Papad or khichdi?

Are India’s equivalent of Mills & Boons flourishing? At the start of my reading of The Crunch Factor, it seemed like it. And I was right! Andaleeb Wajid’s tale of lost love, hunky men, rich vs not-so-rich, family issues... all packaged in this one book. It could also be a typical Bollywood love story/family drama with song sequences left to the imagination of the readers, to be sprinkled where they deem fit.

Young and independent (well, almost!) Aliya has a family consisting of parents and younger sister Faria, who all aspire to belong to the moneyed Page 3 set. A moderately successful real estate business has enabled them to raise their middle class lifestyle, but they are still trying to break through in the elite group of Bengaluru. They could be considered wannabe nouveau riche with their pretentious way of living, and 26-year-old Aliya knows it. Tea, for instance, in their household “used to be plain old tea sometimes steeped with crushed ginger, or with elaichi, in large mugs” until they realised the upmarket “concept of high tea. Now, there’s an Indian version of it at our house every day.”

In proper cups and saucers! But despite such quirks, Aliya loves her parents and appreciates the hard work that has gone into their being comfortably well-off; yet, their aping-the-rich mentality irritates her no end.

Her sister too has imbibed the shallowness of the parents, where all she aspires to in life is a rich husband and potloads of money. Aliya longs to break free from this frustrating environment but does not have the heart to do so despite her financial independence through work as a food photographer. She feels she has to be with her parents to sort of protect them from themselves and tone down their excesses in a bid to belong to the well-heeled set.

Much to her disgust, her parents arrange a matrimonial alliance for her with the scion of a biggie real-estate tycoon, which they hope will help them in their business ventures too. Aliya is not keen on marriage per se, but the thought of finally being free of the emotional shackles that bind her to her family makes her say ‘yes’ to Kamaal when he woos her with fabulous food on a private picnic on the banks of the lake that his family owns. Yes, OWNS! That’s how rich they are. Kamaal is a dream come true for most girls, including her sister Faria. He is rich, successful, and obsessed by his Greek-god looks. But Aliya has misgivings that she cannot pinpoint till she meets his dragon of a mother who warns her against hurting her son or else. Of course, mama’s boy Kamaal has never seen that side of his mother. 

Fate intervenes and it turns out that the super-yummy food hamper that Kamaal had wooed her with during the picnic was created by the chef of his new very ‘in’ restaurant. And who does the chef turn out to be? He’s Aliya’s long-lost love Sameer, who’s still as hot and sizzling as ever. Fate again plays its card when they are both hired to work on a cookbook by the famous Amina, who is also Kamaal’s aunt. Sameer’s proximity during the venture proves and accentuates the crackling chemistry that still exists between the two, the crunch factor that is lacking in the relationship between her and Kamaal.

What will it be now for Aliya: the toss-up is between khichdi and biryani. Oh well, spice always flavours the food! Wajid has written many works of fiction earlier and like all of those, this too is set in a Muslim household. Not the conservative Muslim milieu generally portrayed in Hindi films or TV serials, but a progressive Westernised one from a cosmopolitan city where women don’t go around with hijabs but wear cropped tops and jeans and work for a living, much like any other girl from any other community. Also, to break another stereotype for pop fiction, the protagonist here is the girl-next-door with her chubby fresh-faced looks, and not a size zero. She’s a girl who can think and stand on her own feet, and with a bit of prodding, take on the world on her own terms. That itself, for me, is a winning combo.The book is an easy read, clichéd in parts (Aliya and Sameer’s run-ins, for instance), but racy nevertheless. A tale for a train journey, complete with sizzling crunchy bhajias and garam chai from the stations! A fun read despite its hackneyed plot. Don’t go looking for Booker material here though; the crunch factor suffices.

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