Chef by Jaspreet Singh

16/03/10, The Lady

Indian writer Jaspreet Singh is based in Canada, where his first book, a short story collection called Seventeen Tomatoes, won an award. Chef, his first novel, initially comes across as typical exotica-mongering fare that is so popular and passes for “Indian writing” in the West: beautiful locations (the novel is set in Kashmir, a place that once used to be known as ‘paradise on earth’); a plot that highlights elements of Indian cooking and the attendant colour and smell of spices and exotic dishes; a blurb that nudges the reader to make explicit connections between food and (romantic/sexual) love, this being one of the most overdone themes in third-rate non-Anglo-American fiction that Western readers simply cannot get enough of. It is, therefore, to Singh’s immense credit that Chef deceives all those lurid and lazy expectations and modulates into an artful and mostly beautifully poised indictment of the shameful role of India in the political and human-rights hell that is Kashmir now.

Kirpal Singh is travelling back to Kashmir to cook for the wedding of Rubiya, General Kumar’s daughter. Fourteen years ago, when he was only twenty, he had left the job of chief chef to the General (subsequently Governor of Kashmir) and has not been back since. Now, he has a growing tumour in his head and a sick, dying mother in Delhi. This slow train-journey to Kashmir is also a journey back in time for Kip and the memory of his time there unspools and provides the bulk of the narrative. Why did Kip leave Kashmir so abruptly, without any explanation?

As a nineteen-year-old man, Kip goes to an outpost of the Indian military in the shadow of Siachen Glacier in Kashmir, ostensibly to see the place where his father, a much-loved and respected army officer under General Kumar, had died in a plane crash. Kip is made apprentice to the head chef there, a Chef Kishen, who takes the young man under his wing and guides him through the fundamentals (and beyond) of cooking. Mixed with these lessons are some fearful drivel about love and sex. The virginal Kip makes advances on a nurse in the military hospital, only to be rebuffed. Chef Kishen, in an act of foolhardiness, banishes himself to the glacier, a worse-than-Siberia outpost in the war of attrition between Indian and Pakistan, where the cold reduces the soldiers to shadows of themselves, to even insanity. Kishen leaves behind his red diary, into which he was always seen to be scribbling. This diary plays a vital role in the book.

Then one day a ‘terrorist’, an ‘enemy woman’ from across the Indo-Pak border, is swept up on the banks of the river. Kip is initially called in to act as interpreter but things become progressively muddier as he finds himself attracted to her. Suddenly, his long-held conviction that India is on the right side of this endless war is shaken to the core. It wouldn’t do to give away the shocking revelations that Singh has so cunningly withheld for slow, almost oblique release towards the end but their impact is deadly: they lift the lid on nothing less than corruption in the military and state-sanctioned abuse, things that are never reported in the Indian media. The denouement, consisting of Kip’s final reckoning with General Kumar and the grown-up Rubiya, is both shocking and devastating.

The great strength of this brave book is its technique of indirection in imparting information to the reader. Singh comes at things aslant, seemingly casually; when their importance is revealed, it comes to the unsuspecting reader with the weight and shock of an unsuspected explosion.