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A Guide to the Characters in The Buddha of Suburbia

Bridget Moloney '05, Brian Orloff '06, Emily Weiss '06, Recent Asian Diaspora
Fiction, Northwestern University
Karim is The Buddha of Suburbia's narrator and protagonist. Karim grows up in the
suburbs of London and later moves with his family to London proper. As Karim
grows the novel follows him from his teenage years into his early 20s his own
worldview changes significantly. Much of Karim's story is about identification,
specifically being an "Englishman born and bred, almost" (3). Caught between
"belonging and not," between his Indian heritage and desire to assimilate into British
society, Karim invariably negotiates his hybrid identity (3); but his character seems to
posit that there is a space for both identities. He accepts much of his Indianness but
also appropriates the qualities of British teenagers, reveling in dominant London
Like his ethnic identification, Karim's sexuality is complicated. He says that has no
preference and will sleep with anyone, male or female, though his first really
important (and defining) sexual experience is with Charlie. Karim's fluid sexuality
positions him in a liminal role namely because he does not claim a
homosexual/heterosexual identity nor an Indian/British identity exclusively; thus, he
is consistently forced to negotiate between such binaries. Karim's early sexual
experiences range from various encounters with Charlie to another, quasi-regular
relationship with Jamila, his childhood friend. But their sex seems mechanical, to be
more about satisfying carnal impulses and, perhaps, simple friendship than anything
romantic, never mind emotional. Later, as Karim becomes involved in an increasingly
upwardly mobile social circle, associating with the arts community and participating
in theater, he begins a complicated sexual relationship with Eleanor, an actor. Karim
truly loves her and describes their relationship, saying, "I'd never had such a strong
emotional and physical feeling before" (187). For the first time, sex gains an
emotional component, a marked difference from his prior sexual relationships.
Karim's relationships are always compounded with an innate selfishness and reliance
on the material, or, at least, a dismissal of ideology. He is solipsistic, apolitical and is
primarily interested in succeeding but he is often plagued with a lack of motivation.
Still, at the novel's end, when there is promise of success on the horizon, Karim treats
his family to dinner and says "I began to enjoy my own generosity. . . I felt the
pleasure of pleasing others" (283). Granted, this pleasure is fueled by materialism and
money, but Karim transforms (or begins his transmogrification) from a totally self-
involved space to a place of awareness and caring for others.
Charlie is Eva's prodigal son and the object of Karim's affection. Characterized by
Karim as a heart-breaker, Charlie neglects Karim, "neither [phoning] since [their] last
love-making nor [bothering] to turn up" (32). Charlie's only real goal is to become
famousto be a rock starand to employ any method through which to succeed. Charlie
adheres to every trend, be it musical or in the fashion world. Although Charlie's band
begins to amass an audience and buzz, his overriding covetousness of fame and the
burgeoning of the punk movementwhich Charlie capitalizes oninspires him to
abandon the band. Joining the punk movement, Charlie was "on to new adventures,"
literally jettisoning those who helped him succeed (132). Charlie changes his name to
Charlie Zero and becomes an international success and major punk star, moving to
live in New York.
While in New York with his touring play, Karim lives with Charlie and begins to
understand the pressures of celebrity. Charlie attributes his international success to
"selling Englishness" (245). His character represents how individuals can profit off of
other's desires to consume something foreign. This is similar to Haroon's selling of
his "exotic" Indian traditions (245). Charlie's character is about marketing, greed,
fame and a quest for awareness and recognition. Though Charlie feels as fame would
fulfill him, Kureishi seems to posit that, for Charlie, success cannot bring total
fulfillment. This message seems congruous with his treatment of other characters' and
their decisions.
Eva is the ultimate social climber. She represents, in a sense, enlightenment as she
lives her very exciting life, luring artists and intellectuals into her circle. Her
enthusiasm attracts Haroon and the two fall in love, prompting Haroon to leave his
wife and break up his family. In a sense, Eva can be defined economically as
Haroon's agent, providing him with the forums and audience through which he can
market his blend of mysticism and spiritual teachings and advance socially. Eva
desires social mobility as does Haroon, mostly through his associations with Eva;
Haroon's own social goals are slightly more ambiguous, but he and Eva function
socially as a unit and she directs them upward. Similarly, they are both characterized
by Kureishi as exotic because Eva "only had one breast and where the other
traditionally was, there was nothing" (15). It's Haroon's ethnicity in his suburban
London setting which marks him as exotic. The story of her breast is never discussed,
but it becomes defining.
Moreover, Eva's lifestyle, brimming with "mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever
people and drugs" becomes immediately attractive to the young Karim (15). Eva's
lifestyle engenders changes like the family's move to London but at times the novelty
wears off. Eva is incredibly supportive of her son, Charlie, willing him the success
she feels he deserves. Eva's character represents changing social mores and the falling
away of boundaries between parent and child. Like London itself, Eva is both
attractive and mysterious and also somewhat depleting as she invariably strives to
As the novel's namesake, Haroon is a central character in The Buddha of Suburbia.
His name and given identity changes throughout the narrative and he is given many
monikers including: "God," "Harry," "Daddio," amongst others. People call Haroon
different things because he portrays different roles. As he rises in social prominence,
Haroon begins his love affair with Eva. She throws parties at her home and he comes
to entertain her guests. Haroon portrays the "Buddha of Suburbia," using generic
Eastern spiritual teachings to garner status. Haroon defines his identity by whatever is
most palatable, most marketable, though he comes to identify and truly believe in his
own teachings. Nevertheless, he employs teachings which are not endemic to India
nor his own Muslim culture such that he can gain audience and respect from
prominent Brits.
At first, Haroon's trajectory mirrors Charlie, but it's not just fame he covets. For as the
novel progresses, Haroon appears to experience guilt or (perhaps) regret for several of
his choices, including leaving his wife, though he is happy with Eva and the liberating
life they lead. Still, he comes to earnestly believe in his teachings and retreat into his
spiritual world.
As a foil character, it is especially useful to compare Haroon and Anwar as their
identities diverge. As Haroon ages, he attempts to transform into a "qualified and
polished English gentleman" while Antwar begins to identity more with (and in
Haroon's eyes) Indian traditions (24). Though the two men share a kinship formed
from common background, their goals and lifestyles engender different qualities of
life. Similarly, comparing Haroon's growth to his son Karim's illuminates the rites-of-
passage both experience. Haroon ironically profits socially and financially off of his
teachings of selflessness and the jettisoning of the material. But Haroon and Karim's
trajectories seemingly coincide at the novel's end. His studiousness and dedication
show that, perhaps, like his son, Haroon has come to place less importance in that
material he previously coveted.
Anwar and Haroon are sent to England together in their twenties, but they have very
different ideas about almost everything. Anwar opens a market and father's a very
political daughter, Jamila. When Jamila refuses to marry an Indian man that Anwar
has selected he goes on a hunger strike. Jamila speaks to Haroon about it and one of
the major themes of the novel is highlighted. "Anwar is my oldest friend in the world,
he said sadly when we told him everything. ŒWe old Indians come to like this
England less and less and we return to an imagined India." Anwar is a foil to the
character of Haroon another example of the nostalgia that permeates the depictions of
many of the characters, the deep seated longing for things past is seen in both of the
characters. Anwar seemingly represents a more traditional Indian immigrant and yet
Kureshi is sure to prevent any absolutes to be drawn. Anwar is the closest character to
a stereotype that is presented and yet he is too complex and tempered by his
daughter's humanity to read simply as a type. He owns a market and wants his
daughter to be in an arranged marriage but he also loved to goof around as a young
man. Kureshi presents an image and then works to build a history, a story to skew the
readers perspective. Anwar accuses Haroon of "having been seduced by the West"
(211). Anwar, however, like Haroon is a man who selects his history, creates his own
past and belief system, partly in protest and greatly in response to his own
unhappiness and confusion. "Anwar . . . for most of his life had never shown any
interst in going back to India. He was always honest about this" (212). It is striking
that Anwar is depicted in terms that make him seem much older than Haroon, his is
always written of as the more responsible man, the more traditional man, and yet
both's religious beliefs emerge when it is a valuable commodity, or out of habit.
Jamila is the most political of Karim's friends from the suburbs, as a child she spends
a considerable amount of time in the library under the tutelage of a white librarian,
Miss Cutmore. The books she reads initially thrill Jamila and the records she listens
to through Miss Cutmore, however her opinions changed after Miss Cutmore moved
to Bath. Karim, when speaking of this extracurricular education, says "(Jamila)
drove me mad by saying Miss Cutmore had colonized her, but Jamila was the
strongest-willed person I'd met: no one could turn her into a colony. Anyway, I hated
ungrateful people. Without Miss Cutmore, Jamila wouldn't have even heard the word
'colony.' Miss Cutmore started you off, I told her" (53). Karim addresses Jamila's
politics by remarking at times they were French and at times they were Black
American. Beyond just identifying with Black Americans she adopts actions and
ideas and applies them. Jamila also experiments, much like Karim, with her sexuality,
engaging in casual sex with Karim as well as other men and women. Jamila is a
symbol of the rapiditly changing politics and social climate in the world of the novel.
It is through Jamila's causes that the reader is given a view of London's socio-political
climate, outside of Karim's self-centered experience.
Changez is an Indian national who is arranged to be married to Jamila. Although the
entire novel addresses sex directly, Changez and Jamila are they characters with
whom sex is most symbolic. When Changez moves to London and marries Jamila he
is confronted with her absolute refusal to consummate their marriage. Karim gives
Changez some Doyle novels that whet his sexual appetite. This is a nice twist on the
exoticization of Orientalism. It is not the Easterner that comes bearing forbidden
sexuality, it is the European that introduces desire. Changez then begins visiting a
Japanese prostitute, a further tweaking of Orientalism and comes to an understanding
with Jamila, who continues to sleep with Karim and others. Changez is the newest
immigrant in the novel and in some ways the happiest to "adapt". Changez is the truly
the "other," he is from India, physically disabled and not familiar with the ideology
all those close to him adhere to. It is largely through sex and negotiating his sexual
relationship with Jamila he recognizes what responsibility he wants to have and how
to feel fulfilled. Changez is responsible for Anwar's death in an actualization of the
importance of sexuality, Anwar sees Changez on the street and charges him with
intent to maim or kill, Changez had been recently shopping for sex toys and hits
Anwar on the head with a dildo. This head trauma sends Anwar to his death. "The old
man", the man who previously represented the most classical images of India was
murdered by the son-in-law he hated, who does not sleep with his daughter, wielding
a sex aid; it is as if the younger people in the book are killing the older, more
nostalgic characters with their sexuality and politics.
Terry performs the role of the snake in the director Shadwell's version of The Jungle
Book with Karim. Terry believes he will absolutely get a call from a famous director
one day for a great part. He is bitterly disappointed and jealous when Karim is invited
to star in Pyke's show instead of him. Pyke is a famous experimental director who
Terry admires for his work, but not his values.
Terry abides by the system of the working class. He believes in equality for everyone
and that, "people were made by the impersonal forces of history"(162). Instead of
striving for gradual improvement, Terry thinks that in order for things to improve
they must go drastically downhill first. Karim admires Terry because he believes in
equality, but Karim does not want to sacrifice his accomplishments to be treated like
everyone else as Terry does. Terry trusts the working class to defeat racist
organizations and combat left-wing politicians, radical lawyers, and even liberals.
Terry's political passion does not get him very far; he hypocritically acts on a TV
show about cops just for the money.
Matthew Pyke is a major alternative theatre director who casts Karim in his London
show about class. He wants to make each actor's performance as genuine as possible
by having his actors observe people close to them. He especially wants to incorporate
different ethnicities into his show to make it more colorful. Pyke uses Karim for his
Indian identity and foreignness. He says about Karim's aunts and uncles, "I bet they're
fascinating" (170). Pyke romanticizes Karim's family simply because they could be of
a different ethnicity and thus exotic. His theory of acting is, "to be someone else
successfully you must be yourself!" (220).
Pyke takes theatre very seriously, but also takes advantage of his power as a director.
He manipulates Karim into sleeping with his wife and then sleeps with Karim's
girlfriend, Eleanor. Pyke also forces himself sexually onto Karim.
Eleanor is an attractive actress also cast in Pyke's London show. Eleanor and Karim
date throughout its run. Eleanor's life style differs from Karim's in that she is urbane
and inhabits an "unforced bohemia"(174). She is naturally sophisticated and cultured
without putting forth effort like Karim. Karim feels his past is inadequate to her
classy life. He is mortified when she thinks his South London accent is cute. Even
though she is middle class and privileged, Eleanor is very unhappy and dislikes
herself greatly. She is unsure in love and cheats on Karim with their director, Pyke.