Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review: Chef by Jaspreet Singh

Chef by Jaspreet Singh is a lyrical novel, set in 1990s, expressed through the landscape of memory of Kirpal Singh or Kip. The shortened hip name Kip is a name he acquires after joining as an assistant to a chef in the army general's house in Kashmir. The body of Kip's father lies somewhere in the Siachin glacier, which Kip eventually visits at a crucial juncture in the story. When Kip first arrives in Kashmir, the memory of his father who was a decorated soldier/ officer in the army invades his conversations and interactions with armymen around him. The Sikh recruit, Kip, learns to cook local, national and international dishes from Kishen, who had trained in various embassies in Delhi to acquire the skill to blend flavors and prepare delicacies. The mentor Kishen, also a Sikh, extends his scope far beyond culinary arts, for he provokes Kip to think about women, about Muslims in Kashmir, about battlefields where soldiers like Kip's father die each day while "civilians" go on living unperturbed by the bloody reality at the troubled border between India and Pakistan. While Kip is the main character and the narrative emerges from his memory, it is Kishen who makes the eyeballs of a reader throb with emotion of every kind.

The army general has a motherless daughter who grows up in the shadows of the house, while the father is busy administrating Kashmir. While their personal fates are important elements of the novel, for Kip one presents his boss, the other who grows into a poetess, a foster daughter. Kashmir was once central to Hindu imagination, for many celebrated scholars emerged from Kashmiri Pandits, and in the last twenty years, (and a few hundred years leading to it), the Pandits and other Hindus were driven out from the peaceful land of their ancestors. In the new Kashmir, remain only the army and the Muslims. The Muslims who are half-unhappy with the military-dominated presence of the rest of India, are half-sympathetic to cause of freedom expressed by their leaders or youth for various selfish or selfless reasons, are perhaps half-motivated by propaganda from across the border, half-raged by the apathy from the rest of India, are being stifled by conflict, dwarfed by the unreasonable expectations of two nations. In this land of contradictions and conflict, Kip cooks curries with a military precision and churns dish after dish using Kishen's recipes. While the kitchen keeps him occupied for most of the time, it is his trips outside the kitchen that take the story forward.

Kip learns Kashmiri, and is called upon to talk to a infiltrator, a Muslim woman from across the border who ends up in India, washed to the shore of a river after her failed suicide. Till her emergence, Kip stayed secure in his anger and hatred for the enemy. But now a frail woman was the enemy, and her emergence upset his preconceived notions. In a jarring, haunting narrative, that one experiences while reading rest of the novel, (but cannot capture in a review of the novel), Jaspreet Singh creates a compelling masterpiece where love, scars, disillusion, hope, loss and compassion compete for space on every page. Sadness settles on a reader as the story unfolds, but the lyrical writing and an attachment to Kip's memory and fate, carries the reader into a somber night, not restless, not restful, just somber.

A good debut, a good read...

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