Edward Said wrote about the exoticism of the Orient which both captivated and repulsed colonial Europe. The Orient, which included Asia, the Middle East and Africa, produced degenerate human forms, who, as well as in terms of racial subordination, were also portrayed as being sexually deviant. The fearful tales of Indian Sahibs abducting women, Arab bandits and their horde of harems, not to forget the voracious sexual appetite of the Black man came to characterise these races.
Yet this eroticisation of the Other persists even today. There was a phase in my secondary school when girls, for no other reason than out of curiosity, began kissing other girls. It was done between friends, either to practice kissing, or for the experience. Those of us that didn’t take part found it in the least bizarre. Why kiss someone you had no romantic feelings for? Yet, as I’ve grown older, I’ve seen how that which is prohibited, forbidden, that which is outside the norm, becomes eroticised in its exoticism, becoming either persecuted or desired.
A film, that most likely was shown during mid-day on a weekday, happened to be on BBC iplayer and, having finished watching the well reviewed films, I decided to give it a try. Nina’s Heavenly Delights follows the loose trajectory of a young Indian women named Nina who, having fled home after nearly having an arranged marriage, returns upon her father’s death and seeks to win the last cooking competition he entered. Yet this, father-daughter-come-family-reunion storyline is like a fragile veil that hardly even obscures the explicit counter plot. Nina, it turns out, has suppressed lesbian inclinations which first emerged at the age of nine when she had a crush on the captain of the girls hockey team. Now, on returning to Glasgow, she is met by Lisa, a former white friend who helps her on the journey to cooking domination. What the director explicitly draws attention to, is not only the very sudden homoerotic overtones which govern the friendship of these two women, but the deep attraction based upon their differences. The audience is made very aware in relation to Nina’s brother and his white wife, that inter-racial relations are neither condoned nor encouraged, in fact they are more of a cultural taboo, especially on the white side.
What is interesting in the film however, is that, where one would expect rejection from the protagonists Indian family, in many ‘Oriental’ societies it would seem that sexual orientation still errs more towards the conservative than Occidental societies, Nina’s lesbianism is accepted, welcomed and rejoiced in.
Yet the film orchestrates a great deal of dramatic tension through the persistent sense that what is occurring is wrong. Not in the sense that homosexuality is wrong, but rather that Lisa kissing Nina was wrong. That somehow, Lisa kissing say Katy would be alright, but with Nina it becomes dangerous, it becomes taboo. There was an ease with which both characters came to terms with their feelings, and an ease in their spontaneous expression of it. Yet, even after Nina’s mother gives her blessings to her daughter’s homoerotic inclinations, there was still an uncanny sense that what was being displayed, a white woman sexually attracted and involved with an Asian woman, was wrong.
Though socio-religious boundaries have been slowly disintegrated in the on-coming wave of Liberalism, leaving everything to be permissible, the exoticism and therefore unknown attributes of the ‘Other’ are still present in the surging whirlpools of the galloping wave. What makes that which is not Eurocentric so taboo, so risqué, so exotic? Why did it seem Lisa took more pleasure in kissing a brown woman, had more fear and apprehension, than if it was a homoracial homosexual relationship? Why did the heterosexual girls in my class find so much intrigue in kissing one another, when they all really either had or wanted boyfriends? And what does that say about how we view that which is marginalised, unknown? Do we make the black, the asian, the arab person more exotic and therefore more erotic, because we live in a society that firmly sees everything through the eyes of the Occident? Or is there really something more about the Other? Perhaps Nina’s heavenly delights aren’t her cooking skills and the conflation of Indian spices on one’s tastebuds, but the delight of a different type of exotic which only the brown-skinned Indian cultured Nina can provide?