CanLit Book Review: Chef by Jaspreet Singh

by thiszine

CHEF
by Jaspreet Singh

Vintage Canada
(CA – April 2008; US – April 2010, CAN $19.95, 246 pages)

In 1984 India carried out the military operation Meghdoot, which saw the successful invasion and occupation of the Siachen Glacier in the eastern Karakoram range of the Himalayan mountains. Ensuing from this invasion, India and Pakistan have continually warred atop this highest battlefield on earth, raging over the rights to the 70 kilometre stretch of frozen land.

For retired Indian-Sikh military chef Kirpal Singh, the main character in Jaspreet Singh’s Georges Bugnet Award winning novel Chef, his experience of the Siachen Conflict burns deep inside him. Literally, Kip (Kirpal) suffers from cancer. Symbolically, his cancer is war’s destruction personified. Eating away at Kip are memories of serving a corrupt government concerned more with right to land ownership than the will of its people.

Chef opens with Kip embarking on a long train ride from Delhi to Srinagar, his former camp, to cook a feast for the Governor of Kashmir’s daughter’s wedding. The Governor was Kip’s commander, one General Kumar, fourteen years earlier when Kip joined the army and became protégé to expert military chef, Kishen. As Kip flashes back to his war days from behind the closed kitchen quarter doors where higher rank officials stayed away from, we learn how Kip witnessed the sour fundamentals of Indian bureaucracy and, most importantly, how important political dignitaries are in bed with the military.

Kip’s first lesson in the army is understanding his role as chef which, with fierce allusion to the Indian caste system, means answering to those above him. Young and naïve, Kip adapts to his place in military society, and through his chef-minded perspective, Singh’s allegorical binding of food to cultural tradition becomes clear. When Kip visits the home of a Muslim girl, he is propositioned by her brother to marry her, and the girl serves a metaphorical dowry of tea. Kip simply wants to observe her cooking, and wonders why she does not join them for tea. Her place, like Kip’s, is in the kitchen, and he learns something about both Muslim culture and elitism along lines he understands. A similar scene unfolds later when Kip becomes flirtatious with a nurse who is Kishen’s lover. She bats him away, saying “I have no tea to offer you.” Hence, enjoying tea, a mainstay in everyday life, symbolises age-old interaction between the sexes.

As Kip grows into adulthood, Singh’s food metaphors sink deeper. Cultural faux pas extending from food preparation relate to social class when Kishen feeds a non-vegetarian dish to a group of Muslim clerics visiting Srinagar. The clerics are there on official, sketchy business, and for the offensive act marring the General’s reputation, Kishen is sent on permanent leave to a camp on the peak of the Siachen Glacier. Here, food leads to a perfect depiction of the power an elite has over a peasant.

Early in part three of Chef, an assumed insurgent, a Pakistani woman named Irem, is captured. Kip is the only one able to interpret her Kashmiri language, and is ordered to learn everything about her. Still a hormonal twenty-something virgin, Kip becomes obsessed with helping Irem, who turns out to be ‘clean’, or not a terrorist. In fact, she warns the General is being targeted for assassination by real Pakistani insurgents and, with Irem’s tip-off, Kip prevents the incident. Irem also provides Kip with information that Kishen is planning to commit suicide. This curdles Chef Kip’s stomach, and he travels to the freezing camp to help his mentor.

Atop the second coldest place on Earth, Kishen lures Kip into kidnapping a group of Indian army officials for a publicity stunt that bluntly lays out Chef’ s discourse: “More dead Indians at the front means more profits for officers and their friends in Delhi. The question I ask today is: Are we dying for nothing?” Kishen proclaims. “We feed the army, we work hard, and those at the very top have failed us. [. . .] And I say the same thing to the bastards on the other side. What are they dying for, the Pakistanis?” If that isn’t enough for Singh to get his message across, Kip echoes more accusations toward corrupt India and Pakistan. He says “Kashmir was a beautiful place and we have made a bloody mess of it.”

At the end of his journey, Kip’s cancer is near fatal, linking his suffering to a nation strung up like a punching bag for corrupt war mongers to bruise and bloody. Arriving at Srinagar, he reveals the true reason for his painful escapade, having less to do with preparing the wedding feast than one might assume. His recurring phrase of “India passing by” resonates profoundly as he reunites with Rubiya, the bride, and she reveals shared feelings of a sad, lost Kashmir instilled within her by Irem’s haunting life as a political prisoner. Now, back in Srinagar, Kip is satisfied. Poetic and romantic, Chef unravels the underbelly tale of modern India being dragged through meaningless, catastrophic destruction.

~John Coleman

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: