Review: The Paradise of Food by Khalid Jawed

in Gargantua and Pantagruel, a fictional series by the sixteenth-century French monk Rabelais, a character discusses the “most lordly, best, and most convenient” ways to wipe one’s bum after “dung.” Goose necks, velvet masks, hats, doves and nettles are among the selections, which span a chapter.

One can say that Rabelais has found a worthy successor in Urdu writer and professor Khalid Javed’s novel. Nemat Khana (Translated in English as Food heaven) came out in 2014. In the book, a paragraph begins with the premise that “the hunger of the human gut hides a mysterious and terrifying aphrodisiac charge” and concludes that “women have sex with pots and pans in the kitchen.”

402 pages, ₹799;  Juggernaut
402 pages, ₹799; Juggernaut

Entrails not only animate the plot, they are also the protagonist of the novel. The leader is Hafizuddin Babar alias Guddu Mian. The book is a first-person account of his life from childhood to old age. He is obsessed with mastication, digestion and excretion and tries to make sense of the world through these. They believe that kitchens are satanic and they say they are the most dangerous place in the house. In fact, most of the book’s accidents, murders, and deaths occur in the kitchen.

After a life-threatening illness as a child, Guddu Mian’s gut whispered “a kind of knowledge” into his ear, giving him a sixth sense and a whole new meaning to gut feeling. Their premonitions foretell a range of events, from the gruesome death of pets to political turmoil and natural disasters. At a young age, he has an inexplicable desire to cause suffering, which he does to a great extent.

By Khalid Javed (Courtesy of Juggernaut)
By Khalid Javed (Courtesy of Juggernaut)

Javed constructs a rich inner world for the protagonist despite his largely uneventful life. Guddu Miyan’s eccentric thoughts and interests overwhelmed me. Throughout the novel, I was curious about how his life would unfold and what his vision would unveil. The author’s turns of phrase and descriptions made me simultaneously cringe and laugh. His playful ingenuity and experiments with form and content stand out in contemporary Indian fiction.

There are also glimmers of world literature and philosophy – some referential, a couple derivative. The ideas of Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Heraclitus, and Proudhon appear uninterrupted. Guddu Mian and his friends discuss thinkers and worldviews during a scholarly spell at college. An episode of incessant rain that literally and metaphorically collapses the worlds of the characters looks straightforward. One Hundred Years of Solitude. The impish, quirky narrative tone recalls a range of works Tom Jones to is infinite And Babu Bangladesh.

While the novel is often engaging, the heavy chunks of text using stream-of-consciousness make it dull in parts. Those in the beginning set the tone for Guddu Mian’s idiosyncrasies, while those in the last quarter oscillate into feverish raving. Although these are meant to convey his mood, they are as boring as boring.

I can imagine that the novel’s appeal is far from universal. If descriptions of bludgeoning, bloodbaths, or the smells of urine, worms, and undigested food make you cringe, the book may seem disgusting, but not weird. The scope is likely to vary from reader to reader. Watching the gory and violent violence in Haneke’s or Pasolini’s films bores me, but I shudder a little while devouring the novel. To compare in the author’s vein, reading it felt like watching slaughter and mutilation while savoring a hearty meal, the insides oozing out with glee at each incision.

Guddu Mian is a terrible human being – his actions are criminal and his thoughts are extravagant. He is misogynistic and insensitive to disability and mental illness, or for that matter, to anyone but himself. Consider how he describes his wife: “She was fair—perfect, but fairness did not stir my heart. I found this whiteness like split milk… Her body smelled like stale curd. He is not likable, yet he is a strong man. What makes him all the more interesting is that the author neither expressly approves nor condemns him.

However, Javed does not delve much into other characters. They seem like mere appendages for Guddu Miya to hate, lust or preach. Nevertheless, a couple of them are memorable. The lack of character development doesn’t affect the story.

Translated by Baran Farooqui (content courtesy)
Translated by Baran Farooqui (content courtesy)

The blurb describes the novel as “the story of a middle-class Muslim joint family over 50 years … (which) penetrates deep into the dark heart of middle-class Muslims today”. Although its accounts of Islamic customs and culture are elaborate and enlightening, the “deep penetration” in the book is sexual. Apart from a brief foray towards the end of two young men’s disillusionment with sectarian violence and discrimination in India, leaving behind their “dark hearts”, the novel does not draw conclusions about middle-class Muslims today. It is the story of a man who is completely at odds with the world, who happens to be a Muslim.

As well Food heaven Rich enough to evoke diverse interpretations, it unfolds primarily in the domestic sphere, with occasional excursions into the neighborhood and Guddu Mian’s college and workplaces. The external world and politics influence the characters’ lives, but rarely appear at major plot points. Communal riots feature in the novel, but Guddu Mian uses this episode to justify his argument that “there is no creature so dangerous as a child” rather than to cast aspersions on Hindu-Muslim relations.

Baran Faruqi’s translation renders the author’s voice into English with stunning accuracy. It is very difficult to convey the rhythms of Urdu origin that arise from repetition, rhymes or alliteration in another language. So instead of repeating these, Farooqui constructs a suitable mouthfeel for English. However, the translation omits Javed’s foreword and several epigraphs with references to writers, philosophers and artists in the Urdu version. I wish these were incorporated to further enrich the reading experience.

Syed Saad Ahmed is a freelance writer and communication professional

Opinions expressed are personal

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