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Essay: Food, death and the state of the nation in Khalid Jawed’s novels

Man cannot get away from food as apart from being requisite nourishment, cultural practices, myths and rituals sustain the partaking of it. Does the desire for food trigger sensory undercurrents that reverberate with ambition, passion, pleasure, jealousy, insecurities and identity? Is the kitchen a repository of delight and contentment or a site for lewdness and heinous crimes? These are the questions that Urdu author Khalid Jawed examines in Nemat Khana. Translated into English by Baran Farooqi as The Paradise of Food, it has been shortlisted for the JCB prize for literature this year. The novel contends that nothing exists beyond the intestines — magic, fortune-telling, occultism, love, sex, and violence breed there. Jawed employs food imagery to explore the characters’ sorrows, anxieties, sexual impulses, repressed feelings and desire for revenge.

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It is true that food preferences denote whether we are adherent or defiant toward traditional values. Here, the orphaned boy Barber’s painful life-altering situation subtly resembles that of Midnight’s Children’s Saleem, who uses taste and smell to puzzle over the discourse of national identity in India. Jawed too seeks to unravel the various layers of the interlacing of cultures. The protagonist repeatedly says that the kitchen is the most dangerous place. Its fire gives birth to affection, affinity, intimacy, hatred, violence and envy. Cooking is fraught with many dangers and kitchenware can be used as a weapon. In the kitchen, characters turn mean, violent, and jealous. Since childhood, the kitchen has been the central character’s favourite place, even the place where he has assassinated people. The preparation of particular dishes also foretell catastrophes like the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The author’s narrative dexterity makes the ludicrous believable and every human action becomes a part of the food discourse.

The Hindi translation of Ek Khanjar Paani Mein; Setuprakashan
The Hindi translation of Ek Khanjar Paani Mein; Setuprakashan

And then there is the epidemic, widely accepted as a divine curse, in his latest novel, Ek Khanjar Paani Mein (2020). Here, Jawed weaves a gripping story of death and the unprecedented fear psychosis that Covid19 produced, depicting a more awful society than anticipated. The disease melds with complex human relationships, fundamental human values, love and existential concerns and casts an ironic eye on the human propensity to prefer emotional beliefs to concrete facts. In the novel, the corpses of dead cattle contaminate a city’s water supply and inundate it with an evil smell.

Read more: Review: The Paradise of Food by Khalid Jawed

The stink begins to feature prominently in television debates. A doctor claims he has solved the mystery of the raging pandemic — it has been caused not by a virus but a bacterium in no way related to water pollution. The media publicizes it but a plumber entering the pipeline finds many carcasses. The pipeline passes through a firing range and a bullet hits the plumber as he returns. Newspapers report that the military shot him dead while he was trying to sneak into the prohibited area. This narrative gains currency and people grow convinced that the contaminated water is just a rumour. Bitingly ironic, the dream of a clean India turns into a nightmare of disgusting pollution. Jawed observes that the epidemic is a parody of the world. Who is the author — God or Satan or man himself? This is the question around which this work is built.

Death is a theme in his first novel, Maut ki Kitab, which scoffs at human afflictions and circumstantial predicaments. Here, Jawed transforms a tale of remorse and suffering into one that explores the nature of human passion and its perverse extremes. Divided into 19 chapters, which the author quaintly describes as “pages”, love, longing and loss are never below the surface of this starkly realistic book. Given to indiscretions and self-mocking humour, the protagonist underscores the malevolence of those around him: his wife, beloved, friends, and mother. He displays a longing for suicide and sees the possibility of giving up one’s life as providing much-needed respite from the monotony of it.

Maut ki Kitab; Arshia Publications
Maut ki Kitab; Arshia Publications

Khalid Jawed does not bury his plots beneath the heavy pall of the technique of magic realism. Instead, his style is imbued with a new artistic coherence. The success of The Paradise of Food has shown that the Anglophone readership is ready for translations of his other novels too.

Shafey Kidwai is a bilingual critic and a professor of Mass communication at AMU

The views expressed are personal

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