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  Books   22 Jan 2023  Book Review | Crime and punishment lurk as accidents in the kitchen corner

Book Review | Crime and punishment lurk as accidents in the kitchen corner

Published : Jan 22, 2023, 1:27 am IST
Updated : Jan 22, 2023, 1:27 am IST

Book Review of 'The Paradise of Food' by Khalid Jawed

Cover photo of 'The Paradise of Food' by Khalid Jawed. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'The Paradise of Food' by Khalid Jawed. (Photo by arrangement)

Khalid Jawed's novel The Paradise of Food, translated from the Urdu by Baran Farooqi, is an imaginative tour de force, echoing, nay, resounding with the author’s thoughts and philosophies about life and living. Those thoughts, and the imagery they evoke and present before the reader, are often deeply disturbing. For Jawed’s vision of life, in this book at least, seems to be centred on the grotesque. The text pulsates with the power and fury of that vision, and even if you do not have a taste for the monstrous and the unsightly, you will not fail to be struck by its raw force in this work.

The novel, which won the JCB Prize for Literature in 2022, has a thin line of plot. But more than the story it tells, the plot is a vehicle for Jawed to roll out his grim vision of the human condition, which he roots almost entirely in biology. Food, and its digestion and excretion, is central to the act of living, and the author dwells obsessively on the intestines and various bodily discharges such as blood, phlegm, faeces, and so on. It is food that generates the erotic charge in us, he says. The heart drops through the intestines and settles in one’s private parts, he says. Teeth, bones, marrow, the shrivelling of aged skin, the hollowing of aged brains… human body parts litter the narrative like intimations of the decay and rot that creeps upon all physical existence. The kitchen, particularly, is the object of his virulent disgust. Again and again, he calls it a “dangerous” place; it’s where food is prepared — food, which, he says, is the fount of crime and carnality.

But the kitchen also plays a sinister role in the plot. Narrated in the first person, the novel recounts the story of Hafeezuddin Babar, fondly called ‘Guddu Miyan’ at home, from childhood to death. Hafeez is an orphan, growing up in a noisy, sprawling joint family home in a small town in north India. He is a sensitive child, half in love with a young female relative whom he calls Anjum Baji. She has a romantic dalliance with a local man, and Hafeez feels an intense hatred towards him. Just before she is about to be married off to someone else, this man rapes Anjum. The boy narrator witnesses the abominable act, and is deeply shocked. Though the marriage takes place (no one but him knows what happened that night) and Anjum goes away, Hafeez continues to nurse his loathing for her rapist. And one day, when he is alone in the house, and the man drops by, Hafeez murders him in the kitchen by smashing his head in with the grinding stone. The kitchen, the crucible of food creation, becomes the mis-en-scène of violence and crime.

No one suspects that it is Hafeez who is responsible for the murder, because he is still a young adolescent — little more than a child. But history repeats itself, just as women named Anjum come into his life again and again. Perhaps they are representatives of womankind in their various avatars — love object, victim of male aggression, mother, shrew or a querulous wife in a loveless marriage. And though Hafeez started life by being entranced with Anjum Baji’s golden skin, ultimately, women bring him no joy and become just another facet of his revulsion towards life. Hafeez the misanthrope is also a misogynist.   

Meanwhile, haunted by the shadow of the sins he has committed, the narrator knows no rest. Part of that black impulse within him manifests itself in his strange ability to sniff out an impending disaster when a particular food item is being prepared at a particular hour of the day. Clearly, Jawed spares no effort in underlining the burden of his song: be it the kitchen, or be it food, the engine of life fashioned in that space — both are inextricably linked to death and destruction.

There are flashes of magic realism here, as there are references to contemporary history, such as the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, communal riots and the growing radicalisation of a section of the Muslim youth. However, pretty much everything else in the book, including the often cynical philosophical meditations, is overshadowed by the almost unrelenting focus on darkness and putrefaction. Death is the obverse of life, and Jawed seems consumed by the urge to depict life at its most unlovely, most degrading, perhaps to suggest that the only immutable truth of human life is its inexorable slide into decay and death.

This is an author who is at the peak of his powers, and the fluidity of the prose shows that the translator has done justice to Jawed’s art. The Paradise of Food is a complex work that will fill you with disquiet, but if you read it, it will likely leave an indelible impression on you.

The Paradise of Food By Khalid Jawed

Translated by Baran Farooqi


pp. 424, Rs.799

Tags: book review, urdu books, babri masjid case