The Buddha of Suburbia

by

Hanif Kureishi

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The Buddha of Suburbia: Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Karim introduces himself as "an Englishman born and bred, almost" from the south London suburbs. He describes himself as restless, easily bored, and looking for trouble. One day when he's seventeen, his father, Haroon, comes home from work in a good mood—an unusual event. Dad greets Mum, Karim, and Karim's little brother, Allie. Then, instead of watching television, Dad strips to his underwear and commands Karim to bring him the pink towel.
From the start, Karim thinks of his identity in terms of potential change, which positions him to come of age over the course of the novel. When he makes note of being "almost" an Englishman, he refers to his Indian heritage. This suggests that even if he does identify as English, he's unable to forget that others see his Indian side first.
Themes
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Racism, Success, and Identity Theme Icon
When Karim hands Dad the towel, Dad falls to his knees, kicks up into a headstand, and explains that he must practice. When Karim asks what for, Dad snappily replies that he's been called for the yoga Olympics. Karim watches his father and notices signs that he's aging, such as his drooping belly, but Karim admires that his father’s chest is still broad and covered in hair.
The way Karim notes signs of aging in Dad shows that even this early in the novel, he's beginning to see that Dad is a person, not just a father figure. However, Karim still admires his father, indicating that he still views him in an overwhelmingly positive light.
Themes
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Mum comes upstairs and immediately looks suspicious, as Dad hasn't practiced yoga for months: she knows something is up. Karim describes Mum as a plump and generally timid person, but aggressive when exasperated. Mum snaps at Karim to close the curtains so the neighbors won't see Dad upside down with his stomach hanging out. As Karim obeys Mum, he feels the tension in the room rise substantially.
The fact that Mum apparently doesn't share Karim's admiration for Dad suggests that there are problems within their marriage and this family unit in general. Further, Mum's suspicion of yoga in particular suggests that it's Dad's Indian identity that is partially responsible for these problems.
Themes
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Dad asks Karim to fetch a yoga book and read from it out loud. Karim fetches the book, Yoga for Women, and reads in a grand voice. When Dad is satisfied, he stands, gets dressed, and declares that he can feel himself getting old. He asks Mum if she'd join him at Mrs. Kay's party that night, but Mum refuses. She insists that she's not Indian enough for Eva Kay, and Dad jokes that she could wear a sari. Mum doesn't laugh. Dad continues that tonight is a special occasion, as he's been asked to speak about Oriental philosophy. He looks very proud as he says this.
It will come to light later that Dad is Muslim, a fact that makes his interest in yoga and Eastern philosophy in general somewhat complicated. Though yoga is accepted to various degrees in some Islamic sects, it's primarily a Buddhist and Hindu practice. Further, the book Dad asks for appears to divorce yoga from even its Buddhist roots. This creates the sense that Dad's racial and spiritual identity is muddy and varied.
Themes
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Karim offers to go with Dad to Eva's, trying his best to sound like he'd be doing Dad a favor. Dad thinks for a moment and agrees, and then asks Mum to come. Karim races upstairs, hopes that Mum won't agree to come, and puts on a Bob Dylan record. He emerges at 7pm dressed in flowery, colorful clothing and sees Dad waiting, dressed conservatively.
Dad's desire to include Mum in his outings shows that he is loyal to her and wants to build a strong relationship with her. Karim implies throughout the novel that Mum is far more interested in stability, which explains her unwillingness to try new and foreign things.
Themes
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Karim guides Dad the four miles on the bus to Eva's house and explains to the reader that Dad acts like a new immigrant to London, not someone who's been there for twenty years. He also explains that Dad's naïveté attracts women. Dad taught Karim to flirt with everyone and to value charm over courtesy or decency, and Karim notes that he suspected that Dad hadn't used his charm on anyone but Mum.
Karim sets himself up to seek out relationships not predicated on loyalty or love. This in turn positions discovering the true meanings of loyalty and love as two of Karim's primary endeavors of the novel. His insistence that Dad hasn't charmed anyone but Mum shows Karim's youth and naïveté.
Themes
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Karim persuades Dad to stop off at a pub for a beer on the way and leads him to the back room. The beer makes Dad sad and moody, and he tells Karim that Mum isn't making effort in their relationship. When Karim suggests they get a divorce, Dad says that Karim wouldn't like that. Karim thinks that his parents will never divorce because, in the suburbs, people don't think about pursuing happiness.
Here, Karim positions stability and misery as qualities inherent to a suburban lifestyle, while implying that the pursuit of happiness can only happen when one leaves the suburbs. This binary view is, again, indicative of his youth, while his insistence that Dad won't break out of the suburban mindset shows he doesn't see Dad as a whole person capable of being anything but a parent.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Dad confides in Karim that he's scared for his speaking engagement. When they arrive at Eva's, Karim notes that Eva is better off than his family: she has a car and central heating in her house. When she opens the door, she's wearing a caftan and dark, smudged eyeliner. Eva hugs Dad and kisses him. Karim tries to decide if Eva is sophisticated or pretentious when she grabs Karim and kisses him too. She holds Karim at arm's length and deems him exotic and original.
Eva offers the first clue as to how others see Karim and Dad when she deems Karim exotic. This suggests again that Karim cannot escape the fact that other white characters consistently choose to think of him in terms of his Indian heritage and ignore the fact that he thinks of himself as English first and foremost.
Themes
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Karim feels he's being watched and looks up the stairs to see Charlie, Eva's son, sitting at the top. He explains that both men and women find Charlie overwhelmingly attractive, and says that he never thought Charlie would be at home. Charlie comes down the stairs, greets Dad by his first name, and accompanies the group into the living room.
Charlie's looks and success with women open the novel up to explore how Charlie and Karim experience success differently because of their identities. Charlie won't experience the intense racism that Karim experiences, simply by being white and conventionally handsome.
Themes
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Karim explains that Mum finds Eva horrible, but that he thinks she's the only adult he can talk to. He says that she's always good-tempered and does outrageous things like bring Charlie and his girlfriend breakfast in bed. She picks Dad up regularly for their writer's group and when she does, she makes sure to ask Karim what he's reading. She despises Kerouac and lends Karim French novels instead. She also confides in Karim about her marriage, which is sexless and abusive. Karim tells the reader that Eva both scares and excites him, and that she disturbed the Amir house from the moment she entered it.
Here, the way that Karim describes Eva positions her as a product of the wild and free 1960s: she's a proponent of free sex and love and not shy about it, which is indicative of the social changes regarding sex that happened in the sixties. By confiding in Karim she treats him like an adult, which suggests that Eva might treat Karim like he's more mature than he actually is. This is supported by his claim that he's scared of her; he's not necessarily ready to have these kinds of conversations.
Themes
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Back in Eva's living room, Karim takes in the scene: the floor is clear and on it sit four middle-aged couples drinking wine. One man in a corduroy suit (Shadwell) sits against the wall, nervously smoking. Charlie suggests to Karim that they go upstairs and listen to something other than the Bach playing in the living room. When Karim asks, Charlie explains that his dad is in a therapy center with a nervous breakdown. Karim thinks that nervous breakdowns are terribly exotic.
The scene in the living room appears suburban in the extreme, though the fact that these suburbanites are here to see Dad speak complicates Karim's insistence that the suburban lifestyle means not pursuing happiness: these people are here to see Dad speak about how to pursue happiness through embracing Eastern philosophy, not through suburban drudgery.
Themes
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Karim watches as Dad sits with the couples on the floor. He thinks that the couples seem to be showing off and that usually Dad would laugh at this sort of thing, but Karim notices that Dad seems to be having the time of his life. Karim wonders why Dad is sullen at home if he can be this gregarious with others. Two of the men start whispering to each other that Dad came on a magic carpet. When Karim kicks one of the men, Charlie leads him upstairs. As they head out of the room, Eva dims the lights, bows to Dad, and tells the group that Dad will show them "The Way."
Remember Mum's suspicion and apparent discomfort with Dad's yoga practice. Here, these couples' interest in Dad's ideas is in direct contrast to how Mum feels about it all, which suggests that Dad feels stifled by Mum's lack of interest. Despite this interest, however, Dad isn't immune to rude racial comments. His identity as an Indian man turns him into a curiosity and someone to make fun of.
Themes
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Karim curses, but Charlie tells Karim to watch. Dad leads the group in a few yoga poses and then asks them to lie down so he can lead them in a guided meditation. Charlie is fascinated, but finally leads Karim to his attic bedroom. When Charlie asks Karim what music he's been listening to, Karim launches into a story about his experience playing the new Rolling Stones album at the music society. However, Karim soon realizes he sounds like a child and stops.
Karim's feeling of childishness when he talks about the Rolling Stones shows that he believes Charlie is more mature than he is and that he wants to impress Charlie. This shows how much Karim idolizes Charlie, as it never seems to occur to him that Charlie isn't that much older and certainly feels just as lost, even if that's not apparent to Karim.
Themes
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Racism, Success, and Identity Theme Icon
As Charlie rolls a joint, he asks Karim if he meditates every morning with chanting. Karim lies and says he does meditate, but doesn't chant. He thinks of the crazy mornings at his house where there's no time for meditation as Charlie hands him the joint. Karim sprinkles ash down his shirt, burns a hole in it, and gets up quickly to go to the bathroom. As he sits in the bathroom, he thinks that this is how he wants to live his life: intensely, steeped in mysticism, sex, drugs, and alcohol. Karim also admits to the reader that he admires Charlie in that he wants to be him.
When Karim lies, it shows him experimenting with using his Indian heritage and others' misconceptions about it to his advantage—he hopes that pretending he's more Indian than he actually is will make Charlie like him more. Karim also implies that this kind of Indian-ness is wholly incompatible with his suburban life, again showing that he identifies more fully with being English.
Themes
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Karim creeps down the stairs. He watches the group meditating for a moment before stepping out the open back door. Karim gets on his knees and crawls across the patio until he can see Eva on a garden bench, pulling off her caftan. Karim can see that Eva only has one breast, and that Dad is underneath her wailing with pleasure. Dad laughs and Karim thinks that he doesn't know this version of Dad at all. After he sneaks back into the kitchen, Karim pours himself a glass of Scotch. The man in the corduroy suit is in the kitchen and introduces himself as Shadwell, but Karim avoids him and returns to Charlie upstairs.
Remember that Karim believed that Dad had never seduced anyone but Mum. Now that it's apparent that he was mistaken about that, Karim will have to come to terms with the fact that Dad is a person, not just a father figure or a devoted and unsatisfied husband to Mum. Karim also never really acknowledges that Eva is also cheating on her husband. Dad's transgressions are what matter to him, which shows how naive, young, and self-centered he is at this point.
Themes
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Racism, Success, and Identity Theme Icon
Charlie is lying on his back and invites Karim to lie next to him. Karim complies and Charlie tells Karim he needs to "wear less:" he suggests Levi's jeans and a solid shirt. Karim thinks he'll never wear anything else for the rest of his life. Slowly, Karim puts his hand on Charlie's thigh. Charlie ignores him, but Karim feels Charlie's erection. When Charlie doesn't object, Karim unzips Charlie's fly. He tries to kiss Charlie, who turns away. Charlie doesn't stop Karim's hands, however, and he ejaculates. Karim feels triumphant and thinks about where to buy a solid pink shirt.
Charlie's reaction to Karim's advances suggests that he likely has some complicated thoughts about his identity, just as Karim does. This begins to show the reader that Charlie is coming of age and grappling with his identity just like Karim is—though notably, Karim continues to position Charlie as an idol and not as just another teen boy for much of the novel. In this way, it also shows another facet of Karim's youth.
Themes
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Suddenly, Karim hears something and turns around to see Dad's head poking through the trapdoor. Charlie zips his pants back up as both Dad and Eva enter the attic. Eva reprimands them for smoking and says it's time to go home. At Karim's house he bids Eva goodbye and then watches her try to kiss Dad. When Dad gets inside he angrily and loudly accuses Karim of being gay, but Karim isn't as inebriated as Dad. When Dad tries to slap Karim, Karim grabs his hand to stop him. Karim tells Dad to be quiet and mentions that he saw Dad having sex with Eva. Dad tries to deny it, but he hurries to the bathroom and vomits.
Dad's anger that Karim is gay (although it's later explained he's bisexual) suggests that there are two systems of morality at play here: Dad's older, conservative morality system that allows for infidelity but not homosexuality, and Karim's, which is a product of the social progressiveness of the 1960s. Dad's reaction also shows him returning to his role as a parent, while Karim's threats show him insisting that he's seen Dad be more than a parent.
Themes
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Mum appears in the bathroom doorway looking tired and disappointed. She asks Karim to make her a bed on the couch so that she doesn't have to sleep with Dad. Karim feels bad for Mum but wonders why she can't just fight back and be stronger. Karim resolves that he'll be stronger than Mum, and he sits up the entire night thinking about his future.
When Karim doesn't define what "fight back" or "be stronger" means for Mum, it shows again how naïve and youthful he is by suggesting that he believes simply that Mum can just behave differently and fix the situation.
Themes
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For the next week, Dad refuses to speak. He mimes and points to things, and Mum cries in frustration. Karim explains that both Mum and Dad work, Dad as a civil servant and Mum in a shoe shop. Mum does all the housework and the cooking as well, and she shops and cooks on her lunch breaks. At night she watches TV, and it's the unspoken rule that she gets to decide what they watch. She also likes to draw, as she's a trained artist. She often draws her "three selfish men" on one page.
Mum's life at this point in the novel is portrayed as one of service to her "three selfish men—" even her escape, drawing, is dedicated to thinking about the men she cares for. This reinforces how traditional Karim's nuclear family structure is, even though the fact that Mum has a job outside the home is suggestive of the fruits of progressive movements.
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One day during what Karim terms "the Great Sulk," he opens up Mum's sketchpad. He finds a drawing of Dad and Eva, naked. Eva is drawn slightly larger than Dad, and Karim wonders how Mum knows what happened. He paws through Dad's briefcase as well and finds books by prominent Buddhist and Taoist philosophers.
This drawing, and particularly the fact that Eva is drawn larger than Dad, foreshadows the amount of power Eva has in her relationship with Dad. Further, like Mum's three selfish men, Mum can't necessarily do anything about the situation except draw it—she's powerless.
Themes
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Karim thinks that it would be interesting if Eva called the house, as it would test Dad's silence. When the phone rings, Karim makes sure to get there first. Eva interrogates Karim about what he's reading until Karim can get Dad. Karim goes to his room and thinks about what's happening. He begins to call Dad "God" and catches Dad talking to himself slowly in his room, exaggerating his Indian accent. Karim wonders why Dad is doing this when he's spent the last twenty years trying to be as un-Indian as possible.
Referring to Dad as God shows that Karim is aware that Dad has come upon a great deal of power with these appearances. However, Karim hasn't put together that Dad's power comes from the fact that in the eyes of the white suburbanites, he is Indian and exotic. In contrast, his job as a civil servant required him to be non-Indian in order to be successful.
Themes
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Related Quotes
A few weeks later, Dad calls Karim to his room and invites Karim to attend his "appearance" that night. Dad asks Karim to not tell Mum and says that they're both growing up together. Karim wonders if there's anything true in what Dad is doing, since Dad was able to convince Charlie he's the real thing. Karim thinks that Dad is now God, but he still has reservations: Karim needs to know if Dad is actually a guru, or just "another suburban eccentric."
Dad's comment that he's growing up signals that Karim isn't the only character coming of age. It suggests that the reader should think of Dad as a child also finding his way in the world. In turn, this positions the suburbs themselves and the boring life inherent to the suburbs as a developmental stage for Dad and Karim.
Themes
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