“Human beings live inside their bowels. Their genitals are merely the possibility of their existence, the dwelling place of their shadows. Mentally and spiritually, people live within their viscera. Flinging their viciousness, gluttony and appetites at each other’s faces, their mouths slathered with the ugly red colour of hunger for swallowing up the other.”

Translated by Baran Farooqi from Urdu into English, the title of Khalid Jawed’s novel The Paradise of Food, is clever misdirection for the average English language reader, unfamiliar with the author’s oeuvre. Subverting reader expectations of the implied ambrosial pleasures of the kitchen, Jawed’s protagonist quickly establishes the kitchen as “a dangerous place”, and food as portent, trigger, often a portal to unimaginable tragedy.

In a clear departure from established traditions of realism, Jawed writes what might perhaps be called a bildungsroman, tracing the history of his protagonist, Hafeez, intersecting with the history of a nation that is increasingly growing more intolerant, more hostile, more malignant. This is a world in which horror lurks in kitchen corners and chaos hides in plain sight.

Orphaned in early childhood, Hafeez, or Guddu Miyan, as he is called by the family, grows up in a middle-class Muslim joint family, teeming with relatives. In this ancestral home is the kitchen, a place of sooty walls and crumbling bricks, habitat of ants and insects and occasional snakes. Decrepit and disarrayed, this kitchen is, in Hafeez’s account, a site of quarrels and power play, of violence and evil, even as it attempts nourishment and love.

It is in this kitchen that he discovers what he often calls his “sixth sense”, an uncanny ability to sense impending disaster, eerily related to the food being cooked. Burdened with this strange affliction that brings him nothing but trauma, Hafeez negotiates apathy and concern, guilt and maliciousness, shaping his narrative into a plea, a petition, that is not likely to ever reach his intended audience.

Breaking up time

Plot becomes almost incidental to the novel. Hafeez’s memoir often turns into mediations on life and death, death and murder, crime and culpability, and, of course, food. The world, he “knows for a fact”, is a dot made with a slate-coloured pencil on a white sheet of paper. An insubstantial thing, then?

We don’t quite know because Hafeez never commits to conclusive answers. His interest in food stems from wanting to learn how the world treats humans and, as a sort of corollary, how humans have cheated the world. He reads anatomy as distinct from banal science and insists that “Hands are separate from the being, at times even strange and unfamiliar to the mind and the brain and the body. This is the reason different hands cook food that differs in taste, aroma as well as appearance.”

Food is a pure and clean thing, he says, that becomes impure just as soon as it reaches the digestive tract and transforms into waste. The kitchen, Hafeez’s preoccupation in his memoir/petition, thus acquires an “erotic charge”, a life energy that seems more philosophical than sensual/sexual.

In the first-person account that makes up the greater part of the book, Hafeez often speaks of his inability to write literarily. He cannot distinguish between tenses, he says. “The remote past and the past perfect are the same for me. In fact, to my sensibility, the present and the past tense seem like twins. The same goes for the future, the future tense seems like past times to me.”

In a seamless segue with Hafeez’s concerns, time, in the novel, refuses to run linearly. Instead of years, Hafeez’s life progresses through seasons and months, acquiring a certain circularity, a stultifying repetitiveness, in incessant monsoons and hesitant winters. The Hafeez the reader encounters in the opening chapter is almost spectral, more memory and echo than corporeal presence. There is some brilliant structural bookending that the reader had best discover for themselves.

Hafeez’s aesthetic, and by extension, that of the narrative, is the grotesque. He delves into dark corners of not only domestic spaces but also the human soul. The reader’s gaze is constantly drawn to filth and decay, disease and pestilence, and what can only be called a visceral evil. Human beings behave abominably. Violence is a given in this hostile universe. The perpetrators might vary but the victims are always those most defenceless. Murders happen and go unpunished. Blood is spilled, blood taints relationships, and blood seeps into the memories and the dark nightmares of the protagonist.

Women in this Paradise have no value and are often punished into submission. Marriages are made for them and violence is visited on their bodies in an almost banal manner. The misogyny here is not limited to overt violence, however. The women in Hafeez’s life are all replaceable, they are all named Anjum after all.

The first woman he falls in love with is his cousin, Anjum Baji, the one of the extraordinary hands and hence, extraordinary cooking skills. Anjum Apa is a cousin he shares a love of detective novels with and acts to protect from her abusive husband. He has his first sexual encounter with an Anjum and feels motherly love for the first time ever from another Anjum, a dancer. Inevitably, he marries an Anjum.

What remains common to all these women of the same name is their being incidental to his life. They trigger emotions, even actions, and then, compliantly, recede into the background. When they don’t, they are that other stereotype- the hysteric, the hag, the harridan.

Melancholia over nostalgia

Despite its eschewal of realism, The Paradise of Food is also a text cognisant of the political climate it has been written in. Jawed traces the trajectory of radicalisation, plotting it on a temporal map of communal tensions and riots. Hafeez insists that religion is a personal matter, “a matter of someone’s faith.”

He prophesises the dangers of radicalisation when he objects to children being indoctrinated into religious practices they are as yet unable to comprehend cognitively. He notes the strange confluence of rioting in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition and the onset of liberalisation in India: “the new generation became fascinated with religious fundamentalism and orthodox ideology began spawning religious terrorists. (…) The market of hatred and bitterness began flourishing with the arrival of mobile phones and the internet, and eventually Facebook and Twitter. The world had shrunk into a village. A village where the game of loathing, fire and blood was being played all the time. And everyone was participating in this game in their eagerness to be called modern.”

The pursuit of progress is often at the cost of empathy and tolerance, he seems to say. Labelled an infidel by his own sons, Hafeez finds himself an outcast in a world he has ceased to make sense of.

Jawed’s writing often exudes melancholia, never quite dropping into the familiar comfort of nostalgia. His protagonist remains largely unlikeable, despite his extensive immersion in philosophy and literature, Ibn-e-Safi novels as much as his playground as the European classics. Hafeez’s misogyny holds a mirror to the misogyny of his social spaces; his corrupt humanity only an indicator of the putridness of his world.

Hafeez’s story becomes a story of alienation and failure, shaped by the memory of a flawed, much-damaged character. This Paradise is often morbid but scathingly accurate in its portrait of a life where the domestic is a microcosm of a world that, under the veneer of the beautiful, is menacing and irredeemably cruel.

The Paradise of Food.

The Paradise of Food, Khalid Jawed, translated from the Urdu by Baran Farooqi, Juggernaut Books.