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Sunday 23 July 2017
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Of love, war and food

Last updated: 16 July, 2010

Lead Review

Jaspreet Singhs Chef evokes more than it tells, a minimalist narration of monumental events, says Shreekumar Varma

Chef Kirpal Singh (Kip) is returning after 14 years to Kashmir where he used to work in the General’s kitchen. Now he has cancer and has left behind his widowed mother in Delhi. His new assignment is a wedding feast for the General’s daughter, Rubiya, whom he has known as a lonely child. The General has become Governor, and Kashmir is more precarious than ever. On his journey there, familiar sights and poignant images of the past rush by, and everything is recorded with soft words that capture nuances, connect events and seek answers that aren’t always available.

Seen through a gossamer veil with paisley-shaped vents, which is sometimes whisked aside to show a harsher reality, Jaspreet Singh’s Chef evokes more than it tells, a minimalist narration of monumental events. Kip’s father dies when his aircraft crashes into the Siachen glacier, and Kip is summoned from college on the same day he has walked into a naked cousin’s bath, a sight that’s already filled his day. Not yet 20, he joins the army despite his mother’s protests, assisting Chef Kishen in the General’s kitchen in Kashmir.

Roughly drawn, Kishen is a man with a grouse, and his big mouth lands him in trouble again and again. But he’s a man with a mission to feed. “There is no such thing as the set taste of a tomato,” he instructs his new acolyte. “Taste lies in the surface, the way you cut it…Before cutting a tomato, give it the reverence it deserves and ask: Tomato, what would you like to become? Do you want to be alone? Or do you prefer company? Saffron, who are you?”

With this kind of training, Chef Kip is more than equipped to tackle the palate of his VIP guests, especially after he’s put in charge following another big-mouth episode that lands Kishen in trouble. Young and shy, Kip has never been with a woman and there’s enough empty temptation to claim his nights.

A Kashmiri Muslim woman he sees washing apples in the stream, Rubiya’s Ayah, a nurse at the hospital — they are all grist for his lust that, however, remains unexpressed.
It is left to Irem, a Pakistani woman swept into the wrong side of the border, to touch something deeper in him. But even that goes horribly astray, leading to the end of his first Kashmir chapter. Implicated in a sex crime and then freed, his current return is partly to find absolution in his boss’s eyes, which could then translate into help for his medical treatment.

It is the voice of narration that gets to us, almost hesitant but radiantly faithful, polite yet insightful, a gathering of images, thoughts and witnessings, a young-old voice that conveys even when it falters. Kip is a shaken, shaky narrator, and his story warms us for that very reason. There is also Kishen’s point of view, brought out through extracts from his diary, the blighted world-view of a lost soul.

The paisley gossamer is flung aside as the helicopter carrying Kip, the Defence Minister and the General lands on Siachen and the highest helipad in the world. This is the site of Chef Kishen’s demotion posting. What follows is explosive in many ways, and exposes the jagged fault-lines of a pretty picture. In a way, it also signifies the emergence of Kip from a shadow, and perhaps his passage into another.

The landscape of Kashmir, its ice and new fire, comes alive, but even as we are entranced we see the holes and the worms. Chef Kishen likens Kashmir to Swiss cheese; the cheese with the holes; those empty places where its Hindu Pandits used to live. And Rubiya compares Indian and Pakistani perspectives to watching a movie from two sides of a screen. The images are the same, but there's a difference, which can be overcome only with understanding and compassion.

Even as the army paints a glorious picture for public consumption, proud with the colours of patriotism and discipline, we know the existence of an inner decay, of corruption in high places, official cruelty and apathy. And this is also what we’re shown when Jaspreet Singh periodically removes or jiggles his protective screen, in the same way he presents Kashmir’s beauty from a moving vehicle and intersperses it with portraits of ugliness and filth.

A chilling scenario emerges when Kip scours hotels to investigate army brutality and then, as if innocently, pushes the horrific scenes of violence and viciousness to an unreal realm, the creation of cinema. A passage here about vision and quality of light informs the core of the book.

I like Chef on many levels. The way a world, riddled with emotion and inconsistency, is filtered through the often bland detailing of its gawky young narrator. The poetry that bursts through almost unconsciously. The unrelinquished sexual tension that pervades the book. Most of all, the sumptuous, sensual descriptions of food and its preparation. Though the reader has to go out of his way to assist the author in bringing to fruition many of his promising characters, this chore seems slight. The repast is worth the effort.

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