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Image below, first from bottom: Jaspreet Singh, from a photo by Colleen de Neve. Home Page image: courtesy, Steve McCurry and National Geographic.

Books

Jaspreet Singh's New Novel
"Chef"

A "Book of the Month" Review by MANJYOT KAUR

 

CHEF, by Jaspreet Singh. Vehicule Press, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 2008. ISBN 978-1-55065-239-0. 242 pages. Price: $19.95.

 

 

Chef is Jaspreet Singh's second book. His first work, an award-winning collection of short stories entitled Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir, was published in 2006.

The plot of Chef is quite a non-linear and oblique one. Even its many detours and asides, however, cannot obscure the poignant charms of the subtle, graceful lyricism that pervades its well-crafted narration and dialogue.

The novel opens as its protagonist, Kirpal Singh, usually referred to as Kip, is starting out on his lengthy journey by train and bus to Kashmir. He is the son of a heroic military officer, Major Iqbal Singh, who was killed in action during a war with Pakistan when his plane crashed on the Siachen Glacier, "the coldest and highest battlefield in the world".

Joining the army against his mother's wishes, Kip had worked for five years in the region's capital, Srinagar, as the personal chef of General Kumar, chief of the Northern Command. Now, fourteen years later, he is returning, having been summoned back to cook the wedding meal of the General's daughter, Rubiya.

Creating delicacies for Rubiya's celebration is not Kip's only motivation, however. He has just been diagnosed with brain cancer, and he hopes that once he prepares the perfect banquet, the General will refer him to the top specialists in the military hospital for treatment.

Almost all of the action in Chef is retrospective, taking place in Kip's mind as he reminisces during the long trip.

His memories come to the fore soon after boarding the train:

"The beauty is still embedded in my brain. It is the kind that cannot be shared with others. Most important things in our lives, like recipes, cannot be shared. They remain within us with a dash of this and a whiff of that and trouble our bones. (...) I am glad it is raining because India looks beautiful in the rain. Rain hides the melancholy of this land, ugliness as well. I see a face reflected in the window. Who is that man with spots of gray in his hair? What have I become?"

A flood of self-introspection and recollections ensues.

He thinks about his first journey to Kashmir upon enlisting in the military shortly after his father's death, and his initial meeting with his superior, Chef Kishen, when the latter began to impart his personal philosophy of cookery to Kip.

"Since Chef had received training at foreign embassies in Delhi, international cuisine was his greatest strength. But he taught me mostly to subvert those recipes. 'Foreigners have colonized us for a long time, Kip. Now it is our turn. We will take their food and make it our own. (...) Before cutting a tomato, give it the reverence it deserves and ask: Tomato, what would you like to become?'"

He remembers taking over the kitchen after Kishen, caught in an embarassing verbal gaffe during an important state dinner (he mentions cooking pork to a Muslim imam), is demoted and transferred to a remote Siachen Glacier posting. His fumbling, unsuccessful efforts to lose his virginity with a village girl he spies washing apples on a riverbank, and with a nurse he meets in the nearby army hospital, are brought again to his mind.

During a brief leave in Srinagar, Kishen tries to commit suicide and ends up in the army hospital. Discovering Kishen's journal in the General's residence, Kip begins reading it to learn the reason why Kishen wanted to kill himself, and finds much more than what he expected.

"Flipping through, it seems as if this is my journal. (...) He was my second self or perhaps I am what he was becoming. The greatest gift he gave me was not the food. Not even the foreign cuisines. Chef gave me a tongue".

Kip becomes utterly mesmerized by Kishen's haunting descriptions of the desolate "cold white vortex" of the forbidding Siachen icefields and the extreme deprivations and hardships of the soldiers posted there:

"Sometimes I walk by the tents at night and I feel as if we are a wrecked ship, and feel the glacier moving under my feet. Mocking me. My God, where am I? We are condemned. For us there is no hope. When we capture an enemy prisoner I cannot wait to ask him. Tell me what does your heaven look like?"

On a visit to Kishen at the hospital, Kip has his first personal encounter with "the enemy", a captured Pakistani. This captive is not a typical prisoner, however, but another would-be suicide, a woman who inadvertently crossed the border after leaping into the river dividing India and Pakistan.

Some think she is a spy or militant agitator. To Kip, though, she is simply Irem, a young woman whose desperate plight touches his heart: "The life she was leading was worse than death. Her husband and his mother criticized her constantly for not being able to bear a child".

Kip's attempts at consoling Irem, who has had an outburst of uncontrollable weeping after finding a long hair in the food he has cooked for her, spark one of the book's most touching moments.

"It seemed natural to do what I did next. I removed my turban. I revealed the knot of hair on my head. My hair tumbled to my knees. (...) She looked right through me, and slowly her hands unknotted the scarf on her head. Slowly she let it go. "Hair," she said. (...) Then I heard her forced, convulsive laughter. I raised my eyes and observed: they had shaved off her hair. She broke out laughing before she wept. Like a child. (...) My eyes, too, welled up. Me, wearing very long hair, and this woman mourning the loss of her hair. Her scarf on the floor, and my turban on the table. I felt as if the two things, the scarf and the turban, were talking to each other. (...) I returned to the kitchen with her untouched plate. She didn't eat that day. If by shaving her hair off, we meant to humiliate her, we had succeeded".

Accompanying the General on an inspection tour of the Siachen battalions, Kip is briefly reunited with Kishen, who has been returned to his unit. He asks Kip to do one last thing for him: be his witness. After Kishen addresses the assembled troops and tells them that they - and their Pakistani counterparts - are fighting and dying for nothing, he douses himself with kerosene and dies by self-immolation.

Some time later, Kip re-encounters Irem, who is still in captivity, and finds out that she is pregnant. She will not disclose the identity of the man responsible, nor will she agree to an abortion, considering the pregnancy to be God's punishment for her sins.

As the book nears its conclusion, Kip's reminiscences end; after fourteen years of absence, he is back again in Kashmir.

What has happened during his time away, and what then transpires upon his return to this war-scarred land?

Some of the events at the close of Chef are mournful and pain-filled; others are profoundly imbued with a feeling of comfort and hope. A sense of the latter, for millions of people on both sides of the border, can be grasped from an excerpt from a poem penned by the now-adult Rubiya:

"Then you will go to Kashmir

in no hurry

and hear not a single fire

The blessed women

will paint

saffron on your skin

and you will build a house there,

and weave a basket for pomegranates,

and glaze pots in fire

The jagged mountains

will no longer weep

slow muddy tears

or tremble behind

dwarf trees anymore ... "

 

It seems natural that the protagonist of such a unique book would himself be a unusual personage. Kip was not a typical soldier; his job was not to fight the enemy. When asked what he did in the army by a fellow passenger on the train, he replies, "I kept the top brass healthy and cheerful".

Performed as a consciously creative act, cooking becomes "the biggest weapon", a powerfully life-giving force that, in its own way, counteracts the destruction and death inherent in war.

Kip's access to elite military officers and prestigious dignitaries and guests also sets him apart from other army personnel. By means of his astute observations of these encounters, the discrepancy in commonly-held attitudes towards "those people who matter" versus "those who do not" appears.

Kip's perceptions, however, are quite different; for example, Irem is just as much an important part of his world as General Kumar.

A word of caution: Chef is not a work which can be satisfactorily read without complete concentration. Even with its prevalence of short, choppy sentences, it continually demands (and deserves!) the reader's full attention. Otherwise, one risks getting lost in the deep crevasses of its characters' minds and memories. In this way, it could be said that the book resembles the glacier that perpetually looms in its background.

Those fortunate readers who become absorbed in Jaspreet Singh's hypnotic prose will certainly not emerge disappointed. Through its adroit juxtapositions of time, place and mood, Chef is immensely evocative of both the bitter harshness and the delicate, haunting beauty of Kashmir itself.

 

August 28, 2008

For ordering information, please go to www.vehiculepress.com.

Excerpts from Jaspreet Singh's first book, Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales of Kashmir, and from two of his short stories can be found in sikhchic.com's "Fiction" section.

Conversation about this article

1: Bir Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 21, 2010, 6:43 PM.

I will be reading this book in the summer but I may need help in understanding it completely. I was thinking about the possibility of starting an online discussion where more capable minds could explain the complexities to me or to any other novice reader.

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"Chef""









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