Of culinary delights and heartbreaks
Reviewed by Sukhpreet Singh Giani

Chef: A Novel
By Jaspreet Singh. 
Penguin Books.
Pages 248. Rs 450. 

JASPREET Singhís Chef takes a gripping look at the India-Pakistan conflict and presents the edginess from an angle which is primarily linked to the Army, but it also tries to capture the lives of some individuals who play minor yet important roles in the Army and obviously have many emotions attached to their work.

A retired Army chef, Kirpal Singh, called Kip, is travelling by train to Kashmir to cook for the wedding of Rubiya, General Kumarís daughter. Kip is the son of a heroic military officer, Major Iqbal Singh, who was killed in action during a war with Pakistan. Though Kip had joined the Army against his motherís wishes, he always carried a pride for his work. When a fellow passenger asks him what he did in the Army, he replies, "I kept the top brass healthy and cheerful."

Crafting delicacies for the wedding is not the only motivation for Kip, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, he also hopes that the General would refer him to the top specialists in the military hospital for treatment. During the lengthy journey, Kip frequently returns to descriptions of the landscape of Kashmir, its beauty, the beauties of the land and the frequent tussle that the Valley faces, of the tastes of the dishes that Kip produces and the inner restlessness that various characters share with him.

Army chef Krishen, who had given Kip a taste for German music, and women, has highlighted the inner turmoil that a soldier has to face and finds Kip a natural source for catharsis. Krishenís career nosedives when he makes an odd reference to one of the food items being served to Imams and is transferred to Siachen, where he realises that the soldiers of both the countries are fighting and dying for nothing. Later, when the military top brass visit the glacier to inspect the troops, Krishen commits self-immolation and subsequently dies.

The novel also includes the plots of militancy in which certain Army officers are target. Jaspreet Singh describes, "Kashmir is the face of a beloved that one sees in a dream and that fades away on awakening." The author raises an all-important question, which the leadership of the both the countries certainly need to ponder about, "How is it possible for such beauty and such extreme forms of cruelty to coexist?"

The novel highlights the plight of the women in the Valley and across the border through Irem who is swept from across the border. Kip is initially called in to act as an interpreter. Later, he comes to know that Irem had decided to end her life as her husband and his mother criticised her constantly for not being able to bear a child. However, things become murkier as he finds himself attracted to her and is implicated in a sex crime and then freed.

The novel presents contrasting situations that the rank and file of the Army faces. It has sparkles of disclosures of what goes on behind the shiny uniforms and posh parties while the lower rank officers and the soldiers man the streets of troubled-torn areas.

Kip believes that it is possible to identify the qualities of people from what they eat. Making a reference to the people on both sides of the conflict in Kashmir, Kip raises an all-relevant question: How can people who eat the finest delicacies commit the most horrible crimes?

In his last part of the journey, Kip meets a lady who is returning to Srinagar, as the situation is taking a turn for the better. Her plight of having stayed away from Kashmir is well summarised when Kip states that there is not a bigger tragedy for a land that forces its own people out and makes them wander form place to place, leaving them absolutely shattered with an intense longing to return home.

Jaspreet Singh has written a sensitive and absorbing account though at times the main plot seems to drift away, it is all woven beautifully across a single maze in the end.

The books brings out a very stark picture as to how the various sections of the Army have intriguing roles to performs and how their associates perceive them. This absorbing assortment of irony, fantasies, a curious blend of human minds and philosophy between food and behaviour will surely thrill you.