Love comes in all shapes and sizes: Served up on a clean plate with salad on the side; the main course served in varying consistencies; or a casual sandwich with your favourite ingredients.
No matter the mood, love is always a taste enhancer driving you to the edge when you’re faltering; soothing you when your nerves are frayed.
In Andaleeb Wajid’s The Crunch Factor love is comfort food, but not necessarily picture perfect.
The novel begins in the thick of action with Aliya, the protagonist, arranging a dish. She can’t wait to click a picture of it.
The crispy prawn tempura sits invitingly on the plate, begging to be picked up and dipped into the tiny pot of honey chilli sauce on the side.
Aliya is a food photographer with a taste for the finer things in life. But she is also a procrastinator. But as we observe later, while Aliya defers gratification, she cannot deny it to herself.
Wajid’s heroine lives with her parents and fashions herself as the conscientious insider, the one who keeps the family together and balances their materialistic nature, with hers, which is more sacrificing and giving.
Aliya is single when she begins narrating her story because she never found anyone who could sustain her interest.
And even though her parents want her to get married she is 27 she doesn’t feel the urgency.
Enter Kamaaluddin, a restaurateur, and the scion of a real estate business family in Bangalore, whom Aliya’s parents have been eyeing as a prospective son-in-law.
Aliya sizes him up and finds him perfect enough to visualise him as her betrothed. And in a flurry of emotions, Aliya says “yes” to the guy who proposes marriage on their very first date, plying her with good food.
Kamaal just seems the perfect fit. He is everything Aliya’s family could have asked for. And that’s the key Aliya treads the beaten path in her personal affairs too. She is drawn to Kamaal, not out of passion or love, but because he fit the puzzle of his family’s plans: name, prestige and pedigree.
But the charm fades soon, and Kamaal reveals himself to be a grown infant, a mamma’s boy, who delegates the nitty-gritties of his relationship with Aliya to his high-browed snooty-nosed mother, choosing instead to just reap the good aspects of it companionship.
As Aliya descends into disenchantment and despair, she witnesses a life-changing moment. Her boyfriend from school, now Kamaal’s chef at his restaurant, “B for Biryani”, resurfaces, and instead of saying “hi”, kisses her in a long embrace.
Aliya life seems to revolve around a food plate: She is a food photographer, engaged to a restaurateur and her ex-boyfriend is a chef!
There is also Amina Khan, the cookbook writer who happens to be Kamaal’s aunt, and doubles up as Aliya’s agony aunt.
But for all their expertise, Amina and Sameer are only dabbling in biryani, pasta and tiramisu. Where is the meat? The bacon? The beef? Pudding and pie? For all its emphasis on food, the novel falls short of a foodie’s expectations.
For all her talk of Bangalore, Wajid rarely talks about city landmarks and the bustling culinary gems resting besides the city’s choked roads.
Instead, she endorses authentic wood-cooked biryani prepared by Sameer under Amina’s supervision, in Vellore.
Biryani, cooked by Aliya’s shirtless ex-lover over naked flame. Appetising? It gets drool worthy later on.
The trio are in Vellore so that Aliya can get some candid shots that provide an insight into Amina’s life, for her upcoming? book which is supposed to be autobiographical.
We don’t know the fate of Amina’s book even after the novel ends, but we get a sense it will materialise once Aliya’s conflicted love life falls in place.
The choice is stark: between brains and brawn; grain and condiments; variety and biryani. Between Sameer and Kamaal. Aliya just needs to figure out her taste buds.
Here the economy of a storyline dents the economy of ideas. Just like Aliya, who is buffeted by opinion from her parents, her friend Meeta and Amina, the novel’s storyline also suffers from the tussle between food and love.
As Aliya tries to figure things out, Sameer tries to tip the scales in his favour with a generous helping of kisses and passion. While her courtship with Kamaal began with a kiss, Aliya never went beyond with him, since the relationship was burdened by expectations of her family and Kamaal’s mother. Performance anxiety? You said it.
But Sameer, who lost his father early in life and became a chef to support his family, is his own guy. He comes without any strings attached and wants the same from Aliya. Ergo, passionate cuddling, penned in with gusto by Wajid:
I put my arms around his neck and kiss him back hungrily… With one arm on my lower back, he pulls me up until there’s no space between us… I nibble his lower lip and then his jaw and he throws his head back, his eyes closed, I continue kissing his face…
Wajid makes her heroine robust, one who has an appetite for the tangible and tactile. She likes to hold onto her lover and kiss him good. She likes to give even as she gets. She will climb on top to make him work hard.
There’s a lot of cloying if not moaning, and it is in these moments that we see Aliya uninhibited. She lets go and gets so much more in return.
Wajid constantly hints at a tepid ending, albeit a realistic one, at the risk of the novel losing its crunch.
We see how Aliya’s procrastination has brought things to a boil. Her choice is difficult, but her family is focused. They cannot let go of the benefits of a matrimonial alliance with Kamaal.
They get more indebted to him, when he rescues Aliya’s father from investors after his real estate deal falls flat.
Aliya was always an anomaly, easily cast off by her family in their best interest.
That’s meat for you. Chewy, dense meat that shows the dynamics of choice in our marriage market for what they are.
Ishaan is a writer and reviewer based in Delhi