~A Tale of Two Chefs - possibly three~
Chef is the story of Kirpal (Kip) Singh, a young fatherless Sikh looking for his late father both literally and metaphorically, as well as for himself and a lot more by joining the Indian army serving in Kashmir. Shortly after his father's death he goes to the Himalaya to work in the kitchens of General Kumar, chief of the Northern Command and resident of the second biggest house in Srinagar.
Chef is also the story of Kirpal (Kip) Singh, a man in his 30s whose life is to be cut short by a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour. He has been invited to return to Kashmir by the General who fourteen years after Singh left him is now the Governor of Kashmir and resident of the biggest house in Srinagar.
But possibly the Chef of the title isn't either of the Kirpals, young or old, but the young Singh's mentor, Chef Kishen. It's never quite clear and that's just one of many ambiguities in this book.
~A time for reflection~
We join the book with Singh in his older self, a man who has been waiting many years to hear from the General - waiting for an apology for presumed past sins. These are sins that we as readers have to pretty much work out for ourselves as this is a book in which much is hinted but little is revealed. Kip is waiting for answers to questions that have long gone unasked but which torment him still. When a letter arrives at the home Kip shares with his mother, it is not the apology he had waited for but an invitation to return and cook the wedding feast of the General's daughter Rubiya, someone he remembers as a young girl back in the days when he served her father. A wedding should be a cause for celebration but there's a big dark cloud over the proceedings. Kumar's daughter has chosen to marry a Muslim from Pakistan, seemingly throwing her father's life's work defending the Indian border from attack back in his face.
The book is structured around Kip's two periods in Kashmir, the story flitting back and forth between the two. The first trip was caused by young Singh signing up for the army and going to Kashmir to learn his trade as a chef. The second is taken by his older self, a dying man whose illness seems to have given him access to a courage he lacked when he was younger. The General is now the Governor and Singh is heading back to Srinagar to try to understand his own past, to find out the answers to questions which have haunted him for years. He also hopes that perhaps the General can help him to get treatment for his illness though that train of thought seems to have failed to leave the station since it's mentioned once then forgotten thereafter.
~Secrets and Lies~
We know from the first pages that Singh is unmarried and we suspect the reason why lies in his first time in Kashmir. He becomes unofficially apprenticed to Chef Kishen, an eccentric and bawdy man, passionate in equal measures for the dishes he creates and the local nurse whom he beds. Kishen urges Singh to get a woman, saying he'll let Kip have his job as Chef the day his young protégée loses his virginity. Instead Singh gets the job when Kishen steps out of line and gets exiled to a hardship posting up on the glacier on the border with Pakistan. Then there's the mysterious Pakistani woman, pulled out of a river and accused of spying for the enemy, a woman that Kip wants to understand, to cook for and quietly to love. Things happened to the woman, things which are mysteriously revealed, layer by layer, as the book moves back and forth in time. Things which drove Kip away and bring him back again so many years later.
~A very different look at Kashmir~
There are many books about Kashmir and most are romantic evocations of the paradise in the sky that was represented by this beautiful mountain area. Many revolve around Srinagar as a place of cool refuge for the British in the days of the Raj. Others are emotional accounts of the devastation wrecked on the local people and their communities by decades of conflict between India and her neighbour Pakistan. But Chef takes rather a different angle, offering instead a story of the Indian forces in Kashmir and of the ongoing - and persisting - conflict with Pakistan across the so-called 'Line of Control'. This is not the Kashmir of Bollywood song and dance routines amongst the mountain flowers. It's the Kashmir of the military, of men living close to 'the line' and sometimes even closer to the edge, ever alert to attack and fearful of spies and invasion. It's also the Kashmir of freezing temperatures and weather that has killed more men than the conflict ever could. We see men driven crazy by their situations, women destroyed by prejudices, and all the time we watch through the eyes of Kirpal Singh, a character designed to observe, to be always just a little bit outside the action, someone around whom things happen rather than someone who actually creates the action himself.
I can only assume that the author, Jaspreet Singh, is making a specific point in making his non-hero a Sikh like himself. Whilst it would be fair to say the Sikh community in India has plenty of reason to side with the Hindus against the Muslim Pakistanis, theirs is a dispute that's more at home on the plains of the Punjab and not up in the Kashmiri Himalaya. Singh's character Kirpal is thus granted a 'differentness' that enables him to be a little detached from a conflict that's by history one of Hindu versus Muslim, a conflict where his late father didn't really belong either. Similarly his role as a chef for the General means he's simultaneously a part of the military but not a combatant. Not surprisingly for someone serving in the Indian Army, his loyalties lie firmly on the Indian side of the Line of Control, but his contact with the young Muslim woman, the growing understanding of how and why she came to be in the river and accidentally pulled out on the wrong side, makes him question his loyalties and his part in the conflict. As a chef, he's not exactly looking down the barrel of a gun, targeted on an enemy, but this sense of separation adds again to that sense of separation and observation.
I loved the gentle but threatening pace of the story, where things unsaid are every bit as important as those spoken out loud. I found myself re-reading passages to make sure I'd understood them properly, checking back to see if I'd missed something the first time. No sooner had I finished than I knew I would want to go back and have another go, to see what I could spot second time around that had hidden under a rock the first time through. As I was approaching the final pages I found myself wondering how the book could possibly finish with so few pages left to go and I would admit that I felt the ending was a bit rushed, and left me with plenty of unresolved issues still niggling away in my mind.