In the dictionary the meaning of identity is the following:
“The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group”.
What this however, means in reality for one single, but also for the general public; with new and unknown chances, but also the problems that are hidden behind these words, stay mostly unnoticed.
1.2 Which postcolonial affects existed on the person’s identity in Britain?
On the word of S. Ghumann, the young South Asians face an important challenge regarding the circle of identity formation. Their parents were secure in their personal and social identities since these were firmly grounded in their religion, culture, language and the region of the country they descend from.”In contrast, the younger generation in the West is likely to find identity exploration and formation a real challenge because of dual socialization and racial prejudice.”
According to Ghumann the younger South Asian generation in the West has to cope with unique challenges which influence their identity, even though this generation enjoys many advantages over their immigrant parents, such as stability from the institutions, networks, and other infrastructures built by their parents. He claims that this group of young people is firstly socialized into two different cultural traditions, one of the home and another of the wider society.
II. Factors that influence the protagonist’s identity of The Buddha of Suburbia
The Buddha of Suburbia composed by Hanif Kureishi in 1990 is about a teenager, Karim, who lives in the South London suburbs he frantically tries to escape from. Like all other teenagers, Karim tries to figure out his path in life, his identity. With the help of the first pages we see that for him, although some kilometres away, London seems very far. But soon, his Indian father, Haroon, a yoga-lover, who is accompanied by his mistress Eva, is discovered by London’s high society, thus becoming a sort of a guru. Hence, London becomes more easily accessible. From this moment on everything overturns. Karim is not able to figure out his sexual preference, especially when he gets to know Charlie, Eva’s wannabe rock-star son. He also has to deal with prejudice and racism when he finds out that his cousin Jamila is forced into an arranged marriage by her father, Anwar, who is Haroon’s friend. At the same time he finds out that he has acting talents and that this is what he wants to do in the years to come. So, this dynamic novel, said to be autobiographical, seems to deal with nearly everything: cultural and social differences, sexual dilemmas as well as identity problems.
2.2 General analysis (in relation with analysing the factors which influence Karim’s identity)
The story is set in Britain in year 1969, in the South London suburbs, where we follow the main protagonist Karim, a homosexual teenager who leads an existence under the influence of an everyday life which consists of the parent’s bad marriage and the consequences of this fact. Karim lives with his parents, the Indian father Haroon, the English Mother Margaret and the grandma. Karims father, a Buddhist guru, is supposed to meet up at Eva’s house, a woman which he met at a “writing for fun” class, she seems to be attracted by Haroons charm. With reference to this, he wants his wife Margaret to accompany him. Eva on the other hand rejects the offer due to the fact that she´s somewhat jealous of Eva, she doesn’t feel that she is wanted there and moreover she feels embarrassed over her husband’s oriental way of living. Instead Karim is accompanied by his father. Home at Eva, Haroon introduces the “oriental way of living”, the so-called “path” to the guests after getting persuaded by Eva. Karim gets heated up after seeing that his father is going through some exercises he has from a book. As a result of his anger he cuts himself from the crowd with Charlie, -Eva’s son which Karim seems to be attracted of. In the attic Charlie rolls a joint, which he shares with Karim. Under the almost immediate influence of the drug, Karim goes to the bathroom whereupon he goes outside and spies on his father who is having intercourse with Eva. Karim returns to the attic, where he deals with his feeling for Charlie, as he wanks off him. Unfortunately, both Eva and Haroon walk in on them. When Haroon finds out about his sons sexuality, he explodes on the way home and is overcome by anger, which leads to him nearly hitting Karim. They both decide to never talking about that night again.
The story takes it´s starting point in a rather complex term, identity, with special reference to the factors that are decisive for the identity formation of an individual. Karim, the protagonist is an example of an individual who lives in a multicultural British society, under the influence of his circle of acquaintances contributing to his identity formation.
Karim appears to be a mixture of two cultures due to his parents’ cultural background. The manner, in which he conducts the story, being the narrator, gives an impression of the manner with which he depicts himself as belonging more to his father´s culture than to his mothers, this is particularly due to his relationship to his father. It distinctly appears that Karim has an impression of that his mother doesn’t like him “[...] She ignores me. She treats me like muck. [...]”. Karims everyday life is influenced by his parent’s poor marriage and the melancholic consequences from this fact. What the emotional identity of Karims family concerns, it is characterized by uninterrupted, continuous and subdued emotions “[...] and nervous breakdowns weren’t really within out ambit; nervous breakdowns were as exotic to me as New Orleans.” This fact asserts itself relatively clear with particular reference to Karim´s mother, Margaret’s, identity. Her identity is mainly marked by her poor existence, composed of a melancholic everyday in front of the TV eating sweets. Furthermore she´s not Indian enough for Eva causing, her not to accompany Haroon “I’m not Indian enough [...]”.
Karim´s father has been in Britain since 1947 – twenty-two years – and for eighteen of those years he has lived in the South London suburbs, but even though he has lived in South London for all of those years and works as a employee of the British government, he still stumbles around, not knowing where a particular street (gade) is located. But when he performs with his oriental knowledge he acts with confidence. Haroons oriental knowledge contributes with a role, making him fit in with the monotonous and banal British view with regard to a man from India. This role seems to involve lack of restrictions, making him freer. Karim on the other hand finds it hard to understand that his father, who can’t even find his way to Beckenham, is able to draw everyone’s attention. It´s almost absurd “Oh Christ, I whispered to Charlie, thinking how my father couldn´t even find his way to Beckenham:”. Haroon is also, like Karim, trying to find is fixed place, his identity. He possesses two identities which are clearly illuminated through his existence. What his identities concerns, they are affected by two factors: the life in the suburbs and the life away from the suburbs “[...] he saved all the sullenness and resentful grunting for us. Did these people know he´d sit with his back to us, his supper on his knees, staring out at the back garden while we ate unhappily [...]. As mentioned earlier Karim spies on his father leading to him finding out that he had intercourse with Eva. By catching his father cheating on Margaret, Karim is able to convince himself of that he also can break his limits, and go against the standards of the society surrounding him, which he does, when he´s with Charlie. But another significant basis for Karim and his exploration with reference to his sexuality is also due to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1960´s.
Above-mentioned are all major factors having influence on Karim and his identity formation throughout the story. Another major factor is his sexuality. According to the Sigmund Freud sexuality is a part of an individual’s identity formation. Karim experiences this fact through his friend Charlie, the son of Eva, as mentioned earlier “I dashed for his belt, for his fly, for his cock, and I took him out to air.” Another factor that contributes to Karims identity formation is the race discrimination, experienced home at Eva “The man said to his friend: “Why has Eva brought this brown Indian here?” [...] “And has he got his camel parked outside?” “No he came on a magic carpet”.
“The Buddha of Suburbia emphasizes the banalization of “Eastern” religion in the London of 1960´s.” The Buddha of suburbia illuminates the consequences of being torn between many binaries concerning an individual’s search of identity through actions which leads to the individual crossing all responsible limits, only to find himself.
As it appears from my analysis it can be difficult and really demanding to deal with the clash of cultures. The problem we are dealing with in DK concerns the second generation immigrants mainly from the Middle East and their integration in a society much more different from the one they know. The major part of the problem is due to the cultural background, which they are raised with throughout their lives. For approximately 5-8 years ago, they had to fend for themselves, which isn´t the cause nowadays. Denmark has contributed with opportunities and options for the immigrants, to ensure them a live influenced by a free choose of their identity. The mosques are a good example along with an offer of education and work. Denmark endeavours to give the immigrants what they need to feel themselves comfortable in a society which they don´t know anything about. They get the tools for their identity formation, how they obtain their identity is up to them.
2.3 Karim’s self-image
As a first person narrator of the Buddha the narration is obviously influenced by Karim’s point of view, thus the question on the reliability of the narrator arises. This way all the figures are poured scorn on, e.g. his father, about which he says: “I reckoned his chest was the one area in which he’d been forward-thinking.” This does not mean that the statements of the other figures about Karim are irrelevant. Beside the fact, that those are the only statements, which the text offers, one can evaluate their influence on Karim’s following actions. His self-definition at the beginning of the novel reads as follows:
“I am an Englishman born and bred, almost […] from the South London Suburbs and going somewhere”
This already signifies how he is going to face the world, i.e. without any concrete aim, even though he is certain about becoming something („going somewhere“). He labels himself as “Englishmen”, even though he is conscious, that his Englishness is often doubted:
“I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories.”
There is also the fact that Karim denies to search for a psychological identity in terms of Erikon, which is a clear violation of the rules of the education novel genre:
“Anyway, why search the inner room when it’s enough to say that I was looking for trouble, any kind of movement and sexual interest I could find.”
His indifferent attitude: “I was ready for anything” gets confirmed before the beginning of the second paragraph. This happens in order to get redeemed of a reflected attitude in the end of the novel, which indicates a development:
“I could think about the past and what I’d been through as I’d struggled to locate myself and learn what the heart is.”
Karim’s father came to Britain, a spoilt aristocrat, sent there by his parents to become a doctor but ended up as an underpaid civil servant. “Dad has been in Britain since 1950 – over twenty years – and for fifteen of those years he’d lived in the South London suburbs. But when he does his mock guru session he is liven up and acts with confidence. Karim is confused by his change of direction in identity that his father has set about since [...] “he’d spent years trying to be more of an Englishman.” It seems as if he has become resigned, after half of life trying to adjust himself; “The whites will never promote us, Dad said. Not an Indian while there is a white man left on the earth.” In lieu he decides to take another role that also goes with the stereotypical British view regarding a man from India. This role seems to provide Haroon, who is Karim’s father, more freedom.
Karim cannot comprehend what is happening to his father and to Anwar, when he claims; “For years they were both happy to live like Englishmen.” And now Karim’s father comes across as what westerners would consider as stereotypical Eastern spiritual guide and Anwar betakes to a hunger strike so that his daughter marries the man he has chosen for her. Towards the end of the novel Haroon makes the decision to quit his job and to teach, think and listen. “We old Indians come to like this England less and less and we return to an imagined India”
Karim’s mother works in a shoe shop and does the entire domestic work “For Mum, life was fundamentally hell. You went blind, you got raped, people forgot your birthday, Nixon got elected, your husband fled with a blond from Beckenham, and then you got old, you couldn’t walk out and you died.”
She seems to have been going in the same footsteps for a long time without questioning her life situation. The world crashes down for her when her husband decides to leave her.
At the moment Karim’s father leaves his mother for Eva, the whole family situation is in chaos. “Our whole family was in tatters and no one was talking about it.” Karim decides to go with his father to live with Eva and her son Charlie. By doing so he has a bad conscious because of leaving his mother and worries about how she is doing left there with his younger brother Allie. Karim stands between his new family identity, which is moving to the city of London with the up and coming punk singer Charlie and his old family identity as his mother’s son, which he has left in the suburb: “I had a really family to attend to”.
Karim feels a lot of anger towards his father for leaving his mother: “Mum’s wretchedness was the price dad had chose to pay for his happiness”, but in the mean time he admires him and feels that the new life that he has embarked on is exciting and can lead him towards what he wants for himself. After a while, however, Karim starts to see his real father; the novelty of the move begins to fade away and he sees him more for who he is and he begins to become curious about his behaviour. He does not feel any longer that he would like to be like him: “He’d let me down in some way.”
The emotional identity of the protagonist’s family is characterized by continuity, and subdued emotions: “In my family nervous breakdowns were as exotic as New Orleans”
This especially holds true for Karim’s mother. Her identity is overall connected to the three following factors: the home, her job and the suburb in which they live.
When Karim’s father leaves the family she needs some time to accept her new identity, even though it still is within the suburb. Karim proposes to his father that they should split up but this does not correspond to the suburban way of thinking: “But divorce wasn’t something that would occur to them. In the suburbs people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness. It was all familiarity and endurance: security and safety were the reward of dullness.”
At Anwar’s funeral Karim reflects on his ancestry: “But I did feel, looking at these strange creatures now – the Indians – that in some way these were my people, and I’d spent my life denying or avoiding that fact.
This makes Karim feel both abashed and incomplete as if there is half of him that is missing and that he has been conspiring with the enemies, the whites who want to be like them.
Karim has been schooled up in a suburb of South London, and still, when asked to portray a “black” person for the play he is in, he struggles, since he does not know that many. The main problem is that Karim lacks of experience of two different worlds that his parents have. Karim has still great difficulties to distance himself from the suburb, which is in my opinion a part of his identity as well as a security:
“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.” Even though he, like his stepmother Eva, aspires to escape from that life, it turns out to be hard. One example is when Karim is asked by the doctor Shadwell to make changes to his role which will fit together with what is expected of a stereotypical Mowgli, he reacts with: “I wanted to run out of the room, back to South London, where I belonged, out of which I had wrongly and arrogantly stepped.”
This indicates the fact, of how he doubts his ability to move on and to fit in somewhere else.
3.1 To what extent can I identify myself with Karim?
I am a German citizen with Afghan origins. I was born on the 15th of January 1991 in Siegburg, Bonn. My family emigrated from Afghanistan to Germany in Year 1989 due to the Civil War which started in 1978 in Afghanistan.
As I am, just as the protagonist, originally from another social and cultural background, I can indentify myself to a high extent with the protagonist in this regard, even though one of my parents is not German. I also lack in the life experience which my parents both have, the clash of two different cultures. I think that it is very important for a person, not to stay in one culture, but rather to gain new experiences through getting to know new cultures and traditions. Thus, one becomes more open-minded and tolerant to other cultures. The protagonist in The Buddha of Suburbia lacks of experience at this exact point, which e.g. makes him struggle when he is asked to portray a black man for the play he is in. Furthermore, the protagonist is in between two cultures. Since I was born in Germany and my parents came from Afghanistan, I feel as if I am also in between two cultures, even a mixture of two cultures, even though I have never had the opportunity meet with my parents homeland.
But I also see grave differences between Karim and me. For example, as far as the aspects homosexuality or problems among my parents are concerned. Beside all other factors, the fact that my religion, the Islam, forbids homosexuality, demonstrates that for me homosexuality does not come to question. As regards to the problems among parents, it is to mention, that there are not any problems among my parents, since they have a happy life. Obviously like in any other relationship there are sometimes some disagreements, but it was never that aggravating that my father moved from our house or cheated on my mother. Probably this happened to Karim’s parents, because they had completely different traditions and cultures, which is always one main problem in intercultural marriages.
I think that people, who are from different social and cultural background, have a similar process of forming their identity. They get in touch with “two different worlds”, but if the parents are from another origin, then the situation gets more complicated, like we see in Karim’s case.
This essay deals with the formation of a person’s identity by the multicultural British society in the text The Buddha of Suburbia, by Hanif Kureishi. Chapter one developed and discussed what identity is and how a person’s identity is evolved. Chapter two dealt with the novel in general, it dealt with how community, parents and family influence the identity of a young individual. Chapter three briefly discusses to which extent I can personally identify myself with the protagonist, since I am also from another social and cultural background.
For Karim the question of identity is important and not something to be taken for granted. For him, identity is a constant source for questions about himself, his present and future. He tries and tests boundaries, prejudices and tradition. Karim is struggling with dual ethnic backgrounds, searching for something new, no matter what the others expect from him. He strives towards individuality and individual freedom to discover his true self.
The novel gave me an insight into the development of a teenager’s identity, someone with immigrant background, growing up in multicultural Britain.
It feels, as if the author, by making a successful character out of Karim, wants to convey a positive example as proof that a change has, and is, taking place in British society and that the individual now has more freedom and choice in evolving his or her true self, than it used to be possible. Moreover he wants to show that each person is responsible for his or her identity at last, although his or her identity is influenced by many factors. Sometimes Karim appears to be an unrealistic character and to be distanced from the other more realistic characters in the text through making the protagonist to be a success and to break the negative standard.
Karim grows and goes forward in his identity through his desire to look elsewhere and to achieve something for himself away from where he first starts out (the suburb). It is through the meetings that he has with other people, where he is confronted with other peoples’ views and in which he can mirror himself, which he is able to grow in identity. These revelations make him more secure about what to choose for himself, his place and future.
As a result of my essay I will summarize my answer to the research question. Karim, the protagonist of The Buddha of Suburbia, is influenced by various factors in multicultural Britain. On the one hand his identity is influenced by his parents. His daily life is affected by his parents’ poor marriage. When he moves with his dad to London, he stands between his new family identity and his old family identity. On the other hand he feels that he can not fit in somewhere else and wants to go back to the suburbs.
Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia, London: faber and faber from 1990
Guhmann, Singh Asian Adolescents in the West, Leicester from 1999
Woodward, Questioning identity, gender, class, nation, from 2004
Kalra, A postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain, from 2008
Richard, Lewis, Multiculturalism Observed: Exploring identity, from 2006
Agnes, Michael, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, from 2002
Hall, Stuart,Paul Du Hay Questions of Cultural Identity, from 1996
Woodward, Kath, Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Nation
Webster’s New World College Dictionary
S. Guhmann, British Phsychological Society, 1999
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Guru English South Asian Religion, Page 255
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