A CONVERSATION WITH PERMI JHOOTI, THE REAL-LIFE 'BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM' STORY
Updated: Jan 21, 2022
April 2002. The South Korea and Japan FIFA World Cup is just around the corner. Anything remotely linked to the man who scored THAT free kick against Greece 6 months prior, to take England to the World Cup, is a red-hot topic. The conversation in my school playground is occupied by the cinema release of Bend It Like Beckham. No, not because of Golden Balls. But because the lead role features Parminder Nagra, a British born female of South Asian origin. Twenty years later, I am speaking to the real-life Bend it Like Beckham. Permi Jhooti, the first British-Asian professional footballer in the UK and part of Fulham’s first ever professional Women’s team.
Permi, like me, is a second-generation immigrant. The abuse and racism that the first generation suffered at the hands of locals, the National Front and the rhetoric from politicians, would have meant our parents wanted to protect us from the same horrors they had faced. Understandably so. “You weren’t allowed to go out, like the white kids were,” she says, which is all too familiar. This protection and a different way of living can result in an identity conflict. Football was perhaps a way for Permi to find her rightful place. Sport can sometimes be that leveller and, as a quiet kid, “sport was a way of being a part of something,” for Permi. Her way of “being the same as everybody else.”
To my surprise, Permi had never intended to play football professionally. Permi was part of the amateur set up at Fulham Football Club. A set of unforeseen circumstances set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to professional football. “I had a bad collision during a match that nearly killed me. When I came back [from hospital], Fulham had telephoned. They were ringing to ask for their tracksuit back,” with the assumption she would never be able to play again. “Even though I wanted to stop playing, I knew I had to play one last game, because I’m a proud Punjabi. Nobody tells me what to do.” There’s a hint of humour and a little nod towards a Punjabi character trait, but I don’t get the feeling she’s joking. As a reaction to that phone call, Permi played the game of her life. It also coincided with Mohamed Al-Fayed deciding to invest in Fulham. Permi went professional and a movie was made. All of this wasn‘t without its battles.
I think Bend It Like Beckham does an excellent job of highlighting, to the mainstream, the typical battles faced by first and second-generation immigrants. The battles highlighted, though, may not have been Permi’s. “To be honest, I was anti [the film] at the beginning. With movies, they take main story points. But it was the little things in life that were super important. For me, it just felt like clichés. But I appreciate it. It opened up lots of dialogue.” At the time of its release, there probably weren’t many other movies telling this kind of story and so perhaps the narrative needed to be cliché-driven. But for Permi, Bend It Like Beckham had another message, away from the football. “It was about the parents. What they’re trying to tell you is that they’re scared for you, and that they love you, and that they worry. But it comes out wrong. It comes out as ‘you cannot.’ To understand where this fear comes from? Well, it comes from the father always being rejected, he doesn’t want his daughter to be rejected. That is, for me, the key point.”
I have spoken about rejection before and how it can lead to non-conformity and resistance. However, resistance doesn’t necessarily mean retaliation. A scene in Bend it Like Beckham sees the dad explaining the painful experience of being rejected from his local cricket club.
“When those bloody English cricket players threw me out of their club, I never complained. On the contrary. I vowed that I will never play again.”
I find this typical of my parent’s generation. No reaction. No retaliation. Bite your tongue and push forward. Speaking out just wasn’t an option. We must then assume that these traits would be passed on to an entire generation of children, as learned behaviour. Permi was no stranger to biting her tongue. It would be silly to assume racism didn’t exist in and around Permi’s career. It’s one of the things that she feels held her back. One of her clubs strikes a stirring memory. “When I was at Millwall, it was awful. I would just put up with it. Actually, it was just one player, who was horrible. I was completely bullied. I hated Millwall. It actually made me sick. I think it was IBS. I was rushed to hospital a few times. It was stress related. It was this club.”
So, why not retaliate? Why put up with ‘it’ and why not call ‘it’ out? Well, the simple answer is, it’s not always that easy. Of course, some of the biggest civil rights changes in history have come via protest and retaliation. But I think it’s different when a group comes together. When you are on your own, there are consequences. But it could also be cultural. “It comes from being a minority,” Permi says. “A feeling that you need to be grateful for every damn thing. Not thinking that you deserve more. This ‘trying to please’ element. That held me back. I also feel like I’ve been brought up to drag myself down, somehow. To be quiet and not pop your head up. Not to shine. My father was a typical Indian entrepreneur. Working day and night for his kids. So, then you grow up with a lot of guilt, that you must be worthy of that sacrifice.”
I first set up this blog site and started my writing escapades in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the questions I had at the time was why there seemed to be a silence from the South Asian community, during the protests. Permi’s thoughts on the culture constantly “trying to please” and the idea of endless gratitude could well be one of the reasons. It might not. But it’s Permi’s experience and it would be wrong to deny that. It was also the Black Lives Matter movement that got Permi to stop biting her tongue. “I suddenly thought ‘I have suppressed all of that anger’. I had to [initially] suppress it because I had no outlet for it. You just put up with the shit. I really struggled at the beginning because of all of that gratitude. I was grateful. And it was correct. But also, I didn’t acknowledge how it affected me. I thought ‘who was going to listen?’ Seeing all of those people in America telling their stories. I suddenly thought ‘I am ready for it now’ and I should acknowledge it. I do my culture a disservice if I only tell that side of the story.”
Permi has now lived in Switzerland for 15 years. Her background as a scientist, working in London at the Royal Brompton Hospital, has led her to Basel and into the arts world. Whilst it may seem as though her career has zigzagged, her experiences in life have led her to flow from one thing to another, which is one thing she is genuinely grateful for. “Everything was a natural progression. I knew the thing to aim for in life was not something like a position. I wanted to be able to be free to live my life the way best for me.”
My conversation with Permi has me thinking about how my own gratitude and perceived guilt, for the sacrifices of my parents’ generation, may have impacted my own personal way of being. It’s something I have always been aware of but haven’t explicitly considered with wholehearted honesty. It’s these conversations that, I hope, can not only help me but also help those reading them. If these writings can help just one other person, then I will be *grateful*.
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