Karim begins his narration by introducing himself as, "an Englishman born and bred, almost." His "almost" refers to the fact that his father, Haroon, emigrated from India twenty years earlier and married an Englishwoman. Because of his Indian heritage, Karim often finds that he's unable to fully embrace his English identity while he's simultaneously forced to confront uncomfortable aspects of Indian culture—or what others believe to be Indian culture.
Karim characterizes where his family lives in the suburbs as a locale that's inarguably English, despite the ethnicity of its inhabitants. To this point, he mentions that Dad spent the last twenty years trying to be as English as possible, and he has no interest in ever returning to India. Because of this, at the start of the novel, Karim thinks of himself as English more than anything else. Furthermore, despite the fact that Dad embraced his new home, Karim finds his father embarrassingly Indian. Dad still struggles to locate himself in the city, despite having lived there for so long, and constantly asks for directions. Karim deems these qualities those of a recent immigrant, and to counteract his embarrassment from his father, Karim mostly rejects the idea of being Indian.
When Karim accompanies Dad to Eva's house, where Dad gives a talk on Eastern philosophy and leads a yoga and meditation workshop, he learns that his father's Indian identity is exceptionally appealing to the white, affluent individuals assembled there. Karim finds this especially interesting because Dad is Muslim, and much of what he's speaking about is either Buddhist or Taoist. This is indicative of the widespread ignorance and flat out racism of the white Londoners in regards to Asia as a whole—they come to Eva's for Eastern philosophy, never mind that not all Eastern philosophy is the same. However, Dad uses their misconceptions to his advantage: these "appearances" facilitate his early romantic relationship with Eva and later provide him the means to leave Mum for Eva. This impresses upon Karim early on that though being Indian can lead to success, it's also an identity subject to a variety of outside thoughts and opinions, not necessarily one that Karim will get to control all the time.
When Karim stumbles into acting, he comes face to face with the more malevolently racist side of England. Eva introduces Karim to Shadwell, a boring but up-and-coming theatre director who is putting on a production of The Jungle Book. Karim, as a half-Indian young man, is perfect for the role of Mowgli. Though Karim is thrilled when he lands his role (Mowgli is a leading role with a reasonable production company, both of which appeal to Karim's vanity and pride), he becomes disenchanted quickly with the way that Shadwell wants to use Karim's Indian heritage to tell a very specific story. Shadwell first insists that Karim cover his entire body in dark makeup, and then asks Karim to speak in an exaggerated Indian accent. The accent in particular angers Karim: because he was born and raised in the southern suburbs of London, he speaks with the corresponding southern London accent. Essentially, Shadwell obscures or erases every English aspect of Karim's identity to create a caricature of an Indian person, something that Karim finds humiliating. The play is successful and leads to Karim's later involvement with the prestigious director Matthew Pyke, which shows Karim that embracing his Indian identity (or what white directors think that identity is) can lead to success. It's worth noting, however, that both Dad and Jamila bristle at Karim's portrayal of Mowgli. Dad insists that Rudyard Kipling is horrible and racist, and Jamila sadly tells Karim that he's playing into white stereotypes.
The end of the novel suggests that, although Karim believes Jamila on an emotional level, there's a certain allure to the financial and social success he experiences when he does portray Indian characters or caricatures on stage or on television. His portrayal of a Changez-like character in Pyke's play leads to an audition for a television show, in which Karim will play an Indian character. Karim recognizes that the production will be a shoddy one and the character is, again, a caricature, though he decides to take the part anyway. In this way, the novel suggests that, though the racism Karim and the others experience ranges in severity from horrific to simply demeaning, the subsequent financial gains that come about from that racism cannot be ignored—even though accepting those financial gains means, for Karim, denying his identity as an Englishman and burying his humanity in favor of success.
Racism, Success, and Identity ThemeTracker
Racism, Success, and Identity Quotes in The Buddha of Suburbia
I put my ear against the white paintwork of the door. Yes, God was talking to himself, but not intimately. He was speaking slowly, in a deeper voice than usual, as if he were addressing a crowd. He was hissing his s's and exaggerating his Indian accent. He'd spent years trying to be more of an Englishman, to be less risibly conspicuous, and now he was putting it back in spadeloads. Why?
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."
Yeah, sometimes we were French, Jammie and I, and other times we went black American. The thing was, we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it.
The lives of Anwar and Jeeta and Jamila were pervaded by fear of violence...Jeeta kept buckets of water around her bed in case the shop was firebombed in the night. Many of Jamila's attitudes were inspired by the possibility that a white group might kill one of us one day.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"Well then, can't you stop standing there and looking so English?"
"What d'you mean, English?"
"So shocked, so self-righteous and moral, so loveless and incapable of dancing. They are narrow, the English. It is a Kingdom of Prejudice over there. Don't be like it!"