It's a small place with useless air conditioning. The backs of blue oxford-cloth shirts are bleeding sweat. Foreheads drip. A crowd -- mostly city whites approaching middle age or there already -- has miraculously found its way through the heat to Chapters bookstore downtown. They sit on the staircase, like balloons deflated. They stand behind the racks. Wet hands hold copies of the same black book, "The Buddha of Suburbia." They listen.

My mother, who was in the kitchen as usual, came into the room and saw Dad practising for the yoga Olympics. He hadn't done this for months, so she knew something was up. ... Mum was a plump and unphysical woman with a pale round face and kind brown eyes. I imagined that she considered her body to be an inconvenient object surrounding her, as if she were stranded on an unexplored desert island. ...

It's the voice of Hanif Kureishi (pronounced Ha-NEEF Koor-EE-shee). It's a British voice. The accent isn't mumbling and upper-class. It isn't clipped Indian or stagy Hamlet. It's just regular, all around, nasal, nothing spectacular, English honk-honk.

He's reading from his chair in the corner. He's small. He's got black hair, black eyes -- the kind you could see from across the street. He wears a black turtleneck, a tapestry vest, yellow socks. Other than this mildly subversive get-up, he seems surprisingly inoffensive, almost meek, compared with some of the stuff he's saying.

... As I sat there with my trousers down, taking it all in, I had an extraordinary revelation. I could see my life clearly for the first time: the future and what I wanted to do. I wanted to live always this intensely: mysticism, alcohol, sexual promise, clever people and drugs. I hadn't come upon it all like this before, and now I wanted nothing else.

Holding a beer -- which must be warm by now -- he coolly answers questions after the reading:

"People often ask me: 'What's it like growing up with two cultures?' But in the suburbs there's no {expletive} culture really," he says. "It's all very bland down there. Un-thought-out. I wasn't involved in any culture, seriously, until I moved to London and got involved in the theater.

"I often wish I were more exotic. I'm a new sort of Englishman," he goes on, "like everybody else, brought up on American culture."

Un-exotic? He's hard on himself -- this former suburbanite, this former porn writer, this successful screenplay writer, this uncertain new novelist, this half-English and half-Pakistani man, this Hanif Kureishi.

"Provocative little sod" is what director Stephen Frears has called him. "Troublemaker" might be somebody else's word. After his screenplay "My Beautiful Laundrette" was produced -- way back five years ago when Kureishi was only 30 -- he used to brag about his delinquent teenage years. The drugs. The shoplifting. The sex -- the girls, the boys. He'd only stood once for "God Save the Queen," he sniffed in an interview. "It was when, you know, what's-her-name, the blond one, oh yeah, Diana Spencer" was at a royal premiere.

"Artists," he has said, "should be terrorists, not masseurs."

Before "Laundrette" was nominated for an Oscar, before the movie won a New York Film Critics award, the Pakistan Action Committee in New York carried banners that said: " 'My Beautiful Laundrette' is the creation of a sick and perverted mind."

And an aunt of Kureishi's wrote to him after she saw it: "Why do you have to promote the widely held view of the British that all evil stems from Pakistani immigrants? Thank goodness for quality films like 'Gandhi.' " So Kureishi named a militant lesbian after her in his next screenplay, "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid."

Now the wisdom of age, or whatever it takes to get wisdom, has softened his edges. He seems sweet, almost shy, in his hotel room at the Jefferson. He's still glib and flip, but not angry. In the fall he begins his directing debut -- which terrifies him, he says. He studied philosophy in college, he says. He doesn't believe in God, he says, but wouldn't mind having a religious experience. If he were running England -- and he smiles at the thought of this -- he'd get rid of Margaret Thatcher immediately.

Yes, he did write porn, under the name Antonia French. "For a while in the mid-'70s," he says. "It was mostly for money. It's not that much fun to do, because it's such a restricted form. There's not much you can do. No old people. No black people. No humor."


"Distracts from the content."

Lots of plot?

"Plot, and a lot of description. Not much character."

Just for the money?

"Yeah, yeah," he says. "I mean, my other books had been rejected, and I wanted to write. It was easy to do. And that was about the only stuff that I could get published. I didn't know how else to make money."

"The Buddha of Suburbia" is a teenage boy's account of leaving the lower-middle-class suburbs in the '70s for London. It's told in the voice of Karim Amir, who, like Kureishi, is the son of a Pakistani civil servant and an Englishwoman. It's autobiographical "in emotion," he says, "not details."

Karim bemoans his childhood spent in a bigoted, vacant land "without books, without music, without a sense of the mystery of life," but there's a swirl of wonderfully weird characters around him, even before he heads for London. They are his family. They are his friends. These late bloomers are out of it -- the way suburbanites are -- just emerging from the '60s. They are rattled and wobbling, wondering what the future is going to be like. The book even has a '70s sensibility at times -- not unlike something by Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Robbins. Life is sweet and raunchy. Everything is being explored. The rigid is bending eccentric, and anything can happen.

"When I first started to write," says Kureishi, "I always wished I had an interesting childhood. You know, like Budd Schulberg {who wrote "On the Waterfront," and whose father was B.P. Schulberg, a movie producer}. That I'd grown up in Hollywood, and had really big characters around me, and material that was strong... .

"But when you become a writer," he says, "you realize that your subjects are all around you. They are in front of your nose. It's your own life. And if you grow up in the London suburbs, that's too {expletive} bad, that's what you've got to write about."

In the book, Karim's father -- a refined man, who'd been the butt of "Paki" jokes and working-class Brit vulgarities for years, who'd been buried alive as a civil servant -- becomes religious after he starts studying spiritual philosophies: Laotzu, Chuang Tzu, Yin and Yang, Cosmic Consciousness.

Dad stops worrying about getting promoted, and tries to expand within. He practices trances. He concentrates on the tip of his nose -- "a large target indeed," Karim writes. Dad says things like: "We must find an entirely new way of being alive" and "All effort is ignorance -- trying is ruining you."

Incense gets lit in tacky suburban living rooms. Crowds gather to learn meditation. Indian sweets are passed around. Dad, the new guru, the Buddha, takes off his gray suits and turns up in purple balloon pants and paisley vests. And he leaves his English suburban wife -- who's been existing pretty much in front of the television set and the kitchen sink -- for an exciting, ambitious, sexy bohemian named Eva. (Speaking of sex, Kureishi refers to the '70s as "The Golden Age of {expletive}.")

"Throughout the '50s, it was pretty severe," Kureishi says of the suburbs after the war. "There wasn't much of anything. By the '60s -- when they started to get their fridges and their TVs and their carpets and stuff, they just went {expletive} crazy. They thought that this was the New World. And suddenly, they had affluence beyond their dreams. ... And so, out of that, comes the dissatisfaction of people feeling that materialism wasn't the end of their problems."

Fresh from suburbia, Karim and his friend Charlie haunt the London clubs. The punk scene -- the black leather, pogo-ing, safety pins -- is burgeoning. They turn up in their old hippie clothes and stare out from their love beads at all the rubber and hate going around: In London the kids looked fabulous; they dressed and walked and talked like little gods. We could have been from Bombay. We'd never catch up.

Karim learns about upper-class England in the form of Eleanor, an actress in the theater group he's joined. She's a disaffected Sloane Ranger with connections and education and friends: What infuriated me -- what made me loathe both them and me -- was their confidence and knowledge. The easy talk of art, theatre, architecture, travel; the languages, the vocabulary, knowing the way around a whole culture -- it was invaluable and irreplaceable capital.

Kureishi's England isn't so lovely a place. It's been called "the Other Britain" -- the one that doesn't fit with shiny black London cabs, with Prince Charles, with Turnbull & Asser shirts, with condescendingly good manners, with a sense of quiet social order.

"England," he wrote in a Guardian editorial a couple years ago, "seems to have become a squalid, ugly and uncomfortable place. For some reason I am starting to feel that it is an intolerant, racist, homophobic, narrow-minded authoritarian rat hole run by vicious, suburban-minded, materialistic philistines who think democracy is constituted by the selling of a few council houses and shares."

In "My Beautiful Laundrette," written originally for television and directed by Stephen Frears, a nice Pakistani kid named Omar coasts around the rough suburbs smiling. He seems oblivious to the racist remarks and jokes that cruddy adults make around him.

Omar wants -- with his sharp new suits and business ideas -- to make money. He and Johnny, his punk Cockney lover, redo an old laundromat. They call it Powders, in neon lights out front. It's a laundromat with a sound system too, and bright yellow walls, blue washing machines, tufted vinyl benches, an aquarium. It's a hit.

There's the familiar mix of characters around Omar: his huge, extended, upwardly mobile Pakistani family, his bedridden father, his gay white lover (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in a bleached white Mohawk). People are explained by politics, not personality -- there's often a perfect Marxist contradiction between what the characters want to believe about themselves and the truth.

"I don't like women who live off men -- that's a pretty parasitical thing, isn't it?" a young female cousin says to Omar. "I want to leave home," she continues. "I want to break away. You'll have to help me. Give me some money."

"I'm a professional businessman," his successful Uncle Nasser says to Omar, "not a professional Pakistani. ... Besides, there's no such thing as race in a free-enterprise culture."

The homosexuality in "Laundrette" is offhand. "It's not made into a big deal at all," says Kureishi. "I know a lot of gay people, and you just take it for granted. You don't think about it. And I wanted the film to be about other things as well. ...

"The bisexuality thing in my work is partly me, but it's more developed in the writing than it is in my own life," he says. "I have had strong, complex relationships both with men and women. It's partly being at a boys' school -- you never really meet girls until 16 or 17, so your passionate love relationships are with other boys."

In "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," also set in treeless suburbia, race riots are breaking out. It's a harder, uglier movie. There are nomads living in makeshift trailer parks. There's unromantic sex and suicide. Sammy and Rosie are boho types, but with a nice flat and good clothes. Rosie is writing "a social-historical-political investigation" of kissing. ("Don't tell me," she says with an indignant edge, "that for you, a kiss is just a kiss?")

She tells Sammy that the race riots are "an affirmation of the human spirit," and he believes this until he sees his own car turned over in the street.

It's far away from British movies like "A Room With a View" or "A Passage to India," which Kureishi has dismissed as simply "bourgeois." He has also called them "stories of the overdressed British abroad, set against ravishing landscapes."

"These movies," he says now, "are always set in the past, aren't they? They are usually set at a time of affluence, sometimes in India. Lovely dresses. Teacups. It's all very genteel, isn't it? It's not really the Britain that I live in. It's not like that around my house."

Growing up in Bromley, a suburb south of London, Kureishi was the only Asian in his school, he says. He was spat on. He heard racist remarks every day. "I didn't have any sense of how racism affected me," he says. "If I had been black and had been brought up in America, there would have been a whole structure of understanding in that society of what it was to be black, why I was treated a certain way and how it came to be."

In "Buddha of Suburbia," Karim is kicked out of a white girlfriend's house, called "a wog" by her father, "blackie," "coon" and "curryface." His first acting job is playing Mowgli, in Kipling's "Jungle Book," with his skin darkened. "It took me a long time," Kureishi says, "to realize that my personal problems were political."

It's not easy being angry, Kureishi has learned, or writing fiction close to the truth. An old girlfriend of his, the inspiration for Rosie in "Sammy and Rosie," has renamed the movie "Hanif Gets Paid, Sally Gets Exploited."

"She knew that was the price you pay if you live with a writer," he says, "that all your crap would come up eventually. She wasn't really mad. She got over it. We're great friends."

His family's not really mad either, according to Kureishi. "They just get a bit nervous," he says. When his mother saw "Laundrette" for the first time, she "had to put her hand over her eyes -- stuff like that," he says. "My dad has been nervous about the book, in case that people think it's about him -- think he's the Buddha. ... He was nervous that the neighbors might think that he was {having an affair}, really having a good time, when in fact he was watching 'I Love Lucy' at home all those years. ...

"But there's a local book shop," he says, "and Dad often goes in there -- to check how my book's doing. And they always say, 'Here comes the Buddha of Suburbia again,' and he rather enjoys that."

His father, once a journalist in India, is pleased that his son has become a writer, "but at the same time," says Kureishi, he's a bit ticked off "because his books haven't been published, and he hasn't become a novelist, which is what he wanted to do. And he thinks that I'm not really a heavyweight writer. Tolstoy is his idea of writing. So I can understand."

If you write, he says, "you have to go the whole way. Say there's some fantastic story that happens to this person you know. But you know that it will break their heart if you write it. But it's so fantastic -- the material. And it's your job to tell stories, and to tell good stories, that amuse you and interest you. So, I think you have to make a decision -- that literature comes before loyalty. Always."