The Search for Identity in "The Buddha of Suburbia" by Hanif Kureishi

Essay, 2012

10 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Term Paper
The Buddha of Suburbia: Search for Identity
"My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost" (BS
3). The beginning of the novel already reveals the struggle for identity. But what ex-
actly is identity? No one can give a clear definition on what it is - we can only limit the
factors that determine identity, such as class, gender, sexual preference, ethnic
background and education. Moreover, identity is bound to social norms. A boy for
example is expected to like football or cars, whereas girls are expected to be inter-
ested in fashion and shoes. If a person fails to fulfill his gender role, he/she is auto-
matically seen as different and not normal. This way stereotypes are formed. Stereo-
types are fixed notions of racial identities, developed over the years. Even though
often unconsciously: every person generalizes - this is just how the human mind
works. When we see a person for the first time, we immediately tend to put the other
into certain categories. Fortunately, identity is not fixed but a malleable entity con-
structed through social performance. Social performance includes your way of cloth-
ing, behavior, accent and much more. In general, it is your outer appearance com-
bined with your gestures and facial expressions, as well as your way of speaking. To
my mind, every single person creates its own identity unconsciously. On top of that,
nobody can judge his identity by himself - it is judged by others. Every step you take,
and every single reaction of yours in certain situations merge your identity. It is how
other people see and perceive you, while you are yourself. If you try to be someone
you are not, it falsifies your identity and people are not able to see your true self.
However, every person struggles to find his true identity himself. The people in
Buddha of Suburbia
have a hard time finding it, which leads me to the topic of my
paper: the search for identity. I will go into detail about the characters that define their
identity through their social performance, like Charlie with his different music genres
and fashion styles; Haroon and his role of the Buddha through exotic clothing and
customs; and Karim with his problems of finding himself because of self-perception
and stereotypes of others. Every single one of them approaches this struggle differ-
ently. These 3 characters impersonate Hanif Kureishi's representation and creation of
identity through performance and overthrow the idea of the authentic.

Charlie Kay, or later on called "Charlie Hero", is Eva's son and Karim's role
model. He is a handsome guy, easy-going and very ambitious when it comes to pur-
suing his dreams. Charlie is one of the characters, who know exactly what they want
right from the start. To make his dream of becoming a rockstar come true, he is will-
ing to give up his whole identity and start a new one from scratch. He is not afraid of
doing anything to achieve his aims and changes his character to appeal to his audi-
ence by using different music genres and fashion styles to reinvent himself several
times throughout the story. One time, he "reinvents himself as a Ziggy Stardust-like
'spaceman' with 'short, spiky hair dyed white' as well as 'silver shoes and a shiny sil-
ver jacket' " (Buchanan 45, BS 35/37). Another day he joins Karim to a bar called
"Nashville", where Charlie gets to know the members of a punk band by jumping into
their car after their show, of which he is very impressed: "That's it, that's it (...)The
sixties have been given notice tonight. Those kids we saw have assassinated all
hope. They're the fucking future" (BS 131). Even though Charlie hates the way the
punk band in the club behaves and judges their instruments as "unprofessional" (BS
130), he is still willing to adapt their style in order to succeed. When Karim dismisses
his behaviour as artificial, stating that they are not like them, and they have not been
through what they (the Punks) been through, Charlie suddenly gets very angry:
"You're not going anywhere, Karim. You're not doing anything with your life because
as usual you're facing in the wrong direction and going the wrong way" (BS 132).
Charlie is so adamant to succeed that it does not matter to him to adapt to fashion
styles and music he does not like. Later on in the story, Charlie eventually becomes
very famous, so he goes to New York to make the most profit out of it. Having arrived
in the USA, he uses a fake cockney accent in order to sell his Englishness (BS 247).
Moreover, Charlie changes his style of music and fashion again: the ferocity of the
punk sound is gone, making way for a more feeble and dull sound; he wears black
leather clothes with chains and chokers and appeals now to a far different audience
like gays and young girls (BS 247).
However, it should not be forgotten that fame and success comes with its
price. Charlie suffers from sudden blowups of temper. When he and Karim go out for
dinner in a restaurant, he feels observed: "Why are people staring at me when I'm
trying to eat my food! That woman with the powder puff on her head, she can fuck
off" (BS 251)! Another day he beats up a persistent journalist, who wants to interview

him: "Charlie chopped down on him, but the man held on. Charlie hit him with a play-
ground punch on the side of the head, and the man went down, stunned, on to his
knees, waving his arms like someone begging forgiveness" (BS 252). These exam-
ples show that the fame went to Charlie's head and that not everything in his life is
peace, love and harmony. Moreover, taking into account the beginning of the story,
Charlie was like a role-model for Karim and Karim was happy to be in his presence.
In the end of the novel it appears to be exactly the other way around. Charlie now
depends on Karim because his success and fame isolate him from society and actual
people he can trust. Moreover, Karim has known him from childhood days and is
therefore the only person who could "appreciate how far he'd come from his original
state in Beckenham" (BS 250). Charlie does not want Karim to return to London but
eventually lets him go (BS 256/257). To conclude, Charlie's character changes as
well as his identity. Since Charlie is clearly the most flexible character throughout the
story, he proves that identity is certainly not fixed but constructed through social per-
The next character with an identity defined through performance is Haroon,
the namesake of the novel. Haroon is Karim's father and is given many nicknames
throughout the narrative, including: "God," "Harry," "Daddio" and "Buddha". He is a
first generation immigrant from India and stuck in a job he hates and an unhappy
marriage. This is why he begins a relationship with Eva Kay because she - in contrast
to his wife - shares his interest in Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy. She encour-
ages Haroon to share his outlook with others, so he starts holding meditation and
yoga sessions in the neighborhood. Because of his looks and behavior everyone be-
lieves in his wisdom but since Haroon is only "a renegade Muslim masquerading as a
Buddhist" (BS 16) the cultural authenticity gets lost. Furthermore, "the novel pokes
fun at the way Haroon discovers and cultivates his Otherness (from 'books on Bud-
dhism, Sufism, Confucianism and Zen which he had bought at the Oriental
bookshop') and stages it to suite white audiences,
coming to Britain (BS 5)"
(Ranasinha 69). Eva herself sees Haroon as the embodiment of eastern spirituality
and Helen, a girlfriend of Karim, also shares this taste for exoticism: "We like you be-
ing here. You benefit our country with your traditions" (BS 74). In order to make his
performance more authentic, Haroon even tries to relearn his old Indian accent by
"hissing his s's" (BS 21) and wearing exotic clothes. Moreover, Haroon has to prac-

tice his performance to play "the Buddha" more convincingly. This artificial perfor-
mance reinforces and challenges the stereotypical notion of Indianness. It appears at
first that Haroon's behaviour is very similar to Charlie's, but it is not just the fame and
success he covets. Haroon earnestly believes in his teachings - in contrast to Charlie.
While Charlie does not like any of the music he adapts, Haroon is really convinced of
his religion. In addition, Haroon is a very thoughtful character. Even though he is
happy with Eva, he seems to regret leaving his wife and feels guilty about it. The
main compliance between the two is that Haroon is selling his Indianness, whereas
Charlie is selling his Englishness. To conclude, both of them overthrow the idea of
the authentic, since both falsify their true selves in order to appeal to a certain audi-
Karim Amir is the protagonist of the novel. He is a very shy person without
self-confidence, who hasn't got many friends. As the beginning of the novel already
suggests ("Englishman born and bred, almost" BS 3), he is a mixed-race teenager,
with an Indian father and an English mother. Because of this dual heritage, Karim is
always caught in between his Indianness and Englishness, leading to a confusion on
his side of where to belong. Beyond that, Karim's ethnicity is not the only sphere,
where he is caught up in between: his sexual orientation is also complicated.
Throughout the story Karim has many sexual relationships, some with men, some
with women. Since Karim does not claim to be homosexual/heterosexual or Indi-
an/English he always has to negotiate between either one: "I was looking for trouble,
any kind of movement, action and sexual interest I could find, because things were
so gloomy, so slow and heavy, in our family, I don't know why" (BS 3). On top of that,
Karim feels an opposition between societal conceptions of his identity and his self-
perception which often leads him to a state of desperation as the novel progresses.
The start of his career as an actor already marks such an opposition. Eva's old friend
Jeremy Shadwell offers him a role as Mowgli in
The Jungle Book.
At first, Karim is
really passionate and happy about it but it turns out that Shadwell only chose him
because of his exotic looks: "Karim, you have been cast for authenticity and not for
experience" (BS 147).
Shadwell forces Karim to speak in an Indian accent in order to make the play
more authentic. Moreover, Karim has to wear loin-cloth and brown make up on his
skin to improve his looks (BS 146). Later on, Karim joins the theatre group of a man
Excerpt out of 10 pages


The Search for Identity in "The Buddha of Suburbia" by Hanif Kureishi
University of Regensburg
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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search, identity, buddha, suburbia, hanif, kureishi
Quote paper
Marco Schmidbauer (Author), 2012, The Search for Identity in "The Buddha of Suburbia" by Hanif Kureishi, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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