At its heart, The Buddha of Suburbia is a classic family drama. As Karim grows up and comes of age, he watches his parents divorce and his best childhood friend enter into a sexless marriage. Throughout the novel, Karim questions constantly what family truly means and how loyalty functions within a family unit. Though his conclusions at the end are somewhat tenuous, Karim comes to understand that loyalty doesn't always mean the same thing throughout an entire marriage, and he discovers that loyalty and respect are at the heart of love.
At the beginning of the novel, Karim positions his parents as bored and unhappy with their marriage, though they're generally loyal to each other. He suggests at that point that his parents will never betray their unwavering yet unhappy loyalty because they've bought fully into the suburban mindset: according to Karim, this is a mindset predicated on the prioritization of boring stability over happiness. When Karim realizes that Dad is in love with Eva, an ambitious and sexy social climber, he's simultaneously curious and terrified for the future of his family. Because this is the first time Karim sees that his father desires someone other than Mum, it's an understandably shocking experience—Karim hadn't considered at that point that it was even possible for Dad to have ever desired someone other than Mum. Further, Karim quickly begins to hate and feel betrayed by Dad for leaving Mum. This reaction suggests that, at least when it comes to relationships that directly impact him, Karim values loyalty and stability over love and passion.
On the other end of the spectrum, Karim watches his best childhood friend, Jamila, enter into an arranged marriage when her father, Anwar, blackmails her by going on a hunger strike. Karim has mixed feelings about this. He first reasons that Jamila would never give into such patriarchal bullying, but later he conceptualizes the marriage as a choice that would allow her to rebel from within a system she'd ultimately like to dismantle. Regardless, Karim recognizes that Jamila chooses to accept Anwar's terms out of a sense of loyalty and love for her family. Despite the fact that her decision to marry seems out of character for her, Jamila makes her marriage work for her. Her husband, Changez, is immediately and completely loyal to and in love with Jamila, which means he's perfectly willing to accept her terms that he sleep on a camp cot and let her live alone in their bedroom and continue her studies. Though Changez desperately wants to have sex with his wife, Jamila remains firm that their marriage will exist on her terms. Over the years, the sexlessness doesn't change between Changez and Jamila, but Karim watches a sense of respect develop between them, particularly after Jamila has a baby with Simon in their communal home. In this way, Karim watches a seemingly backwards marriage grow and change over the course of a decade to become, in many respects, a strong, respectful, and mutually fulfilling one, suggesting again that loyalty is one of the most important elements of strong, fulfilling relationships.
As Karim's understanding of Changez and Jamila's marriage deepens near the end of the novel, he also continues to consider where he stands in relation to his own parents. Karim eventually realizes that he's guilty of abandoning Mum when she needed him the most after the divorce, and he similarly makes sure to never allow Dad to forget that he abandoned Mum. However, as Karim sees his parents both become relatively happy people with their respective partners, he realizes that definitions of love and loyalty change over the course of a relationship, just as they did for Jamila and Changez. At the end of the day, however, Karim comes to understand that a sense of loyalty is what makes a family.
Family, Love, and Loyalty ThemeTracker
Family, Love, and Loyalty Quotes in The Buddha of Suburbia
But divorce wasn't something that would occur to them. In the suburbs people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness. It was all familiarity and endurance: security and safety were the reward of dullness.
If Mum was irritated by Dad's aristocratic uselessness, she was also proud of his family. "They're higher than the Churchills," she said to people...This ensured there would be no confusion between Dad and the swarms of Indian peasants who came to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and of whom it was said they were not familiar with cutlery and certainly not with toilets...
"That bastard, what does he think I am, his servant? I'm not a shopkeeper. Business isn't my best side, yaar, not my best. I'm the intellectual type, not one of those uneducated immigrant types who come here to slave all day and night and look dirty."
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.
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.
And we pursued English roses as we pursued England; by possessing these prizes, this kindness and beauty, we stared defiantly into the eye of the Empire and all its self-regard—into the eye of Hairy Back, into the eye of the Great Fucking Dane. We became part of England and yet proudly stood outside it.
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.
There was no vacillation in his love; it was true, it was absolute, he knew what he felt. And Jamila seemed content to be loved in this way. She could do what she wanted and Changez would always put her first; he loved her more than he loved himself.