Walking around Bromley today, the architecture does not seem to have changed dramatically in the years since The Buddha of Suburbia was published. The area feels more spruced up than in the pages of the novel; the bomb sites are long gone and the parks are well kept. The defining difference between Bromley in the 1970s and now has less to do with bricks and mortar than racism.
‘Down on my knees in suburbia / Down on myself in every way’ – Bowie’s haunting soundtrack to the film adaptation of Kureishi’s novel, made for the BBC in 1993, accompanies Karim (played by Naveen Andrews) as he whizzes along the streets of Beckenham, Chislehurst and Penge on his bicycle. Bromley could be seen as a crucible for the sometimes bloody revolution in attitudes to Englishness that has been wrought in the suburbs. England’s post-war history of immigration is often referred to in the binary terms of ethnically diverse city and monocultural countryside; very little attention is paid to the suburbs, where most people live.
In a key early scene in the novel, Karim visits Helen, a girl from his school, and is brutally dismissed by her father as ‘a wog’ and ‘little coon’, before being set on by a Great Dane. Typically, Karim tries to laugh off the humiliation by saying the dog was in love with him: its quick movements against his arse told him so. But later in the novel he admits that the racist insults made by Hairy Back (as he dubs Helen’s father) made him ‘nauseous with anger and humiliation’. There is no ‘whining about being spat on at school’ in The Buddha and the routine racism in the suburbs is contemptuously shrugged off for the most part. Nonetheless, when Karim returns to Bromley, his sense of oppression is palpable. The first person he sees is Hairy Back: ‘How could he stand there so innocently when he’d abused me? … I knew it did me good to be reminded how much I loathed the suburbs, and that I had to continue my journey into London and a new life, ensuring I got away from people and streets like this’.
In his landmark essay, ‘The Rainbow Sign’ (1986), Kureishi removed the comic mask in order to describe his childhood in Bromley with his white English mother and his Pakistani father: ‘From the start I tried to deny my Pakistani self. I was ashamed. It was a curse and I wanted to be rid of it. I wanted to be like everybody else. I read with understanding a story in a newspaper about a black boy who, when he noticed that burnt skin turned white, jumped into a bath of boiling water’. This shame and denial were compounded by the absence of any vocabulary with which to resist the racist culture of demeaning subordination and stigmatisation. Nothing was said: nobody in the family seemed to talk about what happened to them outside the house when they came home.
In 2012 I had lunch at an Indian restaurant in Bromley with Kureishi’s sister, Yasmin, and his late mother, who was then still living in the semi-detached house in a quiet cul-de-sac which was the fictional model for Karim’s home. His sister said that as a teenager she loathed going out in Bromley and was glad to have got away to boarding school. His mother still seemed pained and incredulous at the very idea of colour prejudice and insisted that she knew nothing about the racist abuse her son had suffered until she read about it in The Buddha of Suburbia: it was a shock. If she had known he was being spat on at school, she insisted, she would have complained. The mother’s ignorance seemed to exasperate her daughter: either because she didn’t believe her mother hadn’t known, or because she felt Mrs Kureishi should have known better.
When I asked Yasmin about her father she seemed to think that his charisma allowed him ‘to transcend racism’. Although the one thing that all the family seem to agree on is that Shanoo Kureishi loved his home in the suburbs, Yasmin’s belief that he was untouched by racism seemed to mirror her mother’s wishful thinking. Yasmin said that she had known about what happened to her brother alright because ‘he took it out’ on her.
As I walked back to the house, away from her daughter’s watchful gaze, Mrs Kureishi said that when her son was about five years old he had come home upset, asking why he had been called a nigger.
I wondered what she had found to say and she replied, sadly, that she just hadn’t known how to respond. As a teenager in his bedroom in Bromley, Kureishi began his first novel, ‘Run Hard Black Man’: he had to find his own answers through writing. His father couldn’t help him find the way; although in The Buddha of Suburbia they have a good time trying:
Growing up in Bromley today would certainly be very different from forty years ago when the novel was set. Crucially, the area is now casually multicultural and groups of school kids – black, white, Asian – were chatting in the park during the lunch hour. Doubtless it has the pervasive problems brought about by austerity and Brexit, but a mixed race boy in 2020 would not stand out painfully, as Karim does in the novel.
Black Lives Matter has demonstrated that racist violence is not a thing of the past, but at least no one has to suffer in silence. Through its wit and honesty, its sweetness and brutality, The Buddha of Suburbia made speaking about the essential questions of class, sex and racism that much more possible.
Susie Thomas, 2020