Curry on the Divide in Rudyard Kipling's Kim and Gurinder Chadha's Bend It like Beckham
Chan, Winnie, ARIEL
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. The spicy-tongued mother of Moraes Zogoiby, hapless narrator of Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, puts it aptly when she remarks of peppercorns, "'From the beginning, what the world wanted from bloody mother India was daylight clear.... They came for the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a tart'" (5). In somewhat more temperate language, numerous recent food histories confirm her conclusion about Indian spice. Typical of these is Jack Turner's 2004 cultural history of "the taste that launched a thousand ships" (4-12).
The gendered metaphors--Rushdie's personification of India as a prostitute and Turner's analogy to Helen of Troy--echo centuries of characterizations of India and her spices, which therefore make a particularly ironic obstacle for the protagonist of Gurinder Chadha's popular film celebrating multicultural feminism. At the forefront of Cool Britannia's "multicultural" film scene, Chadha's work enjoys reviews that read like encomiums on female and minority empowerment. Fuzzy and delightful, Beckham is remarkable for its "feminis[m]" and "girl-power," as well as its treatment of "cultural--and multicultural--attitudes" (Kenny; Cadorette; Sterritt).
As such, the film's appeal is centered squarely on questions of identity, much as Kipling's Kim has done increasingly for readers today. Indeed, the novel's most recent commentators have focused on the moment when Kim asks, "'Who is Kim?' He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before" (166). (1) Like such early European ethnographers as Sir Richard Burton, Kim shuttles between cultures, free to choose. (2) At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Chadha's young football player, Jess Bhamra, enjoys no such freedom. While Kim's consumption of curry enables him to master India and to protect British interests, curry confines Jess. Not only her mother but also Britons with no interest in preserving her family's traditions impose it upon her from all sides. Read through the quotidian materialist signifier of curry, Bend It Like Beckham becomes a pessimistic meditation on multicultural Britain.
Curry is, as I have noted, central to Kim's method of navigating the margins of Indian society. His ability to infiltrate India and to absorb its foodstuffs makes him a potent instrument of British surveillance. The first chapter introduces the thirteen-year-old Kim as much more than a little sahib in native's clothes. The orphaned son of an Irish officer, Kimball O'Hara has been entrusted to a neglectful, opium-smoking "half-caste woman," whom he makes a habit of eluding (49). Not surprisingly, perhaps, his primary motivation is gastronomic: "Sometimes there was food in the house, more often there was not, and Kim went out again to eat with his native friends" (51). Exposure to--and eating with--all these "native friends" transforms him into the "Little Friend of all the World," the nickname that distinguishes him as a cultural chameleon who "borrowed right-and left-handedly from all the customs of the country he knew and loved" (121). As even the wisest of natives cannot help observing to him, "no white man knows this land as thou knowest" (139). Kim's extraordinary success at these cultural transformations is borne out by his virtuosity at working an indigenous economy governed by food. It is an economy explicitly delineated in the novel's first encounter with the Muslim horse trader Mahbub Ali, from whom Kim finesses "a flap of soft, greasy Mussalman bread" that contains, "as he expected ... a small wad of folded tissue-paper wrapped in oil-skin, with three silver rupees--enormous largesse" (69). He is no less effective among Hindus. One particularly successful exchange in their gastronomic economy scores Kim an enormous bowl of hot rice, which …
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Publication information: Article title: Curry on the Divide in Rudyard Kipling's Kim and Gurinder Chadha's Bend It like Beckham. Contributors: Chan, Winnie - Author. Journal title: ARIEL. Volume: 36. Issue: 3-4 Publication date: July-October 2005. Page number: 1+. © 2008 University of Calgary, Department of English. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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