He speaks slowly, and weighs words. Pauses. Insists that meanings are found in the ones not spoken and amidst spaces left blank. That when sentences feel lonely, hanging in a vacuum — they assume a new identity.
Author Khalid Jawed’s ‘The Paradise of Food’ (‘Nemat Khana’), translated by Baran Farooqi from Urdu which won the JCB Prize for Literature in 2022 is not just the story of Hafizuddin Mohammad Babar living in the crumbling ancient house or about vegetables, onions or garlic. Nor the four women, all named Anjum, he spends his life with. Neither just about what the author calls the most brutal battlefield in the house — the kitchen.
A potent commentary on the times we live in, complete with darkness, alienation, and desires, the author tells IANS that for an average family in India, the possessiveness towards the kitchen is akin to wars that take place for land and its resources.
“There is a lot of good related to food, but let us not forget the darker side. It can be a cause of violence, fights, and a metaphor for unimaginable greed and lust… Sometimes I feel food is maybe the only universal language. The things we talk about, we use our tongue and teeth, the same elements we use for eating. The speech and eating organs are related to each other.”
Someone who believes that serious literature facilitates insights with poetic tools, and does not preach (“moral lessons are for children”), Jawed adds that everything need not be in plain sight. He however feels that today’s audience is just not trained for serious literature. “We live in a time where soap operas/entertaining literature thrive. Even the media seems to be an entertainment playground,” he laments.
Stressing that it is important that create a strong bridge, facilitated by serious critics, between writers and readers, the author says the writer’s work is to write from his/her subconscious mind. “If the writer continues to care whether people can understand it, he would not be able to strive for creative excellence.”
The writer, for who divorcing alienation and darkness is “unthinkable” in his fiction says everything is derived from the subconscious, that memories make us. “And someone has to write about the gloom that lurks in our soul, that slowly envelops everything around. “Let us not forget that even when there is light, the shadows constantly remind us that the sun will set.”
Stressing we tend to celebrate mostly Urdu poetry and not prose, Jawed opines that it is like having a feudal approach towards the language. “When Urdu is talked about it’s only about ghazals. But like other languages, Urdu also has multiple traditions that must meet the world, and that will happen only when it is translated.”
The author, who has been widely translated into English feels that unless a talented translator and major English publishing house step in, an Indian language book may not be able to pierce the haze. “You can reach the meaning through translation, but that is not important in high literature. It is the ways in which we reach the meaning that is paramount. Precisely why brilliant translators must exist.”
An Associate Professor of Urdu at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, Jawed feels that over the years, there has been a marked difference in the kind of students enrolling at the undergraduate level. “They are not multi-lingual and not proficient in English and Hindi, something that is bound to affect translations from Urdu in the long run.”
Lamenting that the entire Urdu ecosystem needs an overhaul, he says: “Look at Urdu newspapers. Leave alone the fact that they are full of mistakes, all they are concentrating on is minority issues. They will need to have a wider perspective and a more inclusive approach in order to educate their readers and have a stronger voice.”
Stressing that awards like the JCB are important considering the same lead to a massive jump in readership for an author, the author whose latest ‘Arsalan Aur Behzad’ is now out in Urdu, adds: “They maintain honesty and transparency, and the jury deals with things deeply. ‘The Paradise of Food’ is not an easy book, there are no easily decipherable ‘local’ themes.”