What is British?

Part 2: Britain: A history of shopkeeping, empire and racial tensions

Space, smells and cosmopolitanism in the British Asian corner shop

by Sita Balani

In my last post I sketched out a history of the corner shop as a key and mundane site of English nation building, subverted and reconfigured by post-war migration and the movement of colonial others into the heart of this national institution. Now I want to take you inside the corner shop. I want to show how some of the small interactional and sensuous details of racialised differences are produced, transacted and confronted in our daily lives as a part of what Ken Plummer has called ‘intimate citizenship’ 

shop19810001-1My interest in the corner shop is personal – my parents’ shop formed the backdrop to my daily life. Growing up, the shop served as my playground, library, kitchen, bus stop, and office, and continues to play a huge part in my experience of that most elusive of concepts – ‘home’. ‘Shop’ is the first speed dial in my phone. Our shop was a place of good news and bad, of birthday parties in the stock room, and reading endlessly during the interminable lulls in trade. Take the photograph above, taken in 1981 when my parents threw a party in the shop to celebrate the birth of their first daughter, inviting family, friends and of course, the customers. For me, such scenes demonstrate the interweaving of intimacy and commerce, celebration and vulnerability, belonging and difference and how these are articulated in, through and against the spaces that we routinely share with others, particularly in urban areas. For Ash Amin,

habits of urban living – including social response to diversity and difference – are largely pre-cognitive, based on daily reflexes of urban negotiation that require little thought and deliberation.  This is how the potentially bewildering experience of urban multiplicity and variety is tamed and domesticated (p.969)

When feminism confirmed for me what I suspected but could not articulate – that our everyday habits and lives are rich sources of knowledge about the world – I decided that the corner shop called for further investigations. I read books and watched films in which a corner shop appears, even if peripherally, and I spent time conducting ethnographic field work (read: hanging out) in a corner shop in suburban North West London, run by a young Gujarati couple, Amit and Neelu.

By spending time with Amit and Neelu in their shop, I was able to see some of things that had become so ordinary to me in my parents’ shop that I no longer noticed them; the rhythms of the day, sounds and smells, the use of space, even boredom. The work of cultural geographers such as Doreen Massey has transformed how we think about space. Rather than being an inert backdrop against which the action of social life is played out, Massey has made a convincing case for how space brings us to the pithy questions of living with difference. As she puts it, space ‘presents us with the most fundamental of political of questions which is how are we going to live together.’ Podcast: Doreen Massey on Space –  As I suggested last week, the corner shop is a charged site in the national imagination, a ‘contact zone’ in which the philosophical question of how we cohabit and share space becomes grounded and material.

Making ourselves at home

1stbirthday0001The boundaries between the shop and the family home blur and shift. Shop owners have historically lived within their commercial premises and it is still common for corner shop owners to live in flats above the shop, to assuage the difficulties of working long and unsociable hours. Indeed, the ‘monogamy’ of space as either commercial or domestic is a relatively recent phenomenon. For Amit and Neelu, there was constant movement between the shop and their flat upstairs. They frequently spoke on the telephone or via a baby monitor, which they used for communication, as well as to check on their son. The telephone and baby monitor connected the public space of the shop to the private space of the flat. The frequent conversations in Gujarati through the baby monitor or telephone, about picking up their daughter from school or making lunch; or whether their son was asleep or awake, reproduced a temporary and private domestic space within the commercial and public space of the shop.

As such, the shop came to function as an extension of the family home. This assessment chimes with Miri Song’s research on Chinese family businesses in which one of her participants said, ‘Say you eat, you’re there [shop], and naturally, you help your parents. Having your life at home, and having the shop, it’s all the same thing.’ This quotation is suggestive of the way a family business can determine the affective economy of the family. Reading Song’s research, I could not help but think of the photograph above. When I asked my father about the photo, he told me that the party was such a success, that every shop on the small town high street did a roaring trade that day! As you can see, running a family business makes the binaries of work and family, or home and business, difficult to untangle.

The undeniable sense of community that the photograph evokes within the British Asian corner shop – is also sometimes seen as a threat, showing how the formerly homogenous ethnos is now contaminated by outsiders or what Nirmal Puwar has called ‘space invaders’ . ‘Space invaders’ for Puwar, occupy a tenuous position as both insiders and outsiders. ‘What has been constructed out in the historical and conceptual imagination is brought to the fore’ (p.8) she argues.  As discussed in Part 1, the independent shop was a part of national building and Empire, characterised as ‘under threat’ centuries before post-war immigration – as evidenced by Dickens’ lament for ‘small dusty shops.’ The sense then that the local shop and English way of life was at risk now mingles with the contemporary threats associated with multiculturalism, and the specific sense of threat attached to Asian immigrants, cast as culturally inassimilable yet economically powerful.

What’s that smell?

Ideas of the contamination of the nation by ‘space invaders’ have come to characterise the space of the shop itself. This discourse defamiliarises the ‘local shop’ to create an unheimlich space, whose potential homeliness is undermined by revulsion. Though academic analysis and common sense notions of race often privilege what is seen such as the visual marker of skin colour, smell is highly implicated in racialisation. Laura Marks’ more general investigations into odours highlights these negative associations,

Smell is so strongly associated with excrement, sexuality, filth, poverty, and other repressed contents of both individual and cultural history, that even innocent smells have a taboo or at least asocial dimension.

The emphasis on smell as an instrument of othering has its legacy in imperial ideas that inform post-war and contemporary racism in Britain, with Asian-owned corner shops implicated within this discourse.

Curry pastes and sauces on a supermarket shelfAs we saw in last week’s clip from This Is England, Asians in Britain have been characterised as other through being associated with the smell of curry. With regards to national identity today, this association is an ambivalent one. ‘Indian’ food (a rather flattening term for an entire subcontinent’s culinary cultures) is seen as part of the British national cuisine, though ‘however affectionately the white British public has come to view its curry experiences, racism has never fully receded from the restaurant encounter’ (Buettner). While the smell of ‘curry’ in an Asian restaurant may now be met with affection – even if this affection is not extended to the employees who cook the food – it remains conspicuous in the corner shop. While for the shopkeepers and their families, the corner shop may form an extension of the family home – albeit one with a heightened sense of risk and vulnerability – for customers, the space is public and the domestic smell of home cooking can be out of place.

During the final day of my participant observation in Neela and Amit’s shop, a familiar, homely smell of onions, garlic and spices cooking in the flat upstairs drifted into the shop. A white man in his early twenties came in and exclaimed, ‘Cor! What’s that smell?’ It was a precarious moment, I felt myself hold my breath, feeling before knowing that this ‘fleshy multicultural encounter’ was part of ‘the precarious assemblage of race in modern multicultural Britain’ (Nayak). This time the precarious chain of associations was surprising and convivial.

The young man followed his initial comment with an enthusiastic tribute to the smell, ‘That smells lovely, that does’, telling Neela that his mother often cooked a curry, though that he was sure that Neela’s would be better as his mother’s curry was made from a shop-bought sauce. The conversation was warm and humorous, with both parties smiling and laughing. Nonetheless, it remained affectively charged, ‘othering’ Neela through her association with the smell of the food, albeit through the register of appreciation and ‘authenticity’ rather than abjection. This encounter is an example of Marks’ belief that smell can be a part of the negotiation of complex ethical relationships. She suggests that this ethical dimension ‘has to do with the position of the proximal senses [smell, taste and touch] on the membrane between shared and private, codified and uncodifiable experience… at the literal border between the intimate and the communal’. It is at these junctures that we can see how the larger political question of how live together forms the surface of everyday life.

Cosmopolitan corner shops?

We can view interactions such as these through Paul Gilroy’s writing on conviviality, which he explains ‘does not describe the absence of racism or the triumph of tolerance’. Rather, it is a way to understand ‘the processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life’. Conviviality suggests spontaneous connections. Food functions as a key conduit of accessible otherness in official discourses of multiculturalism, yet I suggest that the role of food and smell in the interaction described above is distinct from the mobilisation of food as a benign way to consume difference.

shopkeepersInteractions such as these, both commonplace and noteworthy, remind me of the many examples of such connections I felt and witnessed growing up within the shop, in which racial difference was evoked explicitly as a way to diffuse the anxiety of its presence so close to the surface of everyday life. The example that comes to mind is my father – Indian accent still noticeable after over thirty years in Britain – teasing a white customer from Newcastle about their broad Geordie accent, requesting with an ironic smile that the customer ‘speak English’. Race emerged and disappeared in waves, sometimes threatening to overwhelm, then breaking and dispersing. Now you see it, now you don’t. By joking about the customer’s accent, my father was able to demonstrate a sense of belonging and insider knowledge: he knows how regional accents are culturally coded within Britain. This act of intimate citizenship, is destabilised however by its delivery, my father’s Indian accent is the unarticulated but nonetheless audible punch line. The joke interrupts the affective link that sticks whiteness to speaking English, as my father claims authority over the national language.

As I discussed in last week’s post, nostalgia created the pre- ‘mass’ immigration local shop as a cornerstone of Englishness ‘a place where credit is allowed, small sums are waived, and conversations of kith and kin predominate’ (Nayak). This idea is a lament for an imagined past, in which the emotional and material ties that bind communities to place and to each other were seen to be more tightly knotted. Looking again at the photograph above, rather than standing in opposition to this hopeful, if parochial, vision, it can be placed within its lineage. Instead of nostalgia for some invented era of British unity, I believe it conjures a moment of potential. A moment outside of the official multicultural project and before the ‘War on Terror’ – in which curiosity about one’s new neighbours, neither free from racialisation nor determined by it, was possible.

The moments of sensual proximity and multicultural conviviality that I have highlighted contain the seeds of a counter-narrative to multiculturalism. Rather than merely assimilating into the local community, what is revealed is the ways in which white British communities are invited into the hybrid commercial-and-domestic space of the colonial other, a reversing of hospitality offered by the ‘space invader’. At other times, corner shops are the site of armed robberies, racism, family disputes and, perhaps most crushingly, long working hours and endless tedium. But perhaps there is something to be gained by claiming a more hopeful, maybe even a more nostalgic, vision, such as the one hinted here, in which quotidian exchanges – commercial, cultural, personal – continually destabilise simple binaries.

Sita Balani is a PhD student at King’s College London, writing on contemporary literature, national identity and modernity. She is also a freelance journalist and an editor of fiction and non-fiction. Recent articles on migration, Islamophobia, and fascism can be found on The Multicultural Politic. She is editing an anthology called Queers Talk Lesbian Notions to be published in 2014. @sitainshort

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

As well as responding to current concerns and events, it’s a space for writing that endures, for cutting-edge ideas and approaches that fortify and inspire. The articles you will find in this space will show clarity without jargon, careful thinking that takes risks, runs off with ideas but doesn’t compromise on rigour.

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