As Karim comes of age, he becomes interested in the English class system, noticing and ruminating on the class signifiers that differentiate London proper from his childhood home in the south London suburbs. Though Karim begins the novel with a simplified view of class (in which one is either suburban and lower class, or urban and upper class), he develops a more nuanced view of class as he learns that Londoners come from all classes, and that upper-class people aren't all the same.
As a teen, Karim's primary goal is to move to London. He believes that in London, he'll be able to lead an exciting lifestyle filled with drugs, sex, and all manner of fun and frivolity. He idealizes the city in part because he considers it to be the exact opposite of the suburbs. Karim's view of the suburbs, though, is nearly as simplistic as his view of the city. He sees the suburbs as embarrassingly provincial and incompatible with happiness, since he believes—based on the lives of his immediate and extended family—that the class of people who live in the suburbs cannot even recognize that the pursuit of happiness is possible. This all impresses upon Karim that remaining in the suburbs is absolutely not an option for him, and that he must work to relocate to London as fast as possible in order to be happy.
Karim gets the opportunity to move to London and begin climbing the social ladder when Dad leaves Mum for Eva and they decide to move to London. Karim recognizes that Eva is a social climber with lofty goals, and he characterizes her move to the city as her "assault" on London. Over the course of the novel, Karim watches the guest lists of Eva's regular parties shift to include more and more upper-class individuals. At the same time, Eva begins working with Uncle Ted, a former laborer, to renovate and redesign houses. She begins with her own flats, but soon moves onto the homes of high-profile Londoners. This shows that both Karim and Eva see association with upper class individuals as a key aspect of social mobility. However, Karim also recognizes that associating with the upper echelons of society isn't the same as being a part of the upper class, something that becomes very clear as Karim embarks on a relationship with Eleanor, a beautiful but troubled actress.
With Eleanor, Karim finally gets an intimate look at the upper class and how they move through life. Though Eleanor is quite wealthy, she attempts to act as though she's working class, something that Karim notices and realizes quickly is an act. As Karim begins attending parties with Eleanor where the guests are of the same upper class as she is, he encounters what he describes as "unforced bohemia": an immersion in culture, money, and education, combined with a sense of indifference to all three. Karim recognizes that this unforced bohemia is exactly what Eva tries to cultivate through her parties, though seeing the real thing firsthand makes it abundantly clear to Karim that Eva won't be able to achieve it: it's an attitude that Eleanor and her crowd are born with, not something that one can cultivate. As Karim makes these connections, he finally realizes that though Eva is extremely successful by the end of the novel, she'll never be able to achieve what Eleanor has. He realizes, essentially, that much as Eva tries, the traces of suburbia don't necessarily wash off once a person has transcended her class.
Taken all together, Karim's observations about social ascent bring his interrogation of class and social standing to the forefront of the novel. The final scene of the novel shows Karim, suddenly successful as an actor, offering to pay for a grand evening out for his family and friends—by all accounts, a marker of success. However, his sense of discomfort with the whole situation suggests that though he discovers that it's totally possible for someone like himself or Eva to attain financial success, actually embodying an upper class mindset isn't available to him. Instead, the suburbia he worked so hard to leave behind as a teenager will follow him forever.
Hierarchy and Class ThemeTracker
Hierarchy and Class 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...
"The whites will never promote us," Dad said. "Not an Indian while there is a white man left on the earth. You don't have to deal with them—they still think they have an Empire when they don't have two pennies to rub together."
"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."
...I saw she wanted to scour that suburban stigma right off her body. She didn't realize it was in the blood and not on the skin; she didn't see that there could be nothing more suburban than suburbanites repudiating themselves.
"What a breed of people two hundred years of imperialism has given birth to. If the pioneers from the East India Company could see you. What puzzlement there'd be. Everyone looks at you, I'm sure, and thinks: an Indian boy, how exotic, how interesting, what stories of aunties and elephants we'll hear now from him. And you're from Orpington."
I wanted to tell him that the proletariat of the suburbs did have strong class feeling. It was virulent and hate-filled and directed entirely at the people beneath them.
Eleanor's set, with their combination of class, culture and money, and their indifference to all three, was exactly the cocktail that intoxicated Eva's soul, but she could never get near it. This was unforced bohemia; this was what she sought; this was the apogee.
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.
With their poking into life's odd corners, Pyke and Marlene seemed to me to be more like intrepid journalists than swimmers in the sensual. Their desire to snuggle up to real life betrayed a basic separation from it. And their obsession with how the world worked just seemed another form of self-obsession.
"We have to empower ourselves. Look at those people who live on sordid housing estates. They expect others—the Government—to do everything for them. They are only half human, because only half active. We have to find a way to enable them to grow. Individual human flourishing isn't something that either socialism or conservatism caters for."