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Fiction/Buzz: Food for life

September 26, 2010


 THERE is a saying that the title of a book is the window through which you can make out what's inside. Going by the title one would have assumed Chef by Jaspreet Singh to be a story detailing the experiences of a chef, of him modifying his recipes to suit his master's tastes, in between the tales of his life and of those around him. But Chef is not just that; it offers much more.

Set in the beautiful valley of Kashmir ravaged by war for many years, the book is, on the surface level, the story of Kirpal Singh (known as Kip) who worked as a chef at an Indian military outpost in the shadows of the Siachen glacier.

The story is narrated mostly in flashbacks while Kip is on a train from Delhi to Srinagar. He travels through the same route that he took 19 years ago as a new recruit in the Indian army.

It is a journey back in time for Kip and the memory of his time there provides the bulk of the narrative. He has been asked by his old boss, General Kumar, 14 years after resigning, to be the head chef at his daughter's wedding banquet.

As a 19-year-old, Kip had joined the army and gone to an outpost near the Siachen glacier, where his father, also an army officer, had died in an air crash. At General Kumar's camp, Kip becomes an apprentice to Chef Kishen, under whom he not only learns to prepare a host of delectable delicacies from around the globe — from roghan josh to tiramisu — but was also lured to the world of women.

At the same time he is introduced to life in Kashmir — a place of constant turmoil and conflict, where the frequent sound of shell-fire between Indian and Pakistani forces on the nearby Siachen glacier can be heard in the background, while activities of daily life continue.

Though the world outside their house is at war, Kip is not affected by or even interested in the border conflict or politics until he is drawn into it when the general instructs Kip to conduct a discreet interrogation of a presumed terrorist, a Pakistani woman who was dragged from the border river.

She claims that she threw herself into the river in a suicide attempt while on the other side of the border but floated to the Indian side. The Indian authorities believe her to be an infiltrating terrorist and she is taken prisoner.

Kip meets her and falls in love, though he is never sure if his love is requited. His feelings for her make him suffer an inner turmoil, and he finds his sense of justice, of humanity and his own emotional equilibrium under severe strain.

Suddenly, something happens and Kip resigns from the army, leaving Kashmir. No explanation is provided as to why he left so abruptly.

The theme of food is present throughout the book; the sights, sounds and smells of Indian cuisine are interwoven throughout the narrative.

The underlying theme of the book is politics and political issues that plague Kashmir, and for that matter India. The author reveals the hardships of the military camp at the Siachen glacier as well as the curfews and diminished lives of the people living in the valley.

Thousands of civilians and soldiers killed in the valley are mentioned and at the same time the rackets of the Indian army's top brass, whose scams line their own pockets, are also mentioned. But this is all done indirectly and sparingly and through various characters.

Rather than dwelling on the conflict itself, Singh has chosen to explore how the continuous strife in Kashmir affects the lives of certain individuals who play minor roles in a bigger drama. An example is that of Chef Kishen, who banishes himself to the glacier (the highest battle ground and reputedly the second coldest place on earth) where the cold is believed to reduce some soldiers to insanity, and he later commits suicide.

By Jaspreet Singh
Penguin Books, India
ISBN 978-0-670-08432-6
248pp. Indian Rs450