Written in 1990, Hanif Kureshi's Whitbread Award winning debut novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, is the story of Karim Amir or 'Creamy Jeans' to his friends, a bisexual actor of Pakistani and English descent, trying to escape from the boredom and smallmindedness of suburbia, into the big, wide world of London. Set in the Bromley and Anerley boroughs of The Big Smoke in the 70's, The Buddha of Suburbia is essentially a late 20th century coming-of-age story, a period of life made harder for the protagonist by the pervasive racism of a society that blames immigrants for the ills of the nation.

It was turned into a TV series by the BBC in 1993, to great effect and some outcry after it featured a protracted scene of group sex, which wasn't particularly explicit but which was nevertheless ground breaking by television standards.


It's been a while since I read the book, so I'll attempt to re-work this writeup after a quick re-read

Hanif Kureishi's first novel. Published in 1990 and won the Whitbread Prize. Rapidly became a best seller, has been translated into 20 or so languages and in 1993 was serialised as a four part television series by the BBC.

The novel is set in 1970's London, during the waning of the hippie culture and on the cusp of the new, grabbing, Thatcherist Britain. It is very involved with the pop and rock music idols o the era, particularly David Bowie (who has been vocal over the years about his own escape from suburbia and his loathing of it). Bowie's extravagance, exhuberance and originality are juxtaposed with the grey dull suburban life which both the novel's protagonist, Karim Amir, and his father, Haroon, are trying in their different ways to escape.

The main themes explored in the novel are those of identity and belonging. Karim longs to escape the Asian and the middle class - the two cornerstones of his basic identity. He wants to belong to the world of the white high brow intellectualism, the blond and beautiful rock star, the liberty and weightlessness of vapid urban consumerism and hedonism. Paradoxically, he is given the chance to achieve all those through his father's return to his "cultural roots".

Haroon, a bored and unfamilial civil servant, veers off into the direction of spiritualism and begins to develop a reputation as a guru. Karim is drafted in to be a chaperone cum assistant, but ends up covering up for his father's affair and eventually moving in with him and his mistress. He thus helps to destroy the stable middle class family unit in which he shows no emotional envolvement and which he treats with contempt.

Karim is granted access to the world he craves to belong to through his father's mistress Eva and her putative rock-star son, Charlie (who is quite overtly based on Bowie). Here however he discovers that the bonds of racial identity are not as easy to leave behind as his family and former home. He is faced with a new and subtle kind of racism which is alien to his understanding of the uncomplicated and honest resentment of suburbia.

As the book closes the two pivotal male characters have pretty much come full circle - Haroon is preparing to marry Eva and probably settle into a dull routine again, and Karim rejects the promise of a libertine existence in New York in order to come back to London and play an Asian character in a soap on television. This essentially represents the frame of mind of the entire west during the late seventies - the Thatcher and Reagan years loomed large and the liberalism of the hippie sixties and the psychadelic seventies was being shed in favour of shamelss materialism or gritty, violent punk.

The Buddha of Suburbia is also the title track on the sountrack album Bowie provided for the BBC series. Here are the lyrics, coutesy of http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/SongUnid/:

Living in lies by the railway line
Pushing the hair from my eyes
Elvis is English and climbs the hills
Can't tell the bullshit from the lies
Screaming along in South London
Vicious but ready to learn
Sometimes I fear that the whole world is queer
Sometimes but always in vain

So I'll wait until we're sane
Wait until we're blessed and all the same
Full of blood, loving life and all it's got to give
Englishmen going insane
Down on my knees in suburbia
Down on myself in every way

With great expectations I change all my clothes
Mustn't crumble at silver and gold
Screaming above Central London
Never born, so I'll never get old

So I'll wait until we're sane
Wait until we're blessed and all the same
Full of blood, loving life and all it's got to give
Englishmen going insane
Down on my knees in suburbia
Down on myself in every way

Day after
Day after
Day
Day after
Zane, Zane, Zane
Ouvre le chien
Day after
Day
Day after
Zane, Zane, Zane
Ouvre le chien
Day after

An interesting subtext of the novel concerns people escaping from their backgrounds. Charlie the wannabe rock star escapes from affluent suburbia, Karim escapes from his crazy father, Haroon escapes into yoga, buddhism and the arms of a one-breasted woman from his northern Indian, Muslim past and even Karim's mum moves away from the indocentric path her life has inescapably taken when Haroon is out of the picture, escaping, perhaps into normality.

I'd dispute the racism tag this boook is trendily labelled with - it's really much more about the comfort of the familiar and the way people react badly when confronted with the strange.

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