Although “Sir Vidia” has his powerful detractors, the complexities of his own life and work are one way to begin an assessment of Jaspreet Singh’s new novel Chef. As a Trinidad-born British writer and as a Canadian born in India, Naipaul and Singh respectively are differently suffused by the legacies of Empire. However, broadly speaking, their interests overlap in that they write about lands scarred by conquest, butchery and the crass and arbitrary assignment of borders. Singh’s book resonates with the violent aftershock of Partition that created India and Pakistan and which left perhaps 200,000 dead in the population migrations that followed. Responding from Delhi by email, Singh explains: “I grew up listening to the ‘partition’ stories, or rather fabulist accounts of [the] ‘wonderful life before the partition.’ My botanist grandfather would narrate the stories during lunch and dinner, skipping the violent details, or disguising them with botanical metaphors. I discovered the real horrors of 1947 much later.”
More particularly, the backdrop of Chef is the disputed Kashmir region. Singh takes on the tensions in an area whose administration is split between three countries and which is composed of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and a number of different language groups including Hindi, Punjabi, Kashmiri and “Inglish.” It is, as they say, a challenge.
Kirpal, the self-silencing, first-person narrator of Chef, is the device through which we see the world of the novel. His passive role and the gradual loss of his own Sikh identity are both arguably effects of living in the shadow of his illustrious but dead war hero father. In Naipaul’s sense, Kirpal is also a victim of what empires do to human beings. However, where Kirpal finds his expressiveness and his access to the sensual world is through the language of food. This seemingly trivial metaphor is cleverly teased out so that it is able to show the possibilities of personal, historical, and even territorial reconciliations. Hindu rogan josh and Muslim rogan josh are able to exist side-by-side and in the context of this novel it doesn’t feel like an insulting oversimplification. The novel flits between two time dimensions and food in this book is the time machine between them. Again, Singh elaborates: “After Proust it is impossible not to connect food and involuntary memories. A jalaybee dunked in warm milk is to me what a madeleine in tea is to Proust.”
Kirpal’s character is completed and in some senses created by his mentor and teacher Chef Kishen, the title character. Unlike Kirpal, Kishen is a dynamic figure able to act and make self-destructive choices. He insults a Muslim officer and is demoted and consigned to the frigid wasteland of the Siachen Glacier. He stages a semi-ecological protest with his own incineration as the climax. Even after his death when Kirpal has taken his place as chef, his recipes speak through his assiduously kept red journal. The relationship between Kirpal and Chef Kishen is complex, and at least on Chef’s side it is full of an uncompleted sexual yearning. It is one of the dimensions that gives the novel its richness. Kishen’s journal is his own attempt to speak to Kirpal and to reconcile the chasm between men:
Because otherwise men are strangers to one another,” […] “Even if we carry the same wounds, we remain strangers. We can’t express ourselves properly.
Kirpal describes Chef Kishen as having given him “a tongue,” a conceit maintained throughout the novel.
Jaspreet Singh himself increasingly fits the profile of a distinguished author. His short story collection Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales From Kashmir was well received and won the QWF’s McAuslan First Book Prize in 2004. Between 2006 and 2007, Singh was a resident in the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers’ Program at the University of Calgary. Currently he is completing the play Elephants for Montreal’s infinithéâtre and is working on another novel, The Book of Hanging Gardens. With a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from McGill, the author is also a member of that distinguished circle of writers who can integrate stories with their science.
The story that Kirpal tells with the gift of Chef Kishen’s voice is one of return. Chef is structured around a journey and not surprisingly it is a trip taken to make peace and to reconcile the past with the present. While it is not certain whether the discourses of forgiveness and understanding carry much weight against the jagged edges of the real historical and political situations existing between India and Pakistan, the book makes a poignant gesture in the right direction. If there is any weakness in the novel it comes in what may be for some the self-conscious “value-added” literary dimension of the narrator’s terminal illness, possibly an unnecessary layer.
Where Singh’s novel really shines is in its elegiac tone and passages of precise and sensual description. There are the tastes and smells and sights of food: saffron floating on the top of tea, paneer, Chef Kishen’s sushi and rogan josh made with Kashmiri chilies. The Siachen Glacier, the highest battleground on earth, is in Singh’s hands a complex metaphor. It is this mass of ice that literally swallows Kirpal’s father when his plane crashes, but that from the air looks like a woman’s belly button. The severe freezing conditions and high altitude render Chef Kishen impotent and cause him to attempt suicide. No one ever said being an army chef was easy.
To return to the reservations expressed earlier, Chef also presents modern India and Kashmir with many of its contradictions. Ancient ruins are cheek by jowl with the more modern despoliations of capitalist enterprise. Everywhere is overpopulated; everyone is eating, defecating; and everything is old, falling apart, reused, bodged up or otherwise reinvented. In this mélange, Singh includes remnants from the old Empire days in addition to newer phenomena such as the young North American travellers busy finding themselves on their parents’ coin.
Singh’s first novel is a rich mix indeed. It presents a story in deeply contested territory and for the most part does it well. The premise of food as a language and negotiator is an interesting one that works at many levels. It is worth remembering, though, that the narrator is slightly unreliable. As much as cooking enables Kirpal and Chef Kishen to speak, it is also provides an escape from engagement and ultimately from change. Kirpal admits, “When people talk religion and politics, I turn my thoughts to food.” mRb