I don’t remember if I watched The Buddha of Suburbia series first or read the book. I suspect it was the series, though the two complement each other so well it feels like a contiguous space, a world so expertly depicted that it blurs between mediums. Karim – Kreamy – was of course the initial draw. Watching, in my late teens, this nervous, self-effacing, adventurous brown boy, played by Naveen Andrews, stomping around familiar suburbs with flares, long hair and open-buttoned shirts was a novel and riveting experience.
The narrative of both the series and the book is anchored by a naivety, panache and the characters’ incremental realisations, keeping a tightness of feeling through the disparate storylines and characters. The endearing unhingedness of Changez; the earnest courage of Jamila; the perceptive cynicism of Karim's father Haroon; and the snipes and swipes at middle England were all too recognisable. This was my world, growing up in suburban Croydon. It was also my parents' world of the 1980s, where second-generation London Indians were the penetrating subcultures of the inner city.
The series, directed by Roger Mitchell and written by Hanif Kureishi, has been streaming over the past few months on BBC iPlayer after a period of relative obscurity, at least compared to Kureishi’s more successful film outings My Beautiful Launderette (1985)and My Son the Fanatic (1997). Reengaging with the series today feels both comforting and urgent. Its light-hearted pomp together with a workman-like storyboard, taps into the living-room theatre of viewership in which broadcast television thrives, allowing passing interest to develop into animated involvement.
The narrative centres on Karim, a young half-Asian, half-white boy on the cusp of adulthood, while his father, Haroon – played by the indomitable Roshan Seth – moonlights as a spiritual guru for his suburban neighbours. Initially it is a forced act, poking fun at his devotees as much as imparting knowledge, but as the story unfolds – and Haroon meets greater success – he starts believing in his hodge-podge of Eastern spirituality and Western self-help. This takes Haroon away from Karim's mother and towards Eva, a social climber who sees Haroon as her ticket out of the suburbs and into the city.
Eva’s son Charlie is also a trend-chaser, eventually ending up as a punk star based in New York. His relationship with Karim varies from aloof to manipulative. Parallel to this story, Anwar, Haroon’s friend from their initial migration, arranges his daughter Jamila’s wedding to a Pakistani man called Changez. Jamila, childhood friends with Karim, accepts under duress, only to rebel, joining a commune. Karim enters theatre as an actor, moving through troupes to more success while handling issues of race, class and sex as explicit topics of cultural production as the 1970s pass, giving way to Thatcher’s election at the conclusion of the story.
The Buddha of Suburbia is satire as critique, where oppositional politics, the mainstreaming of subculture into hegemonic culture, and the persistence of middle-class Englishness interweave through late 1970s Britain, forming the roots of the Thatcherite 1980s. Writing from the end of that era (the book was first published in 1990; the series first screened in 1993) it tracks the points at which it all went wrong, making sense of the Kureishi’s own malaise as much as the wider shift in national culture.
There is much we can learn from this in the present conjuncture – understood via Stuart Hall as a “condensation of dissimilar currents”, within which ideological elements articulate themselves into coherent discourses according to political subjectivities. Reading the present back into a cultural object of a different conjuncture, a similar but different era, can help disarticulating the sealed narratives and ever-replaying discourses.
But The Buddha of Suburbia is also entertainment, geared towards the same schlocky mainstream that it seeks to undermine. Did we ever really leave middle England? Kureishi’s success as a writer opened the door for a brand of multicultural liberalism to emerge. Kureishi was the first British-born non-white writer to achieve significant literary recognition, with writers like Zadie Smith later taking on the mantle, while also laying the groundwork for films and series like East is East and Citizen Khan. In this move, Kureishi’s spikier, more experimental work was streamlined into a genre of urban multiculturalism, defanged of its more transgressive elements. The literary modernism of Sam Selvon, Dambudzo Marechera and Wilson Harris are occluded in this genealogy, while the workshop film collectives such as Retake and the Black Audio Film Collective meet similar fates, sitting on the outskirts of more formalist art and avant-gardist tendencies.
In this sense, The Buddha of Suburbia is an interesting cipher of social change where cultural undercurrents of an oppositional nature are commodified, made visible and linear for exchange and consumption. This is clear with Charlie's shift from bored suburban kid through to punk frontman and on to glam New Romantic. It is mirrored too in his mum Eva's ascent from parochial housewife to high society interior designer, as well as Karim's through theatre. But in packaging it as a linear narrative, its relative coherence ultimately fails to deconstruct the underlying premise of capitalist desire. Kureishi errs on the side of caution. Moments of disjunction, reflecting fragmented subjectivities, are resolved through glib narrational expediency.
Karim’s journey as an actor in various theatre groups is similarly a comment on alienation and sociality. Comedy inserts itself to elicit shared responses, while lessening a loftiness of sentiment. His uncle, steadfast in his seemingly traditional patriarchal position, giving way to the endearing whimsy of Sherlock Holmes-loving Changez. Representation, in the theatrical sense, is made more palatable, aligning the telling of our story with the telling of the nation. Something for which television provides a suitable theatre where the comic living-room is interpenetrated with dissolving social norms and conflicting identity formations: the action plays out on screen and in our domesticated interiors.
What, though, remains at the margin? There persists, at root, a central concern of disidentification: of somehow embodying a normative subjectivity through non-normative positionality. David Bowie’s involvement with the series is no coincidence – as a popular figure he provided a focal point around which orbit variegated tentacular sets of positions, interests and desires. His performance cuts through a multitude of intersecting and divergent drives, facilitating a series of dis-identifications. This is where the popular intersects with the sensuous. Kureishi uses this to emphasise, cleverly, the everyman-but-not-quite nature of Karim. His pilgrimage through the city – exploring modes of inhabitation – is a modern legend of sorts that seeks to show the individual's path through the modality of the popular, where identity is constantly being negotiated on a social and aesthetic level.
Karim’s negotiations of his sexuality also serve as a commentary on an indeterminate desire. His adolescent experiments with Jamila – living out a drama derived from French novels – and his gay experiences with Charlie point to a fragmented coming-of-age, yet one never unbelievable in its chaotic energy. Both Jamila and Charlie continue to be nodes of sexual deviancy, pushing at the boundaries of social reproduction (Jamila in a commune, collectively raising her child; Charlie experimenting with BDSM on his trip to stardom). Meanwhile Karim's most long-standing engagement is with the well-healed Eleanor, a trope of Asian masculinity and English femininity that is paralleled in the narrative of his father and Eva.
Kureishi's earlier film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) is perhaps his most thorough and transgressive look at sexual politics. There, Sammy's Pakistani father Rafi also becomes entangled with an old Anglo-Indian friend, with Sammy and Rosie’s open relationship providing the centrifugal force of the narrative around which wider social unrest revolves, all the while working through a middle England bourgeois sensibility and the clash with changing social attitudes. The Buddha of Suburbia is more of a commentary on these anarchic cross-racial, cross-class relationships the potential for radical transformation is dialled down. By 1990, Thatcherism had won out. Subcultures had been commodified. Opposition was incorporated into an alternative consumer choice. The Buddha of Suburbia functions as a historiographic metafiction in this way.
But what intrigues me about the TV show still is the way the social drama is constantly undercut by satire. A more earnest modernism would see this as somehow grating, but elements here continue to resonate. The metafiction is of course Kureishi's own world, and his knowledge of its ambivalent and unsettled nature is ever-present in the writing.
In 1975, the British-West Indian writer Sam Selvon published the novel Moses Ascending. A sequel to his earlier, more modernist, The Lonely Londoners (1956) – a novel that tracks West Indian migrant life in London typified by social alienation and drudgery – Moses Ascending satirises the British Black Power movement and many of the socio-political developments of the decades since the former book’s publication. In this, Kureishi was hot on Selvon’s heels. The parody is one of failure. It is about recognising capture, sinkholes, about how desires reconstitute themselves through the prisms of seemingly radical political form, social genre or aesthetic medium. We look into the conjuncture and see the unresolved dissimulation, the unmediated excess, the individualist drive cloaked as underground cool, the middle class and the insincere, amidst the fragments of ambivalent survival and sceptical semiosis.
At Christmas this year, I returned to Croydon from overseas. The draw of the city proper was nagging. The city buckled under strikes, inflation and gentrification. And still the desire lurked: to act in this libidinal economy, even against the increasing curtailment of possibility, where authentic experience chafes against whatever fresh hell the doyens of the culture industry decide to produce. Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia sketches out how we might see the transmutation of desire into interest, the shift of seemingly radical positions into identitarian fiefdoms suppliant to capital. We would do well to satirise it all, airing out the charlatans, the banality, the stench of ossified self-interest. Instead, we could build out from the ordinary eccentricity that populates the living rooms of our metropolis, the incidental and the jocular as nodes for navigating the sediments of urban life.
Kashif Sharma-Patel is a London-based writer, poet, and editor at the87press. Kashif has written across music, literature, and art for The Quietus, AQNB, The Poetry Project Newsletter, and more. Pamphlets include relief I willed it (Gong Farm, 2021), fragments on mutability (Earthbound Press, 2020), and Suburban Finesse, co-authored with Ashwani Sharma and Azad Ashim Sharma (Sad Press, 2021). They run a newsletter called culture hawker at kashifsp.substack.com.