What thematic and formal strategies does Hanif Kureishi employ to reconstruct his characters’ Indian identities in the postcolonial England of the 1970’s? Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia is, among other things, a novel about the quest for identity on many levels: social, sexual, political and ethnic. Set in the postcolonial England of the 1970’s, it illustrates the complex experience of Asian individuals living in a multicultural and heterogeneous Britain. Published in 1990, Kureishi’s novel challenges the popular prejudices of the time and uncovers many of the ironies behind the creation of British multiculturalism. Indeed, all the Asian characters present in the story understand their relationship and ties to their Indian origins in different ways. For instance, Anwar and Haroon, both first-generation immigrants, turn out to be exact opposites outside of their motherland. They symbolize the intricacies of social integration. On the other hand, Karim and Jamila are still categorized as Indians because of their skin colour, despite the fact that they were originally born in the United Kingdom. Their struggles are crucial aspects of postcolonial identity within the suburbs of England. The “Englishness” of Karim and his family members are thwarted when his father decides to return to his Buddhist faith, raising questions of Indian identity within the family unit. Thus, The Buddha of Suburbia is, in essence, a novel about ambivalence. It recounts the difficulties of concomitantly tracing one’s cultural roots while trying to become well integrated into a society full of social iniquities and preconceptions. The aim of this essay will be to analyse how those themes underpin the characters’ reconstruction of their Indian identity.
One recurring element that exists in The Buddha of Suburbia is the ambivalence that the characters feel outside of their motherland. Anwar represents a much more traditional and somewhat stereotypical Indian immigrant than Haroon, whom he reproaches of “having been seduced by the West” (211). Anwar’s return to his radical roots symbolizes the nostalgia towards a past that may never have existed: Anwar is my oldest friend in the world, he said sadly when we told him everything. We old Indians come to like this England less and less and we return to an imagined India. (74) On the other hand, Haroon tries to integrate perfectly in the society and aims to become a “qualified and polished English gentleman”. In this process of integration, he must portray different roles and change his identity many times. Hence the various nicknames that he acquires: “God”, “Harry”, “Daddio” and eventually portraying “The Buddha of Suburbia”; as though finding a marketable identity was the key element to fit in this western society, even if that means betraying one’s own culture. Indeed, Haroon’s spiritual teachings do not exactly reflect his Indian or Muslim background. They were actually made to attract a much larger British audience and gain respect from influential people. Haroon and Anwar have two different ways of reconstructing their Indian identity. Yet their actions both result from environment they live in and the feelings that they acquire from it. Anwar’s recreation of his own past and belief system clearly echoes his unhappiness and confusion. In contrast, Haroon’s choice of taking on different roles is essentially a way of escaping from being othered. This very idea of assuming numerous identities and appropriating another person’s story in order to discover one’s own is quite a significant theme is the novel. Karim’s exploration of his cultural roots begins through the performance of typically colonialist plays like Kipling’s The Jungle Book (147). The confusion of identities not only questions the construction and, subsequently, the deconstruction of cultural stereotypes but it also underlines the problems that migrants face in a country that is supposedly not their own,...
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