Chef, By Jaspreet Singh

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The Independent Culture

Kirpal "Kip" Singh is back on the slow train from Delhi to Srinagar, summoned by an entreaty from his old boss, 14 years after resigning as chef to General Kumar: then India's top brass in the nasty border war with Pakistan and now Governor of Kashmir. The General's daughter Rubiya (whom Kip recalls as a highly-strung little girl) is getting married to her Pakistani fiancé. General Kumar wants Kip to prepare a wedding feast that will smooth the diplomatic hazard of this domestic "emergency".

Meandering through rural India and the bickering of his fellow passengers, the train journey gives Kip space to reflect on his own painful experience of Kashmir's "turmoil". The son of Indian hero Major Iqbal Singh, whose body was swallowed by Kashmir's mighty Siachen Glacier after his plane crashed, 19-year-old Kip began work in the occupied territory apprenticed to Chef Kishen, who steeps the innocent young cook in his fiery opinions on spices, women and politics. When the General instructs Kip to conduct a discreet interrogation of a presumed terrorist, a Pakistani woman dragged from the border river, Kip finds his sense of justice, of humanity, and his own emotional equilibrium, under severe strain.

Given Kashmir's paradisical reputation, Jaspreet Singh's novel offers little by way of rapturous evocation of this ravaged landscape's sere beauty. Instead, the author cleverly plays up its austerity, from the hardships of the military camp on the Siachen glacier (reputedly the second coldest place on earth) to the curfews and diminished lives of the valley communities, scarred with religious hatred and suspicion and defined by intractable, dogmatic warfare. The war's tally of thousands of killed civilians and soldiers forms a different, spectral landscape, powerful but silent. It stands against the rackets of the Indian army's top brass, whose scams line their own pockets.

At the centre of this meditative debut is Kishen's doomed, incendiary proclamation, which sets the moral tone of Kip's discomfort. As a Sikh, Kip might sit outside Kashmir's sectarian conflict, but as an Indian he is profoundly distressed by the religious war – whose idiocy is clarified in a luminous passage in which Kip balances Indian and Pakistani cuisine, quietly celebrating a hybrid of the two traditions.

That Kip returns to Kashmir while being eaten by cancer gives an elegiac cast to his ruminations, and Singh's quietly eloquent prose. Rubiya's fate, with her politically tricky marriage, yields little optimism. The recent history of nuclear testing, mass mobilisation and sabre-rattling augurs poorly for the region. With subtle incident and affecting characters, Singh's modest novel makes a sobering foray into a paradise fractured by intolerance and venality but offers little comfort over any prospect of a resolution.