Chef

Paperback | March 30, 2010

byJaspreet Singh

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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.

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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 wer...

Jaspreet Singh was born in Punjab. He grew up in Jammu and Kashmir, and in several cities in India. He received his Bachelor of Chemical Engineering from Panjab University, Chandigarh. Singh relocated to Montreal at the age of twenty to attend McGill University, where he completed a M.Eng. and a Ph.D. He worked as a research scientist ...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 7.99 × 5.16 × 0.69 inPublished:March 30, 2010Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0307399338

ISBN - 13:9780307399335

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1 For a long time now I have stayed away from certain people. I was late getting to the station and almost missed the Express because of the American President. His motorcade was passing the Red Fort, not far from the railway terminal. The President is visiting India to sign the nuclear deal. He is staying at the Hotel Taj and the chefs at the hotel have invented a new kebab in his honor. All this in today’s paper. Rarely does one see the photo of a kebab on the front page. It made my mouth water. Not far from me, a little girl is sitting on the aisle seat. A peach glows in her hand. Moments ago she asked her mother, What do we miss the most when we die? And I almost responded. But her mother put a thick finger on her lips: Shh, children should not talk about death, and she looked at me for a brief second, apologetically. Food, I almost said to the girl. We miss peaches, strawberries, delicacies like Sandhurst curry, kebab pasanda and rogan josh. The dead do not eat marzipan. The smell of bakeries torments them day and night. Something about this exchange between mother and daughter has upset me. I look out the window. The train is cutting through villages. I don’t even know their names. But the swaying yellow mustard fields and the growing darkness fills me with disquiet about the time I resigned from the army. I find myself asking the same question over and over again. Why did I allow my life to take a wrong turn? Fourteen years ago I used to work as chef at the General’s residence in Kashmir. I remember the fruit orchard by the kitchen window. For five straight years I cooked for him in that kitchen, then suddenly handed in my resignation and moved to Delhi. I never married. I cook for my mother. Now after a span of fourteen years I am returning to Kashmir. It is not that in all these years I was not tempted to return. The temptation was at times intense, especially when I heard about the quake and the rubble it left behind. But the earth shook mostly on the enemy side. During my five years of service I was confined to the Indian side – the more beautiful side. The beauty is still embedded in my brain. It is the kind that cannot be shared with others. Most important things in our lives, like recipes, cannot be shared. They remain within us with a dash of this and a whiff of that and trouble our bones.  The tumor is in your brain, said the specialist. (Last week exactly at three o’clock my CAT scan results came back to the clinic. The dark scan looked quite something inside that box of bright light.) His finger pointed towards an area which resembled a patch of snow, and next to it was a horrifying shape like the dark rings of a tree. Three months to a year maximum, he said. Suddenly I felt very weak and dizzy. My voice disintegrated. The world around me started withering. I walked the crowded street back home. Cutting through my own cloud, stepping through the fog. My mother greeted me at the door. She knew. My mother already knew. She (who cooked every meal for me when I was young) knew what I did not know myself. She handed me a letter, and slowly walked to her bed. The letter was postmarked Kashmir. After fourteen years General Sahib finally mailed the letter, and that thin piece of paper delighted me and brought tears to my eyes. His daughter is getting married. In hurriedly scribbled lines he requested me to be the chef for the wedding banquet. I read the letter a second time, sitting at the kitchen table. My answer was obviously going to be a no. I was not even planning to respond. I felt dizzy. But in the evening while preparing soup I changed my mind. I make all big decisions while cooking. Mother is bedridden most of the time and I served as usual in her room at eight in the evening. I did not reveal the trouble brewing in my brain. During dinner I simply read her the General’s letter. ‘Are you sure?’ she asked. ‘You want to go?’ ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘It is impossible to say no.’  Dear Kip, Several times in the past I thought of writing to you, but I did not. You know me well, my whole life in the army has been geared to eliminate what is from a practical stand point non-essential. My daughter (whom you last saw as a child) is getting married, and she is the one who forced me to write this letter. I have heard that your mother is sick, but this is a very important event in our life, and we would like you to be the chef at the wedding. I do not want some new duffer to spoil it. You are the man for this emergency. I want to see you and I am tired and have much to talk over and plan with you. This wedding feast is perhaps my last battle and I would like for us to win it. I am sure you will not disappoint me. Yours affectionately, Lt. General Ashwini Kumar (Retired), VrC, AVSM, PVSM.Former GOC-in-C, Northern Command. The General’s daughter used to call me ‘Kip-Ing’ (instead of Kirpal Singh). Since then ‘Kip’ has stuck. In the army everyone has a second name. General Sahib’s nickname was ‘Red’, but it was rarely mentioned in his presence. ‘How many days will you spend there?’ Mother asked. ‘Seven,’ I said. ‘Seven or eight days. I must go, Mother. The neighbor will take care of you. Eating someone else’s food will do you good.’ Mother did not finish the dal soup. Her frail head rested on two white pillows and she held my arm as if we were not going to see each other again. I urged her to take the yellow tablets and capsules. She agreed only after I raised my voice. I rarely raise my voice in the presence of Mother. Something inside me was definitely changing. It was then I showed her the wedding card:  Rubiya KumarwedsShahid Lone  ‘So the General’s daughter has decided to marry a Muslim?’ she asked. ‘Not just a Muslim,’ I added, ‘but one from the other side of the border.’ Let me put this straight. Sahib is not prejudiced against the Muslims. There were Muslim soldiers in our regiment, and he never once discriminated against any of them to my knowledge. But, of course, General Sahib is not pleased with the wedding. I have read the letter twice, and I sense his hands must have been shaking when he held the pen. Sahib gave his youth to our nation to keep the Pakistanis away, he fought two wars, and now his own daughter is marrying one of them. Did so many soldiers lose their lives for one big nothing? This train is moving slower than a mountain mule. The engine is old, I know. It resembles me in many ways. But the railway-wallahs insist on calling it an Express. I readjust my glasses, and my gaze drifts from one fuzzy face to another. They will last longer than me – the ears and eyes and noses of other people. Faint scent of pickles fills the compartment. Loud and hazy conversations. Flies have started hovering over the little girl’s peach. Once I prepare the perfect wedding banquet, General Sahib will refer me to top specialists in the military hospital, and they will start treatment right away. I have a high regard for military doctors. For my mother’s sake, I must live a little longer. I don’t know why I raised my voice in her presence. She needs me more than ever. I must live a little bit longer. Perhaps it was simply the selfish wish to live just a little bit longer that made me change my mind. But things must sort out first. Before I begin work for the wedding I want the General to sort out things between us. For the last fourteen years every day I expected a letter from him. And now the wait is over, the letter is in my pocket. I had expected the letter to be heavy, to carry the entire weight of our past, but he offered me nothing. No explanation. I want him to sort out things between us. Not pretend as if there had been a simple misunderstanding. I still remember the day I had arrived in Kashmir the first time. The mountains and lakes were covered with thick fog. I was nineteen. And I had bought a second-class ticket on this very train. For some reason I remember the train moved faster then.

Bookclub Guide

1. Chef is written in first-person, with Kirpal as the narrator. Did you always trust his words? Why/why not?2. Kirpal’s narrative voice is often hard to distinguish from the words of others, particularly Kishen’s diary passages. Why do you think Singh chose to blend the stories this way? What does Kirpal mean when he says that “Chef gave me a tongue” (p. 108)? Does the novel’s title refer to Kirpal, or Kishen? How would you compare the two men?3. Near the end of the novel, Kirpal realizes that for his mother, “Cooking was her way to say how she felt towards people close to her” (p. 246). How does Kirpal himself communicate with food?4. A number of images seem to carry strong emotional associations for Kirpal. (For example, leaves, trees, smoke, soot, snow, hair, fruit, fish, dogs, the glacier.) What are Kirpal’s emotional associations for each? Do you think he is conscious of these connections?5. General Sahib describes married couples as India and Pakistan. Discuss the roles of men and women in the novel, and more specifically, fathers and mothers.6. How has Kirpal been affected by the stories he’s heard about his father? How have other father figures influenced his life?7. Kirpal describes the torture scenes he witnessed in the Kashmiri hotels as though it was all well-lit filmmaking. Is he being deliberately obtuse?8. Kirpal tells Rubiya that he does not know what he felt towards Irem. Do you think this is true? How would you describe his relationship with Irem? Why do you think he never married? What is his attitude towards sexuality?9. Kirpal is deeply moved by listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (p. 181). Discuss how, and why, this piece of music affects him so powerfully.10. In their final encounter, when Rubiya tells Kirpal that he is the nicest person she’s known, he disagrees. What do you think of the choices he has made in his life? Should/could he have chosen differently? What is your opinion of him as a man?11. Re-read Rubiya’s poem “Afterwards,” starting on page 235. In your opinion, to whom is it addressed? What is the meaning of the poem’s title?12. Discuss the different forms of rebellion, villainy and heroism in the novel. Where does Kirpal fit in?13. Much of the narrative unfolds as Kirpal travels on a train, recalling the events of his life while his brain cancer grows. What has really motivated him to return to Kashmir? If Kirpal is addressing a listener/reader, who could it be?14. How did the novel’s ending make you feel? Do you think Kirpal is holding back any information?15. “They make a desolation and call it peace.” This quotation used in the novel’s epigraph is by Galgacus, a Briton warrior, about Roman imperialism. Why do you think Singh chose this quotation for the book? Can you think of any other world conflicts that could be described in this way?16. For Kirpal, eating and cooking are acts that evoke powerful emotions and recollections. Are there any foods that carry an emotional charge in your own life? (Bonus idea – Consider using the recipe for Rogan Josh for your book club meeting.)

Editorial Reviews

"Chef is an accomplished debut novel that portends even greater things from Singh, a writer who definitely doesn't suffer from an inability to find his own voice."— The Gazette"An outstanding story about love and betrayal in a time of war, set against the beautiful and mysterious landscape of Kashmir."— David Albahari"This novel takes the reader on a sensual word journey from the very first page. Full of sorrows and joys large and small — individual, familial, social, national — this is a book written with a strong, sure and compassionate hand."— Alberta Literary Award for Fiction, Jury"[A] luminous novel… Jaspreet Singh creates a swirl of sensual allusions, from the herbs and spices of Indian cooking, to the silken allure of women Kip dares not touch, to the withering heat of the subcontinent and the unearthly cold of the Kashmiri peaks. The sensuality adorns without obscuring the solemn core of the story." — The Boston Globe