environment, he also eschews traditional, deeply rooted notions of British national identity and presents a model for a new hybrid British identity.


[1] Rita Felski argues that being a member of the lower-middle class “is a singularly boring identity, possessing none of the radical chic that is sometimes ascribed to working-class roots. In fact, the lower middle class has typically been an object of scorn among intellectuals” (34).

[2] Bromley “is also the birthplace of H G Wells, and the setting for some of his ‘suburban’ comedies: A History of Mr Polly, The New Machiavelli, and Tono–Bungay” (Pope). Frith describes Bromley as “the most significant suburb in British pop [music] history,” as it was the home of “the quintessential suburban star, David Bowie,” and the “Bromley Contingent,” which spawned both Billy Idol and Siouxsie and the Banshees (271).

[3] While the degree to which Haroon is a legitimate and knowledgeable spiritual leader is debatable, and the depth of his disciples’ devotion is also unclear, the salient point is that Haroon and his fellow suburbanites are open to spirituality and attempting to add it to their lives.

[4] Elizabeth de Cacqueray also reads the passage positively, noting that the placement of “the diverse side by side … becomes positive -– classes, nationalities, ages, professions are jumbled together in [a] way suggestive of tolerant co-existence and mutual acceptance” (168).

[5] Waddick Doyle argues that Karim defines himself as “suburban and upwardly mobile” (110).

[6] The character’s name is surely a nod to David Bowie’s song “Changes.”

[7] Wendy O’Shea-Meddour argues that the tendency of critics such as Schoene to focus on Karim has marginalized other characters in the body of criticism on The Buddha of Suburbia, and has also led to “the striking portrayal of women, masculinity, racism and Islam [to be] overlooked” (34, 33).

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To Cite This Article:

Nathanael O’Reilly, ‘Embracing Suburbia: Breaking Tradition and Accepting the Self in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 2 (September 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]