JCB Longlist Special: The Paradise of Food

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One of our novels, The Paradise of Food has been announced as a part of 2022-23 JCB Literary Prize’s Longlist! It tells the story of a middle-class Muslim joint family over a span of fifty years. As India – and Islamic culture – hardens, the narrator, whose life we follow from boyhood to old age, struggles to find a place for himself, at odds in his home and in the world outside. An excerpt:

The Paradise of Food (front cover)

We were a strange kind of exemplary joint family. Everyone except my parents lived in our home. My mother had chronic tuberculosis and passed away a few months after I was born. My father was a policeman. I must have been about two years old when he was killed by a bullet while fighting some dacoits. So why talk about my parents; they are like a closed book with its content locked beyond access.

There was no dearth of members in the household, especially of cousins via paternal uncles, maternal uncles, paternal aunts and maternal aunts. Apart from my paternal grandparental family, my maternal grandparental family also seemed to be living there. I don’t know the circumstances under which several members from my maternal grandma’s household, like my maternal uncle and aunt, also came to live in the house I call my own. Who the house belonged to or in whose name it was registered were unknown to me, and never did I feel the need to find out. Who was rearing and tending me, who was responsible for my care and education, I don’t know that either. Our land in the village stretched across acres and we got such a large quantity of foodgrains and other such produce from it that there wasn’t enough space in the house to store them properly.

I could count and tell you the exact number of family members that lived in the house, agreed though that I have a wonderful memory, but why put it under strain? If one were to forcibly collect so many pictures in a tiny part of the brain and then count them by name, it would not benefit the pictures or the brain. It would be better to listen to the footsteps of the faithful dog which is following me, ignoring other unnecessary sounds.

Anjum Baji was my cousin from my mother’s side. She must have been at least ten years older than me. She was probably the one who loved me the most in the teeming household. Up until I was six or seven, she carried me in her arms to the parrot’s cage hanging from the iron ring of the wooden beam in the ceiling of the outer hall and say to the parrot, ‘See, Guddu Miyan has come, Guddu Miyan has come.’

The parrot, Sunbul, was very talkative and excellent at mimicry. Sunbul observed us silently for two to three minutes, his eyes rolling, and then said in his childish, lisping, non-human voice, ‘Guddu Miyan has come, Guddu Miyan has come.’

Anjum Baji handed me a green chilli and said, ‘Here, feed Sunbul a chilli.’

He continued to look at us even as he held the chilli in his beak. Then Anjum Baji carried me close to the water tap and showed me the mud homes being made by the wasps on the wall adjacent to it.

Anjum Baji was a fair-complexioned, slim and delicate- looking girl. Not just then, but much later in those weak and mean moments of anger, when I tried to undress her in my imagination, I found myself completely unable to do so. Probably there was no corporeal body under her clothes, or maybe the moment her clothes were taken off the parameters of her body turned to smoke and drifted away.

Her body had a certain pale goldenness. Whatever the colour of her dress, it always seemed to me that her pale golden body was reflected through it in some mysterious way.

Sometimes you see only one quality in someone. After all, the eyes suffer from their own stupidities or unique tragedies.

My eyes could never see her eyes or her nose or her lips clearly, and as far as the portion below her neck is concerned, I did find the curves under her dupatta alluring, but the sight was as mundane as it was enticing. It is the difference that exists between man and woman, just as a chair is distinct from a table or a book from a grinding slab. Therefore, there was no curiosity in me regarding the curves of her breasts. You must remember, nothing definitive can be said about sexual matters.

And so all I could see was her fair, bright, neat and clean colour. I don’t know if she was beautiful or ordinary. Why should I place my memory under duress? I wanted to remain in the embrace of her colour. How I wish that clean golden colour was not stuck upon Anjum Baji’s skin. How I wish that hue would be independent of her, in some empty space, or in the air, or in the sky, and then the blackness of my sins would not have been so heavy. There would have been some sparkle in it.

I had fallen in love with Anjum Baji when I was a boy in shorts and hadn’t even sprouted pubic hair, but I can say with confidence that the nature of my love was no different from the love of youth, or even that of a lusty old man, like raw meat not yet marinated in spices or been put into the cooking pot to boil.

There is a marked and dangerous difference between love and hate. The features of the face of love, its body, its contours and its details are not retained in the memory, but hate always maintains a body and a face.

I hated Aftab Bhai. Right from the beginning, never mind the treats of toffees and sweets he may have given me. Aftab Bhai was tall and strapping; he was fair-complexioned too, but that fairness was not like Anjum Baji’s pure, pale golden fairness. The whiteness of his skin concealed a shade of red. Such whiteness is always patchy from within and smeared with the murkiness of violence. One may find this out only later.

His eyes were brown and cruel, and his mouth resembled that of a bulldog’s. He considered all this to be the pride of his aristocratic family and a sign of his masculinity.

Aftab Bhai was Anjum Baji’s cousin, her paternal aunt’s son, so how was I related to him? I don’t know, it is all very confusing. It is puzzling how so many cousins had gathered in this house.

Aftab Bhai did not have any quality that was independent of his body. He was a glutton and was always eating something, immediately after which he pressed a cigarette between his fingers and started inhaling deeply and continuously. One knew he was around by the smell of cigarettes.

My hatred for Aftab Bhai increased manyfold when I realized Anjum Baji’s breath smelt the same.

I was growing in size, or one could say that the percentage of age was increasing in my body, causing it to gradually move towards old age or destruction.

Anjum Baji no longer carried me in her arms. My thighs had outgrown my shorts. I was growing fat and most of my time was spent in the kitchen. One day I was in the kitchen eating the previous day’s chapatti with ghee and sugar when, from the fourth stair through the brick screen of the kitchen, I saw Aftab Bhai feeding Anjum Baji some cake.

The chapatti fell from my hands.
Anjum Baji was chewing. It was probably the first time I ever saw her mouth open. She was swallowing the cake quickly, nervously. I saw the movement of her throat muscles for the first time. Intense grief and anger engulfed me.

It was a blazing May afternoon. The hot winds entering the kitchen from the staircase through the screen were weeping in bursts. I felt a kind of fear of Aftab Bhai, and also a sense of sadness at my failure to acknowledge that Anjum Baji’s stomach too had intestines. I had eaten pulao cooked by her innumerable times. She cooked a very refined pulao, the colour of which resembled her own colour. And I ate the light curry she cooked with fanfare, serving myself in the white enamel plate. The day it was Anjum Baji’s turn to cook, I abandoned my studies and loitered around the kitchen. It seemed like the most beautiful place on earth when Anjum Baji cooked. The griddle laughed colourful sparks when Anjum Baji made chapattis.

I had seen Anjum Baji eating countless times, but for some reason, I had never registered that her body (if she had a body) also contained a gut.

But on that day, that hot and deserted burning May afternoon, when the eagle was abandoning its egg in the skies, God knows from where, intestines appeared in Anjum Baji’s stomach. For a moment, Aftab Bhai seemed to me that hateful eagle flying with a rotting piece of gut pressed in its beak.

This putrid bit of gut could drop on any neat and clean place or on some pure and clean human body. I sat near the hot ashes in the kitchen and began to cry.

I heard their hushed voices.
‘Guddu Miyan is in the kichen,’Anjum Baji said.
‘That fool is getting fatter and fatter. Why does everyone call him Guddu Miyan? His name is Hafeez and he should be called by that name.’ Aftab Bhai laughed.

‘He’s still a kid, a child with no parents – he’s Guddu, Guddu Miyan.’ Anjum Baji’s tone was affectionate.

‘He’s a kid . . . what can I say now, the other day when he was sleeping, I saw . . .’ Either Aftab Bhai spoke too softly or allowed the sentence to go unfinished.

‘Shame on you!’ Anjum Baji spoke angrily.

There was complete silence after this. I was still sitting near the hot ashes from the chulha with my head bent. I wasn’t crying any more. My ears were completing the lewd content of Aftab Bhai’s incomplete sentence.

This is why I had said that hate has a body. And a face too. I am compelled to go on analysing my memories. After all, the body has aged and the cells of the brain, becoming weak, have begun to fade.

Aftab Bhai had become a rope of hatred with which I was bound. I cast plaintive looks at Anjum Baji like a wild animal tied with this rope. She couldn’t make sense of anything, or pretended ignorance deliberately. It was around that time that she knitted a red sweater for me. I have never worn that sweater till date. It lies locked in the black iron trunk. I had come to know through hearsay that the trunk belonged to my parents.

I began to spend more time with my schoolbooks and did not go to Anjum Baji all the time.

I occasionally went to the parrot’s cage and stood before it, depressed. The parrot observed me for a while, his eyes rolling, and then started chattering loudly, ‘Guddu Miyan has come, Guddu Miyan has come.’


Continue reading this brilliant translation – The Paradise of Food is available online and offline!


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