by Claire Chambers
In the late 1990s, the BBC comedy team Goodness Gracious Me produced a radio sketch entitled 'Authentic Artefacts'. In it, an artefact buyer for a chain of London stores visits an Indian village. She expects its rustic denizens to be 'connected with the flow of the seasons, the pull of the earth, the soft breathing of the ripening crops'. Despite her naïve fears that these apparently simple people will 'never sell [their] heritage', they are attracted by the buyer's evident wealth. They take a pragmatic approach, selling her a rusty pail as a birthing bucket − 'three generations of downtrodden dung-handlers have squatted over its rim' − a deck-chair ('my maternal uncle's prayer seat'); a formica coffee table with a leg missing, which is presented as a 200-year-old bullock slide; and a can-opener as 'an authentic turban winder'. The villagers' constant refrain is that these modern-looking items are 'authentic', and the Western woman is easily duped out of two thousand pounds.
Authenticity is a term that often comes up in postcolonialism and especially my own subdiscipline of Muslim literary studies. But what does it mean to be authentic, and is the quest for authenticity a productive or stifling one? As the Goodness Gracious Me example suggests, a fetishization of authenticity can trap apparently 'authentic' cultures in picturesque poverty and a pastoral past that never existed, ignoring their plural present.
Read more »
by Claire Chambers
In 1810, a 51-year-old from Bihar named Sake Dean Mahomed opened the first Indian restaurant in Britain, the Hindostanee Coffee House. It catered to retired colonial administrators, whose Indianized tastes were no longer satisfied with British food and manners. At the Coffee House, these nostalgic epicures lounged on bolsters, smoked hookahs, and ate various spiced dishes. Mahomed was ahead of his time, though, as curry restaurants would not take off for more than a hundred years, with the founding of high-end London establishment Veeraswamy in 1926. After just two years, he went bankrupt. He had earlier published a book, The Travels of Dean Mahomet (1793), which was unique for having been written in English to give European readers a glimpse of his Indian homeland. Its creation was probably part of the author's attempt at integration in County Cork. He had lived there for over 20 years and married an Irish woman, Jane Daly, before moving to London after his Irish patronage was withdrawn. Now reinventing himself again, Mahomed, Jane, and their children shifted from London to Brighton. There Mahomed began offering Indian massages, eventually being appointed 'Shampooing Surgeon' to George IV and William IV. In 1822, he published another book, this one a quasi-medical tract on the benefits of massage and bathing.
As the first proprietor of an admittedly short-lived curry restaurant in Britain, Mahomed must take some credit for this dish's popularity. Often now hailed as Britain's national dish, curry's centrality to British popular culture is underscored in one of the best jokes from Hanif Kureishi's novel The Black Album (1995). Against a backdrop of the racial and religious tension surrounding the Rushdie affair, Kureishi's Marxist lecturer character Brownlow ominously pronounces, 'I could murder an Indian'. As we will see, curry houses are a dominant setting in much writing by authors of Muslim heritage in the UK. This should not surprise us because, as Ben Highmore points out in his article about British curry history, 'the predominant food culture of the high street restaurant is Bengali (Bangladeshi)' − a nationality which is of course mostly Muslim. As a scribbling Indian restaurateur, Mahomed was a pioneer, and his culinary experiences have even inspired a self-published crime novel by the British writer Colin Bannon, The Hindostanee Coffee House (2012).
Read more »