India is passing through the night. Night, just like rain, hides the ugliness of a place so well. We are running behind the backs of houses. Thousands of tiny lights have been turned on inside them. Towns pass by, and villages. I remember my first journey to Kashmir on this train. It was a very hot day, and despite that, passengers were drinking tea, garam chai, and the whole compartment smelled of a wedding. Girls in beautiful saris and salwar-kameezes sat not far from me; some of them spoke hardly any English. Their skins had the shine of ripe fruits. How shy I was then.
– from Chef by Jaspreet Singh
The year is 2006, and Kirpal Singh is returning to Kashmir fourteen years after abruptly quitting his military post as a chef to Kashmir’s Governor, an army general. He has been summoned back to cook for the wedding of the General’s daughter Rubiya, who is scandalously engaged to a Muslim man. As his train speeds past the ever-changing Indian landscape, Chef Kirpal contemplates the twists and turns of his life. In his brain, a recently diagnosed tumor grows.
Kirpal made this journey for the first time many years ago, as a naïve nineteen-year-old craving a glimpse of Kashmir’s Siachen Glacier, where his war hero father had perished in a plane crash. Joining the military despite his mother’s protests, the inexperienced Kirpal apprenticed to Chef Kishen in the General’s kitchen. A muscled former infantryman whose beefy exterior masked the passionate soul of a culinary poet, Kishen had known Kirpal’s father, as had the glamorous wife of a local colonel. The boy hungrily devoured their stories of his father’s bravery.
The young Kirpal’s confidence grew as the kind Kishen taught him to tease the taste of pent-up desire from fruits and spices, and advised him on the seduction of women. Then a careless remark caused Kishen to be abruptly demoted, dispatched to an icy post atop Siachen Glacier. Kirpal was suddenly alone in the kitchen, promoted to chef.
After a particularly violent period of war, hearing that Kishen was in the local hospital, young Kirpal stole Kishen’s confiscated journal from the General’s study. Searching through the pages to understand more about his mentor, Kirpal began to consider the world anew. A trusted member of the General’s household, his faith in the rightness of India’s position faltered as he witnessed some grim secrets. Later, when accompanying the General on a brief mission to the glacier, Kirpal once again encountered Kishen and became a covert, yet unwilling, accomplice in his former mentor’s final act of rebellion.
Kirpal was also disillusioned in his youth by an encounter with a beautiful Muslim woman, Irem, imprisoned at the local hospital as a suspected terrorist. Helped by the nurse, a smitten Kirpal had cooked for Irem, under the pretence of conducting interrogation for the General. After she was abruptly taken away for further interrogation, Kirpal was prevented from seeing her again until years later, in terrible circumstances.
Today, speeding back to the Kashmir that he both loves and dreads, Kirpal’s slowing brain is choked in sad memories. Yet he still finds room for hope. “For a long time now I have stayed away from certain people,” he thinks. What will his actions be, when he encounters them again?
Set against the devastatingly beautiful, war-scarred backdrop of army-occupied Kashmir, Jaspreet Singh’s brilliant first novel, Chef, is a lushly poetic and immensely compassionate portrayal of an unforgettable flawed hero, at the time of his life’s reckoning.