If the writing is not disturbing, it’s like a soap opera for entertainment: Khalid Jawed, author, winner of JCB Prize, 2022 | The Financial Express

If the writing is not disturbing, it’s like a soap opera for entertainment: Khalid Jawed, author, winner of JCB Prize, 2022

The novel narrates the story of a young boy in a big Muslim middle class joint family possessing a mysterious awareness of strange things going to happen when something is cooked in the kitchen.

If the writing is not disturbing, it’s like a soap opera for entertainment: Khalid Jawed, author, winner of JCB Prize, 2022
Urdu is a rich language in fiction and poetry. So it is a big achievement for Urdu.

Urdu writer Khalid Jawed won the JCB Prize for Literature 2022 for his 2014 novel, Ne’mat Khana, translated into English early this year as The Paradise of Food by Baran Farooqi. The novel narrates the story of a young boy in a big Muslim middle class joint family possessing a mysterious awareness of strange things going to happen when something is cooked in the kitchen. Jawed, an associate professor of Urdu at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, uses memories as a device to disturb. He speaks with Faizal Khan about the novel, his writing style and what the award means for Urdu writing in the country. Edited excerpts:

You are the first Urdu language writer to win the JCB Prize for Literature. What does this honour mean for Urdu writing in India?
It is a big achievement for me and for the Urdu language. Urdu has a rich legacy and rich history. Famous writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chander are the stalwarts of Urdu fiction writing. The JCB Prize, given to a translated work, helps every language get a wider, national and international reach. Urdu is a rich language in fiction and poetry. So it is a big achievement for Urdu.

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You have been described as a Third Wave Urdu fiction writer. Where would you place yourself in the evolution of Urdu literature in the past half-a-decade? Who has been your influence from a strong and nuanced Urdu writing in the past?
It is a tough question. I find myself a misfit in the present scenario of Urdu fiction writing. There is a recurrent blame on me that my writing is dark and very gloomy. In Sanskrit, vibhats means something grotesque, but something disgusting, maybe an art of beauty. I can say my readership is very specific. I am not an entertainer. I want to disturb, to knock at the door of the guilt of an individual. If the writing is not disturbing, it becomes like a soap opera that is for entertainment. Literature is something that resides deep inside. If you can’t explore the hidden dimensions of human existence, then writing is a wild goose chase. I feel myself in the land between modern and post-modern. I have no role model in literature. I live in the tradition of Urdu language and Hindi language. But I like Manto, Bedi, Abdullah Hussain and also popular literature writer Ibn-e-Safi.

The Paradise of Food was originally published in Urdu as Ne’mat Khana in 2014. How long did it take you to write the novel and what was the point of departure?
It took hardly a year-and-half to complete the novel. What is in this novel at the macro level is also found in my short story, Akhiri Dawat (The Last Supper), published in 2000. If the short is a miniature, the novel is a large painting. Food always appears to us as a mystic thing. Food is not only for hunger, but also for pleasure. This is banal pleasure. Food is the prime mover of life. When a child is born, it starts with milk feeding. Food starts from there as well as in the womb. But this is also perhaps fatal. Food is also the cause of diseases, epidemics and pandemics. A thing which is very pure is, instead, converted into a very disgusting thing, the excreta. The Sufi mystics said to remain pure, you have to eat less. The discourse on food is the metaphor for the possessiveness of this whole world.

“The kitchen—the most dangerous place in the house”. This sentence, often repeated in the novel, is the central theme of The Paradise of Food. Is the human body, in relation to the kitchen, a metaphor for the ills and evils of a broader, greedier society?
Yes, of course. That was the point of my writing the novel. The kitchen is a very sacred place in a house. But the apparatus used in the kitchen, like chimta, tawa, sadsi and phukni, and fire may be used easily for violence. Even the knife and scissors. You can attack with the help of these instruments. If you want, they become weapons in a flash. What you are making with love may have the potential to become dangerous weapons. In my novel, two murders are committed in the kitchen. The kitchen is a battlefield in the home.

Epidemics, sometimes affecting a “particular community, religion, race and region”, appear in the novel. How would you compare your narrative of the epidemics where people are dropping dead in bylanes to more dreadful realities witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic?
There is no direct relation to the pandemic in the plot of the novel. But there is a mental pandemic found in the whole book. You are totally trapped into a mental lockdown, which is a product of your existential essential being. The main character of the novel, Guddu Miyan, lives in a kind of mental alienation burdened with guilt and a sense of crime. He is searching for punishment because nobody knows he has committed two murders in his childhood. His crimes are his punishment. My new novel, Ek Khanjar Pani Mein (A Knife into the Water) published in 2020 is based on the coronavirus pandemic.

You employ memory as an effective device in the narrative style of the novel. Is the collective psyche of human society pitted against the inside of a body, especially the intestines?
It is a metaphor. In literature, language can’t progress without metaphor. The man lives in his intestines. Even after death, food is chasing you in the rituals of many religions. Your vision is constructed by the food you eat. The vision of the political and social system is always influenced by food.

At times the novel takes aim at ‘kind-hearted and high-class people’ for the evils of the society in a reflection of the vast rich-poor divide. Your comments.
That is satire to bring to light our own loopholes and evils. Though the main character belongs to a feudal background, he ‘declasses’ himself. He is against hypocrisy. The whole novel displaces hypocrisy, cruelty, lust, greed and violence in society, violence that is not only concrete, but subtle, with the help of food, which is the technique and style of my storytelling.

What are you writing now? Another novel?
I have just completed a new novel. The title is Arsalan aur Behazad (Arsalan and Behazad). It is about the dreams of a community and about forgetting them on the way. It blurs the limits of illusion and reality.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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First published on: 04-12-2022 at 00:15 IST