Food is perhaps the most overused trope of fiction today, a zero-effort shoehorn in an unfamiliar world.
But there’s just one recipe in Chef, for making rogan josh. This iconic dish, perhaps more than others, traditionally exemplifies the distinctions in the untwinned culinary heritage of the Kashmir Valley: Kashmiri Pandits abhor onion and garlic, flavouring their great meat dishes with asafoetida (heeng) and ginger powder (as in Krishna Prasad Dar’s rogan josh), while Muslims relish a base of the local green onion, called praan, and garlic.
Jaspreet Singh’s narrator Kirpal Singh, who may or may not be the chef of the title, perfects his own recipe, “a rogan josh inspired by these two great traditions”, which combines onion and garlic with half a teaspoon of heeng.
The crowning glory of his kitchen career will come, he thinks, when he cooks this dish for the wedding of Rubiya, daughter of his former employer, an Indian Army general who was lately governor of Kashmir.
Chef: Penguin/Viking, 248 pages, Rs450.
But this is Kashmir, and dreams are more easily spun than they are realized. A phantasmagoric ode to the brutalized region, Chef is suffused with heartache on every page as Kirpal—or Kip, as he’s christened by a young Rubiya—seeks to make sense of his own damaged life in the larger context of the fractured Valley.
The introspection begins on a night train hurtling through the northern plains, as Kip returns to Kashmir after 14 years. The world around him has changed—evidenced by the recollections of his first train ride to Srinagar, and the reality that surrounds him now—yet our man is still stuck in a vortex of unprocessed memories: of spying on a nubile cousin in the bath and, later the same day, learning of his father’s death in Siachen, of the uncouth, charismatic chef who would train him at the general’s, of multiple women who would not respond to overtures of either lust or love, of the cancer that is eating away at his brain.
If Kip is the well-meaning “Indian”—as he is repeatedly referred to in the novel—the cancer, Singh seems to suggest, is a metaphor for the sickening, prolonged pillage of Kashmir by a government more concerned about square miles than square meals. The corruption of Kashmir parallels Kip’s own confrontation with the mutable nature of goodness and justice.
Not surprisingly, there are no pat answers in Chef. In a climactic scene set on the Siachen glacier, a cook christens himself Commander, takes a visiting minister and general hostage and delivers an address to soldiers. But the black depth of emotion—at officer-level corruption in the army, at the inconsequence of the foot soldiers, at the meaninglessness of fighting in the world’s highest battlefield—overwhelms him and makes him incoherent.
As a novel, Chef teeters dangerously on the same inchoate edge: Its heart is in the right place—if a bit too mindful of the exotica-hungry Western reader—but there are too many irons in the tandoor, as it were, from an unexplained father complex to army brutality, from the Hazratbal crisis to a mysterious pregnancy. Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming is the insufficiently constructed relationship between Kip and Rubiya: This most sketchy of ties emerges as the novel’s red ribbon, tenuously holding the narrative together but, on its own, a flimsy trifle.
Still, Chef is worth a read, the eternal aromas of Kashmiri cooking simply used to ease you into a world that is neither easy, nor eternal. The disquiet that accompanies the novel is just a faint echo from the valley that still seethes for peace.
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