The Buddha of Suburbia is a bildungsroman, or a coming of age novel. It follows 17-year-old Karim Amir as he grows up and comes of age, beginning in the early 1970s and ending on the eve of the 1979 election in which Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Over those ten years, Karim watches his parents divorce, Dad enter into a passionate relationship with Eva (a sexy social climber), and her son, Charlie, become a successful musician living in New York. As the novel progresses and Karim comes of age, he conceptualizes his coming of age mostly in terms of those around him. This suggests that coming of age isn't simply something that happens to a person internally; rather, growing up and coming of age happens for Karim as he learns to humanize his parents, idols, and finally, himself.
Karim's coming of age begins suddenly one night when Dad invites Karim to accompany him to a party at Eva's house, where Dad will lead a discussion of Eastern philosophy. During this first party, Karim witnesses and experiences several things that cause him to question his world and his place in it, thereby beginning his process of coming of age. First, Karim watches his father have sex with Eva. Though Karim knew already that his parents weren't necessarily happily married, witnessing this transgression causes him for the first time to question who his father actually is as a person. Second, Karim has a sexual experience with Charlie, Eva's son. Though Karim idolizes Charlie and desperately wants to be him, this experience teaches him that Charlie is cruel and selfish (although this doesn't necessarily cool Karim's idolization). Essentially, Karim's experiences at the party show him the humanity of both his father and Charlie. In turn, this begins to turn them into three-dimensional people in Karim's mind, with foibles and problems of their own.
Though Karim continues to develop in other ways in the years following that party, it's not until several years later when he becomes involved in theatre that Karim has more opportunities to think of his parents specifically as people, not just as parent figures. In the lobby after one of his performances, Karim watches his parents speak to each other for the first time since the divorce. As he watches, he notices that his parents are getting old. Karim also realizes that his parents are just people trying to get by in the world—just like he is. In this way, Karim begins to see that he and his parents are not so very different. His parents might be older, but they're not navigating their lives with any less difficulty than Karim is.
Karim's final plunge into adulthood happens with Charlie in New York City after Karim's second theatre production tours in the city. Charlie employs Karim for ten months doing various odd jobs and tasks for him, and Karim finds that, as adults, he and Charlie get along well, and Charlie is a reasonably interesting and smart person. This illusion is shattered, however, when Charlie hires a dominatrix to come for an evening and invites Karim to participate. As Karim watches Frankie hurt and humiliate a hooded and restrained Charlie, he realizes he doesn't care about Charlie anymore, and certainly doesn't care for him romantically like he once did as a teenager. With this, Karim comes to the conclusion that he no longer wants to be Charlie, suggesting that Karim learns at this point to define himself and Charlie as wholly separate entities, and not think of Charlie as an idol.
The final chapter of the novel shows Karim discovering the humanity and personhood of all his family members: his little brother Allie, who is absent for much of the novel, suddenly arises as an interesting and thoughtful character, while it's revealed that Mum has begun seeing a much younger man. Similarly, Dad and Eva announce that they're getting married, while Karim also ascertains that Dad still regrets his decision to leave Mum nearly a decade ago. In this way, Karim's entry into adulthood is marked by recognizing growth, independence, and humanity in himself as much as in those around him.
Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Coming of Age Quotes in The Buddha of Suburbia
Watching this, I was developing my own angry theories of love. Surely love had to be something more generous than this high-spirited egotism-à-deux? In their hands love seemed a narrow-eyed, exclusive, selfish bastard, to enjoy itself at the expense of a woman who now lay in bed in Auntie Jean's house, her life unconsidered. Mum's wretchedness was the price Dad had chosen to pay for his happiness. How could he have done it?
But as the days passed I watched Jeeta's progress. She certainly didn't want to go home. It was as if Jamila had educated her in possibility, the child being an example to the parent.
For Eleanor's crowd hard words and sophisticated ideas were in the air they breathed from birth, and this language was the currency that bought you the best of what the world could offer. But for us it could only ever be a second language, consciously acquired.
As I sat there I began to recognize that this was one of the first times in my life I'd been aware of having a moral dilemma. Before, I'd done exactly what I wanted; desire was my guide and I was inhibited by nothing but fear. But now, at the beginning of my twenties, something was growing in me. Just as my body had changed at puberty, now I was developing a sense of guilt, a sense not only of how I appeared to others, but of how I appeared to myself...
But I did feel, looking at these strange creatures now—the Indians—that in some way these were my people, and that I'd spent my life denying or avoiding that fact. I felt ashamed and incomplete at the same time, as if half of me were missing, and as if I'd been colluding with my enemies, those whites who wanted Indians to be like them.
You go all your life thinking of your parents as these crushing protective monsters with infinite power over you, and then there's a day when you turn round, catch them unexpectedly, and they're just weak, nervous people trying to get by with each other.