“KASHMIR is close by. I can smell it. Akhni. Yakhni. The mehek of saffron. The beauty. The sadness of mountains. The disquiet of plane trees. The accumulation of snow. Large flakes and powder fallen on cobbled streets. In winter all streets look alike, all houses alike. Snow is whirling in the air. Smoke rises from the braziers. Embers in wicker kangris. Beauty, I am coming. I am on my way.”
Kip Singh is aboard a train watching India pass by on his way to the most beautiful land on earth, Kashmir. He has been diagnosed with a tumour on the brain, but is travelling ostensibly to cook the wedding feast for his former commanding officer’s daughter. It is 14 years since he resigned from the army and returned to cook for his ill mother in Delhi. The circumstances of that resignation provide an undercurrent beneath the layer upon layer of anecdote, reportage, and metaphor that Jaspreet Singh peels back to reveal a work of intense lyricism and magnetic charm.
The younger Kip joined the army upon the death of his officer father during military service on the Siachen Glacier, the “second coldest place on earth” and the battleground of four wars between India and Pakistan. At the time of his enlistment, a million men are squaring up for the ultimate battle, nuclear war. Because he is the son of an officer and a hero, young Kip is placed in the kitchen of the commander of the northern army and on the fast-track to promotion. He is apprenticed to the enigmatic Chef Kishen who introduces the innocent Kip to the salivating sensuousness of haute cuisine, frustratingly absent sex, and the religious/political tensions at the core of the region’s “turmoil”.
“Chef, in summers are there mosquitoes in Kashmir?”
“Mosques and mosquitoes.”
“The mosques we can manage, but we are still learning how to eradicate the mosquitoes.”
This avowed Muslim-hater, who ironically disagrees with the caste system, challenges the certainties of internecine conflict. Chef Kishen fuses the foods of the great cuisines into dishes which transcend geographical boundaries and national taste, and refute the notion of the primacy of any one power.
“There is no such thing as Indian food, Kip. But there are Indian methods ... Allow a dialogue between our methods and the ingredients from the rest of the world.”
When a Pakistani woman is rescued from the river that flows from the glacier and forms the border between the two countries, Kip visits the “terror suspect” in her cell. He establishes a metaphoric détente by means of food, having cooked Rogan Josh in both the Indian and Kashmiri traditions.
Jaspreet Singh, in this his debut novel, castigates those who promote warfare on the basis of racial or religious difference, and questions the relevance of the artificial borders over which those wars are fought. Though Kip, a Sikh, is unable to articulate his own feelings on the matter, it is also a powerful love story in which the human spirit endures despite the horrors that proliferate in the shadow of the glacier. Above all, Chef is an elegy to the tortured beauty that is Kashmir.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved