This web essay is based upon a paper the author wrote for Professor Neil Bissoondath's "Postcolonial Literature II" [ANG-64699A], Laval University.
In Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia, Karim, the protagonist, defines himself as "having emerged from two old histories" (3). To a large extent, the stories of Karim and most of the characters of this novel have been affected by History, in particular the History of colonisation. The prejudices and preconception many of the characters are subject to are rooted in issues connected with power, ideology and historical representation. London, historically the heart of the former British empire, becomes the object of desire of many characters who strive to move from the margins to its centre. In this novel, London is a symbol for achievement and success and it is on account of this that it still projects the historically constructed images of colonial glory and power formerly associated with it. Commenting on Kureishi's works, John Clement Ball affirms that "as witnesses to the new imperialism-in-reverse they [Kureishi's works] document the actual colonising of London's spaces by its New Commonwealth citizens" (11).
Karim, an Indo-Brititsh adolescent, and Haroon, his Indian father, start a sort of pilgrimage from the suburbs to downtown London, from the geographical but also social periphery to the centre. Despite their enthusiasm, they are constantly reminded of their not being eligible to be considered authentic Englishmen. After many years of "trying to be more of an Englishman" (21), Haroon realises that it is more profitable for him to become a caricature of himself and to appropriate English people's preconceived ideas concerning his Indian identity. Karim hopes the former imperial centre will give meaning to his life; however, he will be constantly reminded of his being half-breed. These constant admonitions teach him that the English identity is a privilege he is not entitled to. Thinking about Gene, Eleanor's former West Indian lover, Karim has a moment of insight and realises that he is in the same position,
they never let him forget they thought him a nigger, a slave, a lower being. 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 [...]. We became part of England and yet proudly stood outside it. (227)
Karim can only become part of the centre as an exotic caricature of himself. While working as an actor, he is asked to play "ethnic" roles, to fake a broad Indian accent and be authentically Indian even if he has never been to India; Shadwell reminds him that he has "been cast for authenticity and not for experience" (147). As Ball states, "Father and son both become faux-Indians, successfully marketing back to the English warmed-over versions of their own popular appropriations of Indian culture" (23). Haroon and Karim are trapped in historically defined cultural representations of their identity; if they want to get to the centre, they have to conform to them. In addition to having determined and fixed the Indian identity, historical and cultural representations have also enhanced and mythicised the English identity. Upon his arrival in England, young Haroon was greatly disappointed since the image he had of England did not coincide with reality. Haroon expected to witness the glory and power of an historically mythicised colonial England that is why he was
amazed and heartened by the sight of the British in England, though. He'd never seen the English in poverty, as road sweepers, dustmen, shopkeepers and barmen. He'd never seen an Englishman stuffing bread into his mouth with his fingers, and no one has told him that the English didn't wash regularly because the water was cold --if they had water at all. And when Dad tried to discuss Byron in local pubs no one warned him that no every Englishman could read ... (24-5)
The historical process by means of which England defined and accorded a fixed meaning to the colonial identity is echoed in this novel; here, London and the periphery are a microcosm in which coloniser-colonised relations are re-enacted. Even if the British empire has collapsed, certain colonial attitudes, ways of defining identity and legitimising narratives still prevail. It can be argued that most of the characters in The Buddha of Suburbia strive at having their personal narratives legitimised by London which acts as the metaphorical centre of authority.
Ball, John Clement. "The Semi-Detached Metropolis: Hanif Kureishi's London." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature. Vol 27, No 4 (October 1996): 7-27.
Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Last Modified: 25 March, 2002