The Buddha of Suburbia

Hanif Kureishi

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.

My father had been in Britain since 1947 – 22 years – and for 18 of those years we’d lived in the South London suburbs. But he still stumbled around the place like a new immigrant. He asked people incredible questions like: ‘Is Dover in Kent?’ I would have thought, as an employee of the British Government, as a Civil Service clerk, he’d just have to know these things. But he didn’t. I’d crawl under the table with embarrassment when he halted strangers in the street to ask directions to places that were a hundred yards away in an area he’d lived in for almost two decades. But people weren’t repelled by his naivety and women seemed drawn by his innocence; they wanted to wrap their arms around him or something, so lost and boyish he looked at times. Not that he was a complete innocent. When I was small and we’d sit in Lyon’s Corner House he’d send me like a message pigeon to an attractive woman at another table and have me announce: ‘My daddy wants to give you a kiss.’ Looking at him, they were never offended; they were inevitably amused.

So he taught me how to flirt with everyone; but I don’t think he’d slept with anyone but my mother while married. I suspected that Mrs Cheryl Cooper – who Dad met at a ‘writing for pleasure’ class – wanted to chuck her arms around him.

On the way to Mrs Cooper’s we stopped off at a pub and had a pint of bitter each. I wasn’t used to alcohol and became drunk immediately.

‘Your mother upsets me,’ Dad said. ‘She doesn’t join in things. It’s only my damn effort keeping this whole family together! No wonder I need to make my mind blank!’

I suggested: ‘Why don’t you get divorced?’

‘Because you wouldn’t like it,’ he said. ‘Otherwise – who knows.’

‘I see. It’s all up to me then.’

But I knew they wouldn’t divorce, even though they fought all the time. It wasn’t something that could possibly occur to them. In the suburbs I knew, people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness. It was all familiarity and endurance. Nothing would change.

The Coopers were better off than us and had a bigger house, with a drive and a garage. Their place stood on its own in the tree-lined road off Beckenham High Street. It had an attic, a garage, a greenhouse, three bedrooms and central heating.

I didn’t recognise Mrs Cooper when she greeted us at the door. I thought we’d come to the wrong place. The only thing she had on was a full-length multi-coloured kaftan. Her hair was down, and out, and up, and wild-looking. She could have benefited from my headband. Her eyes she’d darkened with kohl. Her feet were bare, the toes painted green. My mother never painted her fingers or toes.

When the front door was safely shut, Cheryl hugged my father and kissed him all over his face. This was the first time I’d seen him kissed with interest. There was no sign of Mr Cooper. When Cheryl moved, when she turned to me, she was like a kind of human crop-sprayer, puffing out clouds of Eastern-smelling perfume, like some of the hippy girls I went to concerts with at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. I was trying to think if Cheryl was the most sophisticated person I’d ever met, or the most pretentious, when she kissed me on the lips. She looked me all over and kept saying: ‘Karim, Karim, you look so exotic, so original! It’s so you!’

‘Thank you, Mrs Cooper. If I’d had more notice I’d have dressed up.’

‘With your father’s wonderful wit too, I see!’ she said.

I looked up and saw that Paul, her son, who was at my school but a year older, was sitting at the top of the stairs, behind the bannisters. He was smiling at me. On the way to Cheryl’s I’d deliberately excluded him from my mind. I hadn’t believed that he would be in, that he would have waited in to see me, that he wouldn’t have had something terrifically important to do that evening, like doing a psychedelic painting, playing a noisy gig with his band or making love to his girlfriend at a party.

‘Hallo baby,’ he said to me, coming downstairs. ‘Glad to see you.’

He embraced my father and called him by his first name. What confidence and style Paul had! He followed us into the living-room.

What the fuck was going on?

Cheryl had pushed back the furniture. The Liberty patterned armchairs and Habitat glass-topped tables were up against the bookshelves. The curtains were pulled. Four middle-aged men and four middle-aged women, all white (terribly white), all suburban, sat cross-legged on the floor, eating peanuts and drinking wine. There was some terrible old-fashioned chanting music playing that reminded me of funerals.

‘Don’t you just love Bach,’ Paul said.

‘It’s not really my bag.’

‘Okay. Fair enough. It’s not everyone’s. I think I’ve got something that’s more your bag upstairs.’

‘Where’s your dad?’

‘He’s having a nervous breakdown.’

‘Oh.’

‘He’s gone back to his mother.’

‘I see.’

I realised then that in a lot of ways we were just a plain family. Divorces and nervous breakdowns weren’t really within our ambit; nervous breakdowns were as exotic to me as New Orleans. I thought of Paul’s father in a strait-jacket, perhaps in a padded cell.

Now my father was sitting on the floor talking to some of the people in the room. The talk was of music and books, of people like Dvořák, Krishnamurti and Jung. Looking at them closely I reckoned the men were in advertising or design or something almost artistic like that. I remembered that Paul’s father designed advertisements. Whoever these people were, there was a terrific amount of showing-off going on – more in this room than in the whole of the rest of Southern England put together.

At home my father would have roared with laughter at all this hot air, telling my mother how much he hated jumped-up people. But now, in the thick of it, he looked as if he was having the highest time of his whole life. He was leading the discussion, talking quickly and loudly. He talked over other people and kept interrupting them and he wasn’t afraid of touching whoever was nearest. I could see the men and women slowly gathering in a circle around him on the floor. I wondered why 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 at the table? Did they know he would go a fortnight without speaking to any of us?

I noticed that a man who was sitting near me turned to the man next to him and indicated my father. Dad was now in full flow about the oneness of the cosmos with a woman who was wearing nothing but a man’s shirt and a pair of black tights. The woman kept nodding enthusiastically at Dad.

The man said to his friend: ‘Why has Cheryl brought this brown Indian here?’

‘To give us a demonstration of the mystic arts.’

‘And has he got his camel parked outside?’

‘No, he came on a magic carpet!’

I gave the man a mean little kick in the back. Sharply he looked up.

‘Sorry,’ I said, and touched the palms of my hands together and bowed my head. I could hardly believe it myself, but he did the same back to me.

Paul turned to me. ‘Pretentious,’ he said.

‘What?’ I moved closer to him, holding his arm. ‘Yes, the sound of one buttock farting.’

‘Come to my pad, Karim.’

‘Okay, let’s go.’

Before we could leave the room, Cheryl came back in and turned off the lights. Over the one remaining lamp she draped a large diaphanous neckscarf. I noticed that her movements had become rather balletic. One by one people fell silent. Cheryl looked down and around at everyone, smiling like mad.

‘So why don’t we relax?’ she said. Three or four of them nodded their agreement. Someone said: ‘So why don’t we?’

‘Yes, yes,’ someone else said. This person then flapped his hands like loose gloves; he opened his mouth as wide as he could and thrust his tongue out.

Cheryl turned to my father and waved her arm at him.

‘My good and deep friend Haroon here, he will show us the way. The Path.’

‘Oh Christ,’ I whispered to Paul, thinking how my father couldn’t even find his way to Beckenham. ‘Christ Almighty.’

‘Watch, watch,’ Paul said.

My father stood up and Cheryl sat down. Now Dad moved easily amongst the sitting people. They looked keenly and expectantly at Dad, though two men glanced at each other as if they wanted to laugh. Dad spoke slowly and with confidence, as if he knew for sure he had all their attention and they’d do everything he asked. I was sure he had never done anything like this before. He was going to wing it.

‘The things that are going to happen to you this evening are going to do you a lot of good. They may even change you a little. But there is one thing you must not do. You must not resist. If you resist it will be hopeless. If you resist it will be like trying to drive a car with the brakes on.’

He paused. They didn’t take their eyes off him.

‘We’ll do some floor work. Please sit with your legs apart.’

They parted their legs.

‘Raise your arms.’

They raised their arms.

‘Now, breathing out, stretch down to your right foot.’

They all stretched out for their right foot, the women being more flexible and graceful than the men. They came up, looking a little flushed and distracted.

‘Down to your left foot! And hold it!’

After five or six basic positions which I recognised from the yoga book Dad had got out of the library, he had them lying on their backs. Obviously unused to exercise, they were glad to be resting. To his soft commands they were relaxing their fingers one by one, then their wrists, their toes, their ankles, their foreheads, their scalps. They were making the low ‘Om’ sound, their stomachs vibrating. They were imagining beaches, gardens and palm trees. They were taking a psychic holiday. Even I felt weak.

Meanwhile Dad had removed his shirt and vest, shoes and socks. He padded around the circle of dreamers, lifting an arm here, a leg there, testing them for tension. Cheryl, lying there on her back, was watching my father with one eye open. When he walked past she lightly touched his foot with her hand. She pinched his big toe. My mother was eating sweets in front of the TV.

I hissed to Paul: ‘Let’s get out of here before we’re hypnotised like these fucking idiots.’

‘Okay. But isn’t it fascinating?’

‘Absolutely unique.’

Paul and I climbed the ladder to the attic where he had the whole huge space to himself. It stretched out across the top of the house. He’d painted Zen scripts, mandalas and hippy heads on the sloping walls and low ceiling. His drum-kit stood in the centre of the floor. Big cushions were flung about.

‘Heard anything good lately?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. After the calm silence of the living-room our voices sounded absurdly loud and strained. ‘The new Stones’ album. Get yer yas ya’s out it’s called. I played it at the school music society today and people threw off their jackets and ties and danced. I was on top of my desk! You should have been there.’

I knew immediately that I’d been crude. Paul threw his hair back.

‘On top of your desk? I think I’d better play you something really good, Karim.’

So he put on a record by the Pink Floyd called Ummagumma. While I forced myself to listen he sat opposite me cross-legged and rolled a joint.

‘Your father. He’s the best. He’s wise. D’you do that stuff every morning?’

I looked at him. I nodded. A nod can’t be a lie.

‘And chanting too?’ he asked.

‘Chanting? No, not chanting every day. At least not in the morning.’

I thought of the morning in our place: the toast on fire; me frantically conjugating French verbs for my first class; my father running around the house, his face covered in shaving-cream, looking for his train pass; my sister and I wrestling over the newspaper; my mother complaining about having to go to work in the shoe shop.

Paul handed me the joint. I pulled on it and handed it back. I’d never taken drugs before. I was so excited and dizzy I stood up immediately.

‘What are you doing?’

‘I have to go to the bathroom.’

‘Now?’

‘Yes, yes!’

I flew down the attic ladder. In the Coopers’ bathroom there were framed theatre posters for Genet plays. There were bamboo and parchment Zen scrolls with flamboyant ink writing on them. There was a bidet. As I sat taking it all in, I realised suddenly and with excitement I wanted all my life to be lived this intensely: mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs. I hadn’t come upon it all like this before, but now I wanted nothing else.

And Paul? Paul had the longest hair in the school. Parted in the centre, it curtained his face and fell straight down his back. He was a painter, a poet, a musician, as well as the school rebel. He had a motorbike and a girlfriend with Pre-Raphaelite hair. To me Paul was a god. But my love for him was unusual: it was not generous. I admired him more than anyone but I didn’t wish him well. It was that I preferred him to me: I wanted to be him. I wanted his talents, his skills, his face, his taste. I wanted to wake up with them all transferred to me.

When I’d finished in the bathroom I stood in the hall. The whole house seemed to be silent, though from the attic came the distant sound of ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’. Someone in the house was burning incense. I crept down the stairs to the ground floor. The living-room door was open. I peered round it into the dim room. The advertising men and their wives were sitting up, cross-legged, straight-backed, their faces open. They breathed deeply and regularly. Neither Cheryl nor my father were in the room.

I left the hypnotised Buddhas and went through the house and into the kitchen. The back door was wide open. I stepped outside into the darkness. It was a warm evening; the moon was full. I might have guessed.

I got down on my knees. I knew it was the thing to do – I’d gone intuitive since my Dad’s display. I crawled across the patio. They must have recently had a barbeque since razor-sharp lumps of charcoal stuck into my knees, but people have suffered worse. I reached the edge of the lawn. I could see vaguely that in the centre of the lawn there was a garden bench. As I moved closer there was enough light from the moon and kitchen window for me to see that Cheryl was on the bench with her kaftan up around her neck. If I strained I could see her chest. And I did strain. I strained until my eyeballs went dry in their sockets. Eventually I knew I was right. Cheryl had only one breast. Where the other usually was, there was nothing. She was flat, one-sided.

Beneath all this and virtually hidden from me was my father. I knew it was Dad because he was crying out, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,’ across the Beckenham gardens with little concern for the neighbours. Was I conceived like this, I wondered, in the suburban night air, to the wailing of Christian curses from the mouth of a Muslim masquerading as a Buddhist?

Suddenly Cheryl slapped her hand over my father’s mouth. This was a little peremptory, I thought, though I refrained from objecting. But my God, Cheryl could bounce! Head back, eyes to stars, kicking up from the grass like a footballer, her hair flew. But what of the crushing weight on my father’s backside? Surely the impress of the thrusting bench would remain for days burnt into his poor buttocks, like grill marks on a steak? Shouldn’t I rescue him? This could not be pleasure.

Then Cheryl released her hand from his mouth and he started to laugh and laugh. It was the laugh of someone I didn’t know. It was pleasure all right.

I rapidly crawled away, wondering if Cheryl was watching my wriggling rear. In her kitchen I poured myself a glass of whisky and threw it down my throat.

Paul was lying on his back on the attic floor. I took off my boots and lay down beside him. He passed me the joint he was smoking.

‘So Paul. Everything all right?’

‘You’re all right, Karim. You’re terrific.’

‘Am I?’

I was encouraged and uplifted by his words.

‘But listen,’ he said. ‘You’re not to take this badly.’

‘No, never.’

‘You’ve got to wear less.’

‘Wear less, Paul?’

‘Dress less. Yes.’ He got up onto one elbow and concentrated on me. I loved his beautiful mouth being this close. ‘Levi’s, I suggest, with an open-necked shirt, maybe in pink or purple, and a thick brown belt. Forget the headband.’

‘Forget the headband?’

‘Yeah.’

I ripped my headband off and tossed it across the floor.

‘For your mum,’ I said.

He laughed. ‘You see, Karim, you tend to look a little like a pearly queen in that gear.’

‘A pearly queen? I see.’

I, who only wanted to be like him, as clever, as artistic, as attractive in every way, tattoed his words on my brain. Levi’s, with an open-necked shirt, maybe in purple or pink. I would never go out in anything else for the rest of my life.

While I contemplated myself and my entire wardrobe with absolute loathing and wished to urinate on the lot, Paul lay there massively calm with his eyes closed. Everyone in the damn house but me was practically in heaven. And the dope was refusing to fly me anywhere.

When I put my hand on Paul’s thigh he made no response. I rested it there for a few minutes until sweat broke out on the ends of my fingers. Then I moved my hand up a couple of inches. His eyes remained closed. But in his jeans he was growing, the dirty bastard. I grew confident. I became insane. I dashed for his belt, for his fly, for his cock, and I took him out to air. I held him without moving my hand for several hours, thinking of nothing but whether I should go on, go back or remain. But then he twitched himself. A sign! He was alive too! Whenever I stopped moving he twitched himself. Through such human electricity we understood each other.

‘Where are you, Paul?’ I said, moving to kiss him. He avoided my lips. He turned his head to one side.

‘Do you dig this?’ I asked.

‘Me?’ he said. ‘But you know me, Karim. Try anything once.’

‘Can’t you ... won’t you try to kiss me then?’

He evaded my lips.

When he came, it was, I swear, one of the great moments of my earlyish life. There was dancing in my streets. My flags flew, my trumpets blew!

I was licking my fingers and thinking of where I could possibly buy a pink shirt when I heard a sound that was not the Pink Floyd. I turned sharply and looked across the attic to see Dad’s flaming eyes, nose, neck, shoulders, chest and fat stomach hiking itself up through the square hole in the floor. Paul quickly put himself away. I wiped my mouth with my waistcoat and leapt up, sticking my hands behind my back like Prince Phillip. My father rushed over, followed, I was pleased to see, by smiling Cheryl. Dad looked from Paul to me and back again. Cheryl sniffed the air.

‘You naughty boys,’ she said.

Paul said lazily: ‘What, Mum?’

‘Smoking drugs,’ she said.

One of the advertising chaps drove my father and me home. The house was dark and cold when we crept in, exhausted. Dad had to get up at 6.30 to go to work and I had my paper round.

When we were in the hall he raised his fist to punch me out. I grabbed him. He was much drunker than I was.

‘Shhh ... Dad!’

‘What the hell were you doing?’

‘What?’

‘I saw you, Karim! Oh my God, you’re a bloody shitter! A shitter! A bum-banger! A shirt-lifter! My own son! How can it be?’

He jumped up and down as if he’d just heard that the whole house had been burnt to the ground. I didn’t know what to do. So I started to imitate the voice he’d used earlier with the advertisers and with Cheryl.

‘Relax, Dad. Relax your whole body from your fingers to your toes and send your mind to a quiet garden somewhere, where there are roses and sandcastles –’

‘I’ll send you to a fucking garden! I’ll send you to a fucking doctor, you fucking shitter!’

He really was mad and he was at full volume. I had to stop him before we had the neighbours round.

‘But I saw you, Dad,’ I whispered.

‘You saw nothing!’

‘I saw you.’ Then I added significantly: ‘I saw everything.’

‘Don’t be so stupid.’

But he looked at me with a shadow of worry in his face.

‘At least ...’ I said.

‘At least what? What?’

‘At least. At least our mother has both breasts.’

‘What? Oh yes. All right. I understand. I get you.’

He went into the toilet without shutting the door and started to vomit. I went in behind him and rubbed his back as he threw up.

‘It’s all right, it’s all right,’ I said as kindly as I could whilst he cried and heaved, heaved and cried, splattering his shoes and turn-ups, the floor and walls, with his turmoil.

‘I’ll never mention tonight again,’ I said. ‘And nor will you.’

He nodded his head and then pressed it against the cool rim of the toilet.

‘Why did you bring him home like this?’ said my mother, who stood behind us in her dressing-gown. It was so long it almost touched the floor. It made her look square.

‘Couldn’t you have looked after him?’ She kept plucking at my arm. ‘I was looking out of the window and waiting for you for hours.’

My father eventually stood up straight and pushed past us.

‘Make up a bed for me in the front room,’ Mum said. ‘I can’t sleep next to that man.’

When I’d made up the bed for her and she’d got into it – and it was far too narrow and short for her – I told her something. I told her that whatever happened she was to understand one thing, one thing that I’d decided.

‘What?’ she said.

‘I’ll never be getting married. Okay?’

‘I don’t blame you,’ she said, turning over. ‘I don’t blame you at all.’