Sunday, November 23, 2003

A world gone haywire in the mid-19th century
Jaswant Kaur

The Food of the Gods
by H.G. Wells.
Rupa, New Delhi.
Rs 150. Pages 299.

The Food of the GodsWhy does this magnificent applied science which saves work and makes life easier bring us little happiness. The simple answer runs, because we have not yet learned to make sensible use of it,” said Einstein. Obviously, he had not thought of men — men with the pen — who can make the world tick even in the “middle of an earthquake”, and who know how to derive pleasure out of most unpleasant things. Therefore, when one reads H.G. Wells’ The Food of The Gods, one is not surprised to find oneself lost in a hitherto unknown world. A world in the mid-l9th century, wherein lives a “class of men, men tending for the most part to become elderly, who are called, and when are very properly called, but who dislike extremely to be called — Scientists”.

Starkly different, they are not moved by the warble of the first Bluebird, but by their imaginations (mostly wild), exciting graphs and (mis)calculations. When they win some eminence (yes, they do get applauded), the least they are called is “eminent scientists” or “distinguished scientists” or “well-known scientists”. The book is the story of two “eminent scientists” (as for how they rose to eminence, the narrator himself is not aware of) — Bensington and Redwood — who stumble on a substance — Herakleophobia (nutrition of a possible Hercules!) — capable of radically enhancing physical dimensions and mental capabilities. Like others of their kind, they take upon themselves the task of building a new order for making the world a better place.

Keen to test the power of their newfound treasure, they set up an experimental farm. Things, however, do not turn out as expected and the world is confronted with giant hens, rats, wasps and giant cockroaches, capable of driving one out of one’s wits. No one, not even Bensington, knows how to put an end to it. At last, they burn the experimental farm and the food, but to no avail, thanks to Redwood, who starts feeding his child with what is called the “Food of the Gods”.

There is panic all around. People take to streets to register their protest against the so-called Boomfood. On one Sunday afternoon, a big crowd comes charging down the Thursday Street intent on Bensington’s “exemplary death”, for he was the one who had first given the idea of the food.

Fearing death, Bensington flees to an obscure corner, leaving behind his inventiveness and concern for humanity, never to appear again. Twenty years later, the world is all set for another upheaval. The food has spread to distant parts of the world. There are areas where the food is in its full bloom and others still unaffected. The world is divided into two sections — the giants and the pygmies — each having an air of superiority, each putting up a fight for its existence and hungry for each other’s lives. There is chaos, and in the midst of all this is Redwood — all alone, unable to make a choice, choice between a world that is his creation and a world of which he is a part. No one knows what happens next, as Wells leaves it for the reader to decide.

The lively and humorous style of the author keeps the reader glued to the book. However, what irritates him or her the most is the glaring proofreading and editing mistakes. Besides, the year in which the novel was first published has not been mentioned. Warts and all, the book makes for an interesting reading. All of you who have lost their peace struggling for a berth in engineering or medical colleges have a reason to smile, for here's an opportunity to look at your subject from a different angle.