Set in the Kashmir in the early years of this century — but with most of the book a look back at previous times in that troubled region — Chef is also an example of “the tangential novel”. The Kashmir has been a constant source of tension and occasional outright wars (including a nuclear threat) since the Partition of 1947. While that tension is never absent from the novel, it is not really what the novel is about. Rather, Singh has chosen to explore how that world-threatening conflict directly impacts the lives of some individuals who play very minor roles in the bigger drama.
The chef of the title is Kirpal Singh (known as Kip) and we meet him as he boards a train in Delhi, bound for Kashmir after a 14-year absence. He had spent five years there earlier, as chef to General Ashwini Kumar, whom Kip knows as General Sahib. He was leader of the Indian military forces in the area for the first years of Kip’s service, governor of the Indian territory in the last few. Kip has been asked to return to be chef at the wedding banquet of the Sahib’s daughter and the General’s invitation offers the first indication of Kip’s tangential, but important, role in the larger conflict:
Several times in the past I thought of writing to you, but I did not. You know me well, my whole life in the army has been geared to eliminate what is from a practical stand point non-essential.
My daughter (whom you last saw as a child) is getting married, and she is the one who forced me to write this letter. I have heard that your mother is sick, but this is a very important event in our life, and we would like you to be chef at the wedding. I do not want some duffer to spoil it.
You are the man for this emergency. I want to see you and I am tired and have much to talk over and plan with you. This wedding feast is perhaps my last battle and I would like for you to win it. I am sure you will not disappoint me.
A wedding feast is “an emergency” and “last battle” in an area where wars have been fought for more than half a century? Jaspreet Singh’s story is a reminder that individual lives go on and that they have their own crises, even when they are lived surrounded by major conflict. To underline this point, Kip decides to accept the invitation even though his doctor has just told him that he only has three months to a year to live as he has an inoperable brain tumor — this will be his last battle as well.
Kip’s train journey to the Kashmir is the same route that he took 19 years earlier as a new recruit in the Indian army:
I still remember the day I had arrived in the Kashmir the first time. The mountains and lakes were covered with thick fog. I was nineteen. And I had bought a second-class ticket on this very train. For some reason I remember the train moved faster then.
Kip had joined the army following the death of his hero soldier father, Major Iqbal Singh, in an air crash on the Siachen glacier that is the constantly shifting (melting) front of the Indian-Pakistani conflict.
When I think about my past, time begins flowing in a different way and my thoughts turn to the mountains of the Kashmir, and to the river that begins at the toe of the glacier.
The river begins in India, crosses the border and flows into enemy territory. In Pakistan time is half an hour behind India, and the moment the river crosses the border it moves backward in time. But three or four mountains away it re-enters our side, becomes Indian again, and by doing so moves forward in time. The crossing of borders keeps happening over and over again.
If the glacier is the broader canvas of Kip’s time in the Kashmir, it is the kitchen of Chef Kishen, where he is assigned as an assistant, that supplies the detail of the picture. Kishen had trained at embassies in Delhi and international cuisine is his greatest strength but with a twist: “Foreigners have colonized us for a long time, Kip. Now it is our turn. We will take their food and make it our own…” That food theme will be present throughout the book; I am no expert on Indian cuisine, but even I found the “make it our own” line interesting, right down to the recipes that pop up every now and then.
Kirchen personally represents the powerful consequences of the mundane side of the larger conflict. His career effectively ended when he made a “major error”; he refused to serve tea to a Muslim officer. The battle for the Kashmir is not fought merely on the glacier.
Chef Kirchen also introduces the third story line of the novel. He knows he will be transferred to a camp on the glacier when Kip has been trained. And he tells Kip his training will end “the day you lose your virginity”.
Kip never does lose his virginity but he is not quite 20 and falling in love — well, infatuation — is something he does quite frequently. It is when his infatuation settles on a female prisoner from Pakistan, Irem, that he becomes drawn into the broader conflict. Irem literally floated into the India side; her story is that she threw herself into the river in a suicide attempt. The Indian authorities are convinced that she is an infiltrating terrorist.
Food, with an international touch. Prejudice, at the personal level. Infatuation, that conflicts with the official conflict. Those are the elements of Kip’s “war”.
Chef works as a novel because every long-running global confrontation ends up producing human stories on the ground that are similar to this one. Singh frequently returns to descriptions of the beauty of the Kashmir, of the complex tastes of the dishes that Kip produces, of the inner turmoil that his feelings for Irem evokes. He also never loses sight of the tense environment that surrounds this very ordinary life — the life lived is a miniature version of the war being waged.
Narrated in the first person, the novel is a detailed mirror image of the louder, dominant story. They may not be earth-shattering to anyone else, but those minor conflicts are Kip’s world. An epigraph for the book from Thomas Bernhard is particularly good: “The cold is eating into the center of my brain.” Jaspreet Singh does excellent work in exploring the chilling effect of that invasion; Chef is a touching and rewarding novel.