Chef by Jaspreet Singh
Bloombury, New York, 2010
Borrowed from the library.
A trip taken at the request of an old commander. A slow train back to a place of struggle and yearning. A diagnosis of cancer. All these things allow the narrator of this timely novel to remember his past. Most of the story takes place in Kashmir, below the highest battlefield in the world. India and Pakistan are in a struggle for territory. There is fighting, there are terrorist acts. Many have died, mostly due to the severe weather conditions.
Kirpal Singh, known as Kip, is not yet twenty when he arrives at the an Indian army camp below the Siachen Glacier. Kip is apprenticed to the camp chef, Kishen, who lectures him on cooking, politics and women. He learns to cook local dishes and, at Kischen’s insistence, unusual foods from around the world. As a Sikh, Kip could hold himself apart from this struggle for land and power but he is loyal to India. His father, a military hero who died on the glacier, is a constant presence. It is not until General Kumar orders Kip to interrogate a prisoner that he begins to question his place and the logic of the ongoing struggle.
The officers, in proper uniforms and black boots, looked at me in relief as if I had just saved them. The captive lay on the bed. He was a she. The first enemy I ever saw was a she, and already I had apologized to her moments ago on two counts. The first thing I noticed was the unconscious movement of her head. Rapid breathing. Terror in the eyes. Peasant feet. The toe ring gleamed in fluorescent light. There was a cut on her left foot.
The colonel asked me to occupy the chair next to the enemy’s bed. I took a deep breath, then the interrogation began. It was my first time as an interpreter. I asked the questions slowly, she stammered her responses. I do not recall the many unintelligible things she brought to her lips. But the essence has stayed with me. From page 127.
After 14 years Kip is asked to prepare the wedding feast for the commander’s daughter, Rubiya, now a poet and journalist engaged to marry a Pakistani. Upon his return Kip learns the fate of his enemy, the woman he could never forget.
A book at once harsh and lyrical, I found Chef wonderful and frustrating at the same time. There are parts that are deep and evocative, bringing to life the political struggle taking place in this land of intense cold, between these people, Hindu and Muslim, Indian and Pakistani. And then there are parts that feel shallow and incomplete. Perhaps this is simply Kip’s memory, and his illness made manifest.
I enjoyed Chef, I learned about I place I hadn’t known about, and plan on reading Jaspreet Singh’s book of short stories, Seventeen Tomatoes.