Karim is The Buddha of Suburbia's narrator and protagonist. Karim grows up in the suburbs of London and later moves with his family to London proper. As Karim grows the novel follows him from his teenage years into his early 20s his own worldview changes significantly. Much of Karim's story is about identification, specifically being an "Englishman born and bred, almost" (3). Caught between "belonging and not," between his Indian heritage and desire to assimilate into British society, Karim invariably negotiates his hybrid identity (3); but his character seems to posit that there is a space for both identities. He accepts much of his Indianness but also appropriates the qualities of British teenagers, reveling in dominant London fashions.
Like his ethnic identification, Karim's sexuality is complicated. He says that has no preference and will sleep with anyone, male or female, though his first really important (and defining) sexual experience is with Charlie. Karim's fluid sexuality positions him in a liminal role namely because he does not claim a homosexual/heterosexual identity nor an Indian/British identity exclusively; thus, he is consistently forced to negotiate between such binaries. Karim's early sexual experiences range from various encounters with Charlie to another, quasi-regular relationship with Jamila, his childhood friend. But their sex seems mechanical, to be more about satisfying carnal impulses and, perhaps, simple friendship than anything romantic, never mind emotional. Later, as Karim becomes involved in an increasingly upwardly mobile social circle, associating with the arts community and participating in theater, he begins a complicated sexual relationship with Eleanor, an actor. Karim truly loves her and describes their relationship, saying, "I'd never had such a strong emotional and physical feeling before" (187). For the first time, sex gains an emotional component, a marked difference from his prior sexual relationships.
Karim's relationships are always compounded with an innate selfishness and reliance on the material, or, at least, a dismissal of ideology. He is solipsistic, apolitical and is primarily interested in succeeding but he is often plagued with a lack of motivation. Still, at the novel's end, when there is promise of success on the horizon, Karim treats his family to dinner and says "I began to enjoy my own generosity. . . I felt the pleasure of pleasing others" (283). Granted, this pleasure is fueled by materialism and money, but Karim transforms (or begins his transmogrification) from a totally self-involved space to a place of awareness and caring for others.
Charlie is Eva's prodigal son and the object of Karim's affection. Characterized by Karim as a heart-breaker, Charlie neglects Karim, "neither [phoning] since [their] last love-making nor [bothering] to turn up" (32). Charlie's only real goal is to become famousto be a rock starand to employ any method through which to succeed. Charlie adheres to every trend, be it musical or in the fashion world. Although Charlie's band begins to amass an audience and buzz, his overriding covetousness of fame and the burgeoning of the punk movementwhich Charlie capitalizes oninspires him to abandon the band. Joining the punk movement, Charlie was "on to new adventures," literally jettisoning those who helped him succeed (132). Charlie changes his name to Charlie Zero and becomes an international success and major punk star, moving to live in New York.
While in New York with his touring play, Karim lives with Charlie and begins to understand the pressures of celebrity. Charlie attributes his international success to "selling Englishness" (245). His character represents how individuals can profit off of other's desires to consume something foreign. This is similar to Haroon's selling of his "exotic" Indian traditions (245). Charlie's character is about marketing, greed, fame and a quest for awareness and recognition. Though Charlie feels as fame would fulfill him, Kureishi seems to posit that, for Charlie, success cannot bring total fulfillment. This message seems congruous with his treatment of other characters' and their decisions.
Eva is the ultimate social climber. She represents, in a sense, enlightenment as she lives her very exciting life, luring artists and intellectuals into her circle. Her enthusiasm attracts Haroon and the two fall in love, prompting Haroon to leave his wife and break up his family. In a sense, Eva can be defined economically as Haroon's agent, providing him with the forums and audience through which he can market his blend of mysticism and spiritual teachings and advance socially. Eva desires social mobility as does Haroon, mostly through his associations with Eva; Haroon's own social goals are slightly more ambiguous, but he and Eva function socially as a unit and she directs them upward. Similarly, they are both characterized by Kureishi as exotic because Eva "only had one breast and where the other traditionally was, there was nothing" (15). It's Haroon's ethnicity in his suburban London setting which marks him as exotic. The story of her breast is never discussed, but it becomes defining.
Moreover, Eva's lifestyle, brimming with "mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs" becomes immediately attractive to the young Karim (15). Eva's lifestyle engenders changes like the family's move to London but at times the novelty wears off. Eva is incredibly supportive of her son, Charlie, willing him the success she feels he deserves. Eva's character represents changing social mores and the falling away of boundaries between parent and child. Like London itself, Eva is both attractive and mysterious and also somewhat depleting as she invariably strives to achieve.
As the novel's namesake, Haroon is a central character in The Buddha of Suburbia. His name and given identity changes throughout the narrative and he is given many monikers including: "God," "Harry," "Daddio," amongst others. People call Haroon different things because he portrays different roles. As he rises in social prominence, Haroon begins his love affair with Eva. She throws parties at her home and he comes to entertain her guests. Haroon portrays the "Buddha of Suburbia," using generic Eastern spiritual teachings to garner status. Haroon defines his identity by whatever is most palatable, most marketable, though he comes to identify and truly believe in his own teachings. Nevertheless, he employs teachings which are not endemic to India nor his own Muslim culture such that he can gain audience and respect from prominent Brits.
At first, Haroon's trajectory mirrors Charlie, but it's not just fame he covets. For as the novel progresses, Haroon appears to experience guilt or (perhaps) regret for several of his choices, including leaving his wife, though he is happy with Eva and the liberating life they lead. Still, he comes to earnestly believe in his teachings and retreat into his spiritual world.
As a foil character, it is especially useful to compare Haroon and Anwar as their identities diverge. As Haroon ages, he attempts to transform into a "qualified and polished English gentleman" while Antwar begins to identity more with (and in Haroon's eyes) Indian traditions (24). Though the two men share a kinship formed from common background, their goals and lifestyles engender different qualities of life. Similarly, comparing Haroon's growth to his son Karim's illuminates the rites-of-passage both experience. Haroon ironically profits socially and financially off of his teachings of selflessness and the jettisoning of the material. But Haroon and Karim's trajectories seemingly coincide at the novel's end. His studiousness and dedication show that, perhaps, like his son, Haroon has come to place less importance in that material he previously coveted.
Anwar and Haroon are sent to England together in their twenties, but they have very different ideas about almost everything. Anwar opens a market and father's a very political daughter, Jamila. When Jamila refuses to marry an Indian man that Anwar has selected he goes on a hunger strike. Jamila speaks to Haroon about it and one of the major themes of the novel is highlighted. "Anwar is my oldest friend in the world, he said sadly when we told him everything. ŚWe old Indians come to like this England less and less and we return to an imagined India." Anwar is a foil to the character of Haroon another example of the nostalgia that permeates the depictions of many of the characters, the deep seated longing for things past is seen in both of the characters. Anwar seemingly represents a more traditional Indian immigrant and yet Kureshi is sure to prevent any absolutes to be drawn. Anwar is the closest character to a stereotype that is presented and yet he is too complex and tempered by his daughter's humanity to read simply as a type. He owns a market and wants his daughter to be in an arranged marriage but he also loved to goof around as a young man. Kureshi presents an image and then works to build a history, a story to skew the readers perspective. Anwar accuses Haroon of "having been seduced by the West" (211). Anwar, however, like Haroon is a man who selects his history, creates his own past and belief system, partly in protest and greatly in response to his own unhappiness and confusion. "Anwar . . . for most of his life had never shown any interst in going back to India. He was always honest about this" (212). It is striking that Anwar is depicted in terms that make him seem much older than Haroon, his is always written of as the more responsible man, the more traditional man, and yet both's religious beliefs emerge when it is a valuable commodity, or out of habit.
Jamila is the most political of Karim's friends from the suburbs, as a child she spends a considerable amount of time in the library under the tutelage of a white librarian, Miss Cutmore. The books she reads initially thrill Jamila and the records she listens to through Miss Cutmore, however her opinions changed after Miss Cutmore moved to Bath. Karim, when speaking of this extracurricular education, says "(Jamila) drove me mad by saying Miss Cutmore had colonized her, but Jamila was the strongest-willed person I'd met: no one could turn her into a colony. Anyway, I hated ungrateful people. Without Miss Cutmore, Jamila wouldn't have even heard the word 'colony.' Miss Cutmore started you off, I told her" (53). Karim addresses Jamila's politics by remarking at times they were French and at times they were Black American. Beyond just identifying with Black Americans she adopts actions and ideas and applies them. Jamila also experiments, much like Karim, with her sexuality, engaging in casual sex with Karim as well as other men and women. Jamila is a symbol of the rapiditly changing politics and social climate in the world of the novel. It is through Jamila's causes that the reader is given a view of London's socio-political climate, outside of Karim's self-centered experience.
Changez is an Indian national who is arranged to be married to Jamila. Although the entire novel addresses sex directly, Changez and Jamila are they characters with whom sex is most symbolic. When Changez moves to London and marries Jamila he is confronted with her absolute refusal to consummate their marriage. Karim gives Changez some Doyle novels that whet his sexual appetite. This is a nice twist on the exoticization of Orientalism. It is not the Easterner that comes bearing forbidden sexuality, it is the European that introduces desire. Changez then begins visiting a Japanese prostitute, a further tweaking of Orientalism and comes to an understanding with Jamila, who continues to sleep with Karim and others. Changez is the newest immigrant in the novel and in some ways the happiest to "adapt". Changez is the truly the "other," he is from India, physically disabled and not familiar with the ideology all those close to him adhere to. It is largely through sex and negotiating his sexual relationship with Jamila he recognizes what responsibility he wants to have and how to feel fulfilled. Changez is responsible for Anwar's death in an actualization of the importance of sexuality, Anwar sees Changez on the street and charges him with intent to maim or kill, Changez had been recently shopping for sex toys and hits Anwar on the head with a dildo. This head trauma sends Anwar to his death. "The old man", the man who previously represented the most classical images of India was murdered by the son-in-law he hated, who does not sleep with his daughter, wielding a sex aid; it is as if the younger people in the book are killing the older, more nostalgic characters with their sexuality and politics.
Terry performs the role of the snake in the director Shadwell's version of The Jungle Book with Karim. Terry believes he will absolutely get a call from a famous director one day for a great part. He is bitterly disappointed and jealous when Karim is invited to star in Pyke's show instead of him. Pyke is a famous experimental director who Terry admires for his work, but not his values.
Terry abides by the system of the working class. He believes in equality for everyone and that, "people were made by the impersonal forces of history"(162). Instead of striving for gradual improvement, Terry thinks that in order for things to improve they must go drastically downhill first. Karim admires Terry because he believes in equality, but Karim does not want to sacrifice his accomplishments to be treated like everyone else as Terry does. Terry trusts the working class to defeat racist organizations and combat left-wing politicians, radical lawyers, and even liberals. Terry's political passion does not get him very far; he hypocritically acts on a TV show about cops just for the money.
Matthew Pyke is a major alternative theatre director who casts Karim in his London show about class. He wants to make each actor's performance as genuine as possible by having his actors observe people close to them. He especially wants to incorporate different ethnicities into his show to make it more colorful. Pyke uses Karim for his Indian identity and foreignness. He says about Karim's aunts and uncles, "I bet they're fascinating" (170). Pyke romanticizes Karim's family simply because they could be of a different ethnicity and thus exotic. His theory of acting is, "to be someone else successfully you must be yourself!" (220).
Pyke takes theatre very seriously, but also takes advantage of his power as a director. He manipulates Karim into sleeping with his wife and then sleeps with Karim's girlfriend, Eleanor. Pyke also forces himself sexually onto Karim.
Eleanor is an attractive actress also cast in Pyke's London show. Eleanor and Karim date throughout its run. Eleanor's life style differs from Karim's in that she is urbane and inhabits an "unforced bohemia"(174). She is naturally sophisticated and cultured without putting forth effort like Karim. Karim feels his past is inadequate to her classy life. He is mortified when she thinks his South London accent is cute. Even though she is middle class and privileged, Eleanor is very unhappy and dislikes herself greatly. She is unsure in love and cheats on Karim with their director, Pyke.
Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
Last modified 4 December 2003