Monday, 19 March 2012

chef [jaspreet singh]

Kashmir seems a long way away from Montevideo, but Singh's novel brought it back to life. The novel (as often seems to be the case in Indian literature) is a first person account of the trials and tribulations of a sympathetic but hapless chef in the Indian army. The twist in Singh's take on Kashmir is that he presents the conflict from the point of view of a soldier-chef, Kip Singh, a Sikh from Delhi. Who is seduced by the charms of the Himalayan province, losing his faith in the army and the Indian state in the process.

As well as offering this insight into the conflict, Chef is also a novel which explores the loss of innocence.   In fact, Kip's failure to lose his innocence and sleep with a woman becomes a tragic loss of innocence in itself. The innocence of believing that all will turn out OK, that the world is designed to bring happiness. In his frustration and his struggles to come to terms with his fate, Kip's life echoes the struggles of the place he falls in love with. The tone of the book remains dry and wistful throughout. Kip's eye remains as dispassionate as his tastebuds, which have been coached by his mentor, the older, tragic chef, to absorb and enjoy contrasting influences. There's a great deal of wonderful writing about food and its possibilities. The older chef, for example, loves Brie, and bemoans the paucity of Indian cheeses. The willingness to reach out and delight in another culture and its cuisine not only broadens the palate, it also broadens the imagination. With all the trouble that can cause, as Kip discovers when he starts to fall for a suspected female Pakistani terrorist.

Chef is an assured novel. The writer skips willingly between timelines. In Kip he has created a character who feels like he could have walked out of the pages of a novel from the 19th century: a genuinely decent, likeable hero, whose courage is revealed in the little things he does, not in grand gestures. It's sometimes said that your lead character should be riven with conflict and will not be dramatically interesting if he or she is too sympathetic. Chef shows this not to be the case, revealing a figure whose gradual understanding of the conflict he has become unwittingly caught up in makes for an unlikely but  noble hero. 

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