Kureishi’s England

Margaret Walters

  • The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
    Faber, 284 pp, £12.99, April 1990, ISBN 0 571 14274 5

The ‘beautiful laundrette’ that provides the title for Hanif Kureishi’s first film catches the flavour of his very personal brand of humour – off beat, off-the-wall with a cynical twist. Indian teenager Omar, working for his uncle while he waits to go to college, takes over a dingy, run-down laundrette, and tarts it up – with orange walls, fish tanks, hanging ferns, muzak and a glittering, picture-palace neon sign – till it’s ‘a ritz among laundrettes’. He hustles, steals from his family, and bosses his white friend Johnny into doing the dirty manual work, then stages a grand opening ceremony, champagne corks popping while eager customers queue outside. (The movie has quite a lot in common with that notorious strip-teasing Levi’s ad: Omar knows a launderette is a refuge from the drab, lonely streets, a meeting-place that promises entertainment and sexual or at least voyeuristic excitement.) Kureishi gives an exuberant account of one South London kid who makes his kitschy fantasies come true; at the same time, his movie is a chilling anatomy of a Thatcherite businessman in the making, and already on the make.

Hanif Kureishi found the perfect foil in the director Stephen Frears, who’s proved again and again, in films as different as Prick up your ears and Dangerous Liaisons, his talent for black comedy, and his eye for the perverse and grotesque, for characters who are both farcical and pathetic. Five years on, My Beautiful Laundrette looks as fresh and inventive as ever. The love-affair between boyhood friends Omar and Johnny (complicated by the fact that Johnny has recently been turning up at anti-Pakistani demonstrations in full Nazi gear) is handled easily and unemphatically. The movie offers a shrewd, sympathetic and unclichéd view of an extended Asian family who are thoroughly at home in Britain; its wickedly precise wit spares none of the characters.

The second movie from the Kureishi-Frears stable, Sammy and Rosie get laid, is more ambitious – where the first made sly, glancing comments on the greed and impotence of Eighties Britain, this grapples with Thatcherism head-on – and less satisfying. In spite of the provocative title, in spite of its disarming extravagance and flashy, often flippant style, it frequently seems heavy-handed. It opens with Margaret Thatcher pontificating about renewing the inner cities, as police shoot a black woman cooking her son’s supper; the action plays out against an apocalyptic vision of looters and rioters in burning streets. South London is a permanent (and perversely exciting) combat zone, which looks as if it should be ‘twinned with Beirut’. At the close, bulldozers – to the ironically rousing strains of ‘I vow to thee, my country’ – wreck the caravan camp under Westway, an idyllically multiracial community of transient street-people and buskers who are seen, sentimentally, as the only hope for contemporary London.

The movie’s strength is in pinpointing the gap between the characters’ actual lives and their self-flattering fantasies, political and personal. Sammy and Rosie are a relentlessly trendy married couple (he’s an accountant, she’s a social worker) who sleep around on principle, and wonder why their own relationship seems so empty. Sammy is childish, irresponsible, greedy (in one scene he shuts out the world with his headphones while simultaneously snorting coke and gobbling a Big Mac) and still resentful of the Indian father who abandoned him as a baby. Rosie – feline, self-satisfied – is a right-on radical and feminist (photos of Lacan and Virginia Woolf are pinned on her study wall; she claims she’s writing a politico-sociological study of snogging), who gets her kicks from the picturesque violence and chaos on the streets. Their friends – a pretty American photographer, who’s bedding Sammy and who treats the whole world as her department store, and a couple of stridently self-righteous lesbians – are no more successful at combining freedom with commitment.

The most complicated character, and the only one who engages us fully, is Sammy’s long-lost father Rafi (superbly played by Shashi Kapoor). He’s a former revolutionary, a freedom fighter turned military dictator; fleeing political enemies at home, he’s searching for the civilised England he knew as a student, and hoping to make amends to his son. The ironies are sharply pointed: the bogeyman, the political villain, is the most sympathetic person around. He’s corrupt, egotistical and patronising, but his wry humour effortlessly punctures the pretensions of the other characters, and when Rosie confronts him with the atrocities he has committed – typically staging a scene in a discreetly expensive restaurant – our sympathies are equally divided. He is certainly rationalising and avoiding his guilt, but she is too parochially complacent to begin to imagine the political pressures he’s been living with.

But the movie disintegrates around Rafi, lapsing into exactly the kind of sentimentality, easy polemic and pretentiousness it satirises so effectively. A ghostly one-eyed taxi-driver pursues Rafi across London, a vengeful embodiment of the evil that he – learning from the British – has committed in the name of progress. He’s balanced by another hollowly symbolic figure, the gentle black itinerant Danny (Victoria to his friends) with a sweet Mona Lisa smile, who is seeking ways of fighting without losing ‘all this beauty’. He’s an enigmatic angel who rescues Rafi and makes ecstatic love to Rosie, a romanticised but hollow alternative to the movie’s bleakness.

Kureishi’s first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, takes yet another affectionate, exasperated look at London. Set in the Seventies, it’s a light-hearted, sometimes slightly awkward reworking of traditional literary forms: Karim is a brash, streetwise version of that literary perennial, the young man from the provinces, a jokey portrait of the artist as a younger man. Karim’s perspective is inevitably limited, and, for all its promise, its liveliness and spikey charm, the novel lacks the assurance and barbed humour of the movies: without Frears’s camera and some superb actors to back him up, Kureishi occasionally fumbles.

Like Omar and Sammy, Karim, nicknamed Creamy, identifies himself as ‘an Englishman born and bred, almost ... from the South London suburbs and going somewhere.’ He is 17 when the novel opens, flaunting his exotic and dated hippy gear, and ‘looking for trouble, any kind of movement, action and sexual interest’. For Karim, as for his white school-friend Charlie, whom he admires, envies and lusts after, the suburbs are ‘a leaving place, the start of a life. After that you ratted or rotted.’ They dream about the big city, the inconceivably remote, glamorous place across the river where people work in exciting things like music and fashion and advertising.

His progress towards London proper is a hit-and-miss affair. For all his fizzling discontent, Karim is ignorant, uninformed and, for all his ruthlessness, ready to follow passively where others lead. He tags along after Jamila, daughter of his father’s oldest friend Anwar, who smokes, drinks, has sex, and gets away with far more than her white contemporaries – and puzzles over her contradictions. When she accuses her white teacher of colonising her, he crisply reminds her where she learned the word; he watches, bemused, as she models herself on Simone de Beauvoir, or on Angela Davis, then unexpectedly – Karim thinks perversely – lets Anwar blackmail her into an arranged marriage to a man chosen by the family back in Bombay. For Karim’s saving grace is his curiosity, his brisk clear sight about family (including his angry, self-pitying English mother) and even – for all his naiveté – about himself.

Karim’s father Haroon (his English in-laws firmly call him Harry) is going through a mid-life crisis that echoes Karim’s adolescent yearnings for change. As a young immigrant from Bombay, Dad fell in love with a pretty English girl, took a boring Civil Service job, and found himself trapped in a life that was ‘all trains and shitting sons, and the bursting of frozen pipes in January, and the lighting of coal fires at seven in the morning: the organisation of love into suburban family life in a two-up-two-down semi-detached in South London.’ He’s preserved his childish, aristocratic incompetence by practising a vague, eclectically Eastern mysticism; when he meets the unhappily married Eva (‘at a writing-for-pleasure class in an upstairs room at the King’s Head in Bromley High Street’) he’s encouraged to break out, and embark on a new career as a professional wise man. Karim spies on Dad making love (and hears, half-shocked, ‘the laugh of someone I didn’t know, full of greedy pleasure and self’), mocks him (‘a renegade Muslim trying to be a Buddha’), admits reluctantly that he may have gifts as a guru, and recognises, with his usual opportunism, that though he’s upset for his mother, there could be something in all this for him too. The ambitious, pretentious, unexpectedly courageous Eva does make a new life for all of them: her son Charlie, Dad and Karim all trail after her into the brave new world across the river.

In the second part of the book, the excitement of landing on the other side of the Thames is almost too much for Karim. ‘We could have been from Bombay. We’d never catch up,’ he confesses enviously, watching the kids strutting their stuff in the London streets and clubs. But Eva busily hustles herself and Dad into the smart cultural set, Charlie makes it as a star on the punk scene, and and Karim – pushed by Eva – finds himself employed as an actor. Kureishi gives a funny, scathing account of Karim’s adventures in fringe theatre in its Seventies heyday.

... you’d look across grey floorboards at minimal scenery, maybe four chairs and a kitchen table sat among a plain of broken bottles and bombsites, a boiling world with dry ice floating over the choking audience. London, in other words ... The plays were three hours long, chaotic and bursting with anarchic and defiant images. The writers took it for granted that England, with its working class composed of slags, purple-nosed losers and animals fed on pinball, pornography and junk-food, was disintegrating into terminal class-struggle. These were the Science Fiction fantasies of Oxford-educated boys who never left the house. The middle class loved it.

Karim’s job as an actor neatly underlines his restless trying on of different roles through friendships and sex – with Charlie, with the political hardliner Terry, the upper-class Bohemian Eleanor and the trendy director Pyke. The others are sketchy presences, partly because Karim is never really interested in them, except for what they might reveal about his own potential identity.

Ironically, the kid who bounced his way unscathed through the Paki-bashing prejudices of the South London streets is nonplussed by the subtler racism of cultivated London. His first part is Mowgli in a play based on the Kipling stories, and he resents having to smear his body with ‘brown shit’ and adopt an alien and demeaning ‘Indian’ accent. His embarrassment is confirmed by Jamila’s stern judgment that ‘the play is completely neo-fascist ... you were just pandering to prejudices and clichés about Indians’; she adds, rightly, that he’d do anything to be successful. But he’s stymied when a black actress objects to his impersonation of the angry old Anwar in a group improvisation exercise, insisting that his ‘self-hatred’ is bringing all black people into disrepute. Not blacks, Indians; not Indians, one old Indian man, he argues, helplessly. Kureishi ran into not dissimilar trouble when My Beautiful Laundrette was criticised for showing Asians as corrupt and crooked: in fact, the film, like the novel, attempts to subvert stereotypes, including the stereotyped visions people cherish of themselves.

But the hidden theme of the novel is Karim’s reluctant coming to terms with being Indian as well as British. Like Omar and Sammy, he knows next to nothing about India; all three are indifferent to the problems and passions of their immigrant parents. Yet just as Rafi dominates one film, so in the other, Omar is overshadowed by his bitter, arrogantly cultured father, who’s determinedly drinking himself to death in protest at what England has done to him, and by his worldly, charming, devious uncle, who insists that he’s thoroughly acclimatised: ‘in this dank island which we hate and love you can get anything you want ... you have to know how to squeeze the tits of the system.’ Karim’s father seems thin beside these two, because Kureishi hasn’t yet found a way of catching on paper the substance and complexity that his actors – Roshan Seth and Saeed Jaffrey – brought to their screen parts. Still, some of his best writing has Karim puzzling about the old shopkeeper Anwar, who seems to be ‘returning internally to India’, as he goes on a prolonged hunger strike to force his daughter to marry, ‘literally staking his life on the principle of absolute patriarchal authority’. And though the incident leading to Anwar’s death – Changez, his hopeless failure of a son-in-law, hits him over the head with a dildo – is a clumsy blend of farce and pathos, Karim’s account of his funeral breaks through into real feeling. ‘Anwar died, mumbling about Bombay, about the beach, about the boys at the Cathedral school, and calling for his mother ... [his] body was washed by his friends at the nearby mosque, and five Indians in bright and clashing clothing brought the coffin to the graveside. One of the five men was simple with a hare-lip; another had a little white beard ... but I did feel, looking at these strange creatures now – the Indians – that in some way these were my people, and that I’d spent my life denying or avoiding that fact ... if I wanted the additional personality bonus of an Indian past, I would have to create it.’

It is typical of Karim to think of his roots in terms of a ‘bonus’ that, like his father, he can exploit professionally. He does very nicely out of playing Mowgli, and developing impersonations, first of Anwar himself, then of his immigrant son-in-law Changez. By the end of the novel, Karim, in his early twenties, is on the brink of fame and fortune, playing the rebellious son of an Asian shopkeeper in one of the new, gritty TV soaps. Kureishi asserts that he’s unhappy and confused, but it seems little more than the obligatory depression of an artistic young man on his way up in the world.

Kureishi traces Karim’s real growth in terms of his shifting attitudes to the immigrant Changez. Fresh from Bombay, he’s a figure of fun – fat, balding, with a withered arm; he’s keen on cricket and paperback thrillers, determinedly demonstrates his total incompetence in Anwar’s shop, and spends most of his time mooning after Jamila, who marries him but refuses to sleep with him. Karim admits that he becomes mates with Changez ‘because he was slightly dim, or at least vulnerable and kind and easily led ... one of the few people I could mock with impunity’. He’s taken aback when he suddenly realises that the other man is capable of ‘real pain, rather than the ironic self-deprecation with which he usually regarded his strange life’: he’s surprised when Changez flourishes after he and Jamila move into a commune, and she has a baby (by another man); and he experiences a piercing moment of tenderness when – having as usual hurt his friend’s feelings – the baby cries and he hears Changez talking softly to her in Urdu.

Knowing he risks wounding and exploiting him, Karim – working patiently and carefully for the first time in his life – develops a stage character based on Changez who will sum up his new insight into ‘the sexual ambition and humiliation of an Indian in England’: someone comic but not caricatured, typical but not stereotyped, someone whose funny mannerisms hint at a genuine inner life. It’s only a start for Karim, but it’s an intriguing glimpse of what Kureishi himself seeks in his fictions.