The Buddha of Suburbia
One day, when my father came home from work, he put his briefcase away behind the door and stripped to his vest and pants in the front room. He spread the pink towel with the rip in it on the floor. He got onto his knees – and he was by no means a flexible man – placed his arms beside his head, and kicked himself into the air.
‘I must practise,’ he said.
‘Practise for what, Dad?’
Now he was standing on his head on the pink towel. His stomach sagged. His balls and prick fell forward. The muscles on his arms swelled and he breathed energetically. My grandmother, who was not unkind but no physical radical, came into the room with a cup of tea. She looked at Dad and looked at me.
‘Practise, practise, practise,’ Dad said.
Grandma raised her grey head and called out immediately. ‘Margaret, Margaret, he’s doing it again!’
‘Leave it, grandma,’ I said. ‘Please.’
What are you, a policeman?’ she said. She called out once more. ‘Margaret! Just when we’re having our tea!’
Soon my mother hurried into the room to see the spectacle. She wore an apron and wiped her hands again and again on a tea towel.
‘Oh God, Haroon,’ she said to my father. ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God. All the front of you’s sticking out like that so everyone can see!’
She looked at me violently.
‘You encourage him to be like this!’
‘No I don’t.’
‘Why don’t you stop him then?’
She sat down and held her head. ‘Why can’t he be a normal husband?’
My grandmother blew on her tea. ‘Don’t upset yourself,’ she said. ‘That’s why he’s doing it.’
‘That’s not true,’ I said.
My mother’s voice rose. ‘Pull the curtains someone!’
‘It’s not necessary, Mum.’
‘Do it now!’
I quickly pulled the curtains on our back garden. We sat there for a while and looked at oblivious upside-down father. Neither my mother nor my grandmother smiled or said anything. When my father spoke his voice came out squashed and thin. His insides must have got pretty bent up when he did his positions.
‘Karim, Karim, read to me from the book.’
I fetched the book from among all his other books on Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Sufism which he bought at the Oriental bookshop in Cecil Court off Charing Cross Road. I squatted down beside him with it open. Now he was breathing in, holding his breath, breathing out and holding his breath. I read – and I was a good reader, fancying myself at 16 as a potential actor: ‘Suryanamaskar revives and maintains a spirit of youthfulness, an asset beyond price. It is wonderful to know that you are ready to face up to life and extract from it all the real joy it has to offer.’
He grunted his approval at each sentence and then opened his eyes, seeking out my mother. But she had her hand over her face. I read on: ‘This position also prevents loss of hair and reduces any tendency to greyness.’
That was the coup. Satisfied, my father stood up and put his clothes on. ‘I feel better.’
‘Have you finished then?’ Mother said.
‘For today. But I see it as a very regular thing.’
‘Oh no,’ she groaned.
He softened. ‘By the way, Margaret, coming to Mrs Cooper’s tonight?’
‘No,’ she said.
‘Oh come on, sweetie. Please. Let’s just go out together for once.’
‘But it isn’t me that Cheryl wants to see,’ my mother said. ‘It’s you. She ignores me. She treats me like muck. I’m not Indian enough for her.’
‘You could wear a sari,’ he said.
This was my opportunity. ‘I’ll come with you then, to Cheryl’s, if you want me to. I’d planned to go to the chess club but I’ll make the effort.’
I said this as innocently as a vicar, not wanting to stymie things by seeming too eager. I find that in life if you’re too eager others tend to get less eager. And if you’re less eager it tends to make others more eager. So the more eager I am the less eager I seem.
Dad slapped his bare stomach rapidly with both hands. The noise was loud and unattractive. It filled our small house; it drove my grandmother out of the room like bad news.
‘Okay,’ Dad said to me. ‘You get changed, Karim.’ He turned to my mother. ‘Margaret, Margaret. If only you’d come.’
‘I’m not wanted.’
‘You’re pathetic,’ I said hotly.
‘Yes, I’m pathetic.’
And I added, having been reading Nietszche recently: ‘You don’t matter.’
She sighed, having been reading the Gospel: ‘No, I don’t matter.’
I charged upstairs to get changed. I could hear my parents talking downstairs. Would he persuade her to come? I hoped not. My father was more cheerful when my mother wasn’t around.
It took me a long time to get ready. But at seven o’clock I came down dressed for Cheryl’s. I had on turquoise flared trousers; a blue and white flower-patterned see-through shirt; blue suede boots with Cuban heels, and a scarlet Indian waistcoat with gold stitching around the edges. On my head I had a brown headband. On top of all this I put on my grandmother’s furcoat, strapping a belt around my stomach. I was right up to date.
My father waited at the door for me, his hands in his pockets. He had on a black poloneck sweater, black leather jacket, and grey cords. He looked very handsome. When he saw me he looked agitated.
‘You haven’t shaved,’ he said.
‘No. And now there isn’t time. I forgot.’
‘Well. Next time.’
He could be kind like that. Unlike Mum, he was no big conformist. In the living-room my mother was watching TV and eating a big bag of sweets. Without turning round she said: ‘Karim, don’t show yourself up. Get changed! You can’t go out like that!’
‘What about Grandma?’ I said.
‘What about her?’
‘Well ... she’s got blue hair,’ I said.
‘But she’s a woman. And you’re not a woman!’
My father and I got out of the house as quickly as we could. At the top of the street we caught a bus. It wasn’t far – about four miles to the Coopers’. But my father wouldn’t have been able to get there without me. I knew the streets and every bus route and short-cut perfectly. I spent as much time as I could outside the house.
The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.