James Idema (review date 29 April 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787

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SOURCE: “Getting by on Charm: A Young Anglo-Indian in 1970s London,” in Chicago Tribune Books, April 29, 1990, p. 6.

[In the following review, Idema describes The Buddha of Suburbia as a “polemical novel … whose trenchant views on racial injustice and class antagonisms impart outrage. …”]

This crowded, picaresque first novel about the adventures of a young Anglo-Indian in the mean streets of London during the 1970s, where “the spirit of the age among the people I knew manifested itself as general drift and idleness,” may put you in mind of the movies My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, because Hanif Kureishi, author of The Buddha of Suburbia, is also the author of their screenplays. But even without that knowledge, The Buddha of Suburbia would seem stunningly cinematographic. Scenes leap from the page, as this, in a West Kensington punk rock club:

(A)t the front of the place, near the stage, there were about thirty kids in ripped black clothes. And the clothes were full of safety pins. Their hair was uniformly black, and cut short, seriously short, or if long it was spiky and rigid, sticking up and out and sideways, like a handful of needles, rather than hanging down. A hurricane would not have dislodged those styles. The girls were in rubber and leather and wore skin-tight skirts and holed black stockings, with white face-slap and bright red lipstick. They snarled and bit people. …

In that scene, Karim Amir, the hero and narrator, and his friend Charlie are exploring London low life soon after Karim, with his English mother and Indian father, have moved to the city from the suburbs, a move that begins Karim’s true coming of age.

“The city blew the windows of my brain wide open,” he says. “But being in a place so bright, fast and brilliant made you vertiginous with possibility. … I felt directionless and lost in the crowd.”

Lost he might be, even feckless in the way he has shunned education and other conventional advantages people like his parents placed before nice suburban sons. But Karim is an ebullient and resourceful adventurer, hungry for experience and true to a code that compels him to try anything—especially anything sexual, because “plain prurience,” as he disarmingly concedes, informs much of his activity.

Karim gets by, to a large extent, on charm; and his principal mentor, ironically, is his father, who despairs of his son’s dissolute ways. As Karim recalls: “Dad taught me to flirt with everyone I met, girls and boys alike, and I began to see charm, rather than courtesy or honesty, or even decency, as the primary social grace.”

A master of charm himself, Dad is a smallish, somewhat pudgy but handsome Indian—the Buddha of the title—the kind of man whose natural naivete makes people protective. Women, particularly, want to wrap their arms around him, “so lost and boyish he looked at times.”

And his innocence, says his son, was not entirely uncontrived. A civil service clerk, Dad came from Bombay to the South London suburbs 20 years ago, but he still manages to be baffled, immigrant-like, by bus routes. Dad’s life, and the lives of everyone around him, changes dramatically when he starts instructing groups in Oriental philosophy—“guru gigs,” his son calls these sessions—and falls in love with one of his disciples. Eva is beautiful, exotic, with bohemian views and tastes and warmly sympathetic to Karim, the callow adventurer. But she is also the woman who steals his father, breaks up their home. And what about poor Mum?

Dad dominates the first half of the novel. Whether dispensing parental advice—a mixed bag of middle-class piety and street sense—presiding over adoring followers or struggling to resolve his own paradoxes, he is one of the more engaging characters in recent fiction. His mystical observations, in which truth is glimpsed amid the charlatanry, are a special delight. When he virtually disappears in the novel’s second half, one misses him.

But The Buddha of Suburbia has a cast of appealing co-stars, supporting actors and bit players. Long-suffering Mum turns out to be a survivor, with more patience and good sense than all the rest. Eva’s son, Charlie, nearly drives young Karim crazy with his magnetic sexuality. And Auntie Jeeta—who works in a corner grocery but was a princess back home—brings magic to her role.

The Buddha of Suburbia has a compelling plot, sympathetic characters and a winning style, and it brims with observations on music, theater, religion, drugs and sex in pre-Margaret Thatcher England. And it’s a polemical novel as well, one whose trenchant views on racial injustice and class antagonisms impart outrage as they divert and entertain.


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