I last read The Buddha of Suburbia, by Hanif Kureishi, when it was assigned reading in high school. It’s been about fifteen years since then (yes, I’m this old) and I recently picked up another copy. Before I read it, I wanted to record everything I remember from it, through the haze of fifteen years of soft living. After I read it again (if I read it again, let’s be realistic) I can see what I missed or what I got wrong.
The book follows a young man, born in England to Indian parents, as he comes of age and joins a theater troup. It’s told first person singular, from his perspective. I don’t remember his name; I don’t remember any of their names, actually. When the protagonist is about sixteen, his parents split up. His father takes up with a white woman who lost a breast to cancer. At some point the protagonist covertly watches them having sex, and notes her asymmetry. I remember this vividly because the idea of a one-breasted woman revolted the boys in my class. The teacher asked, what would you do if a girl you liked was missing one? “I’d just walk away,” one boy said, shaking his head, eyes closed. Other boys looked like they’d endured a grave psychic wound, or bit into a chocolate bar and found half a cockroach inside.
Later, the protagonist’s mom starts dating another man. This upsets the father because he somehow thought she was still “his” even after the divorce. The protagonist sees his parents talking at a party and realizes that they’re just people, like any other people on the street. This idea made a big impression on seventeen-year-old me. I wouldn’t say it sunk in.
The protagonist joins a theater troupe in London around the same time that his dad becomes a spiritual leader to bored housewives in their town–hence the book’s title. It’s a modern theater troupe, not Shakespearean or Agatha Christie. The protagonist comments on how being an actor messes with your sense of time: you’re awake until at least two in the morning, rehearsals don’t start until the afternoon, then you work from around 6 P.M. until ten. And then what do you do with yourself? I think my memories of this part are conflated with other show business memoirs and novels. The protagonist plays Jesus in some play, but I don’t think that’s a genuine memory from reading the book–I’m remembering a promotional image for the tv show adaptation. The book ends with the protagonist at a party, looking out over the Thames, or some body of water, and reflecting on his life. Or is that The Great Gatsby?
The cover is a striking collage including women in saris, upper-class English businessmen, some Indian holy man, etc. I’m cheating with this one because my new copy has the same cover.
Well, there you have it. God knows I’m badly wrong. I’m sure I missed and misremembered a lot. I shudder to think what pre-rereads of my books would read like.