Curry on the Divide in Rudyard Kipling's Kim and Gurinder Chadha's Bend It like Beckham

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In all of its unprepossessingly unliterary forms, curry--whether denoting "authentic" recipes, suspect tinned powders, or complexly "exotic" dishes--can sharpen our sense of imperial and postcolonial identities in two apparently disparate texts, Rudyard Kipling's 1901 novel Kim and Gurinder Chadha's 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham. Situated half a century before and half a century after the 1947 Indian independence, these two Bildungsromane present mirror opposites in terms of gender, ethnic difference, and relation between the colonial center and its periphery. Yet the representations of spicy foodstuffs that suffuse both texts play pivotal roles, revealing how the consumptions of diaspora at opposite ends of the imperial divide ultimately complement each other: for the orphaned son of a colonial agent at the turn of the last century, curry represents mastery (by assimilation) over the colony; for the daughter of Indian immigrants to the former colonial center (London) a century later, curry represents the stigma of frustrated, if not impossible, assimilation. In her recent "biography" of curry, Lizzie Collingham observes that "[t]he Indian subcontinent has accommodated a great variety of immigrants, all of whom brought their own cuisines" (9). Bend It Like Beckham suggests unease about whether the same can be said of Britain. Read alongside through specifically British imaginings in Kim and its imperialist Victorian culinary contexts, curry exposes in Chadha's bubbly, sweet story a bitter aftertaste that calls into doubt the possibility of a harmonious, syncretic multicultural society.

In Kipling the young hero masters "the Great Game," of espionage that he plays for England, a place he has never been, and he does so by infiltrating all levels of Indian society. Kim's ability to acquire and consume indigenous dishes offers an eloquent index to his mastery of both Indian society, and, in a sense, the whole of India. A century later, a second-generation Briton sees her dream, of "playing for England" in the "Great Game" of football, as a dream attainable only by denying an ethnic identity imposed upon her with comic relentlessness, an identity for which food marks a persistent metaphor.

Yet food--specifically, curry and its component spices--does not simply stand in for the cultures and peoples who have produced it. Despite the temptations to stop at such a reductive metaphor, the dynamics of gastronomic consumption offer a way to explore the nuances of postcolonial identity, particularly the charged concepts of hybridity and mimicry. Indeed, recent Anglophone writing abounds with scenes where eating occupies a vexed position. To begin with breakfast, one might think of Jamaica Kincaid's bitter memories of fry-ups "Made in England" (210) or Zadie Smith's concoction, O'Connell's, "an Irish pool-room run by Arabs with no pool tables" where "Mickey will cook you chips, eggs, and beans, or eggs, chips, and beans, or beans, chips, eggs, and mushrooms but not, under any circumstances, chips, beans, eggs and bacon" (154). Just these two disparate examples evoke a wealth of subtle variations on cultural subjection and resistance. Likewise, culinary fusions do not translate into a harmonious hybrid society: the apparently universal taste for chicken tikka masala in the United Kingdom, for instance, neither elects South Asians to Parliament, nor exempts them from racial profiling by the police. After all, right-wing Conservative Member of Parliament Enoch Powell did not let his infamous opposition to immigration stop him from frequenting Indian restaurants that reminded him of his time in India (Tonnies 65). Instead, "ethnic" foods remain a marker of cultural difference, branding immigrants from the former colonies, along with their non-immigrant children and grandchildren, as inexorably foreign, other, and "ethnic." But then it was just this food, and specifically spices, that justified European exploration and the concomitant British Empire. …