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.