Chef

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Overview

Kirpal Singh is riding the slow train to Kashmir. With India passing by his window, he reflects on his destination, which is also his past: a military camp to which he has not returned for fourteen years.
Kirpal, called Kip, is shy and not yet twenty when he arrives for the first time at General Kumar's camp, nestled in the shadow of the Siachen Glacier. At twenty thousand feet, the glacier makes a forbidding battlefield; its crevasses claimed the body of Kip's father. Kip ...

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Chef: A Novel

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Overview

Kirpal Singh is riding the slow train to Kashmir. With India passing by his window, he reflects on his destination, which is also his past: a military camp to which he has not returned for fourteen years.
Kirpal, called Kip, is shy and not yet twenty when he arrives for the first time at General Kumar's camp, nestled in the shadow of the Siachen Glacier. At twenty thousand feet, the glacier makes a forbidding battlefield; its crevasses claimed the body of Kip's father. Kip becomes an apprentice under the camp's chef, Kishen, a fiery mentor who guides him toward the heady spheres of food and women.
In this place of contradictions, erratic violence, and extreme temperatures, Kip learns to prepare local dishes and delicacies from around the globe. Even as months pass, Kip, a Sikh, feels secure in his allegiance to India, firmly on the right side of this interminable conflict. Then, one muggy day, a Pakistani "terrorist" with long, flowing hair is swept up on the banks of the river and changes everything.
Mesmeric, mournful, and intensely lyrical, Chef is a brave and compassionate debut about hope, love, and memory set against the devastatingly beautiful, war-scarred backdrop of occupied Kashmir.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Serves up the memories both delicious and bitter… Singh adroitly blends lyrical accounts of Kip’s past with sensual renderings of the cold climate and piquant cuisine.”—Library Journal

“[Singh] writes lyrically… The rippling effects of religious and cultural prejudice infuse this whole, complex story, leaving no character in Singh’s poetic, thought-provoking tale untouched.”—Booklist

“A kaleidoscopic journey through one of the most beautiful yet besieged areas in the worldJaspreet Singh brings out the full poetry and heartbreak of Kashmir.”—Manil Suri, author of The Age of Shiva and The Death of Vishnu

Chef is a haunting evocation of the emotional and physical landscapes of war-torn Kashmir. Jaspreet Singh is a very learned, gifted, and sensitive writer.”—Basharat Peer, author of Curfewed Night

“Jaspreet Singh’s Chef carries the scents of cardamom, ice, and sweat; is written with such a keen sense of rhythm that you can hear the book as you read it; and is placed not only between India and Pakistan but intriguingly between delicate cuisines and crude politics. The novel is transporting—an experience that is not easily laid to rest.”—Mark Kurlansky, author of Cod and Salt

“Jaspreet Singh has the soul of a poet and the pen of a novelist. Chef is an intricate, subtle, and beautiful book.”—P. K. Page, author of Cosmologies

“This is courageous writing that asks, and faces the impossibility of one-way answers to, questions of loyalty, love, ownership, and death.”—Daphne Marlatt, author of The Given

Chef is easily one of the best first novels I’ve read in the past ten years. Singh takes on life as it is, with its lust, its mindless rivalry, its brutality and its redemptive epiphanies that never quite pan out, with an attention to detail that … is magnified rather than lessened by Singh’s exact and tender prose.”—Alberta Views

Chef is an accomplished debut novel that portends even greater things from Singh.”—MontrealGazette

“The forlorn beauty of Kashmir … has never been portrayed so elegantly as in this novel.”—MontrealSerai

“Like the people of India, the country’s food varies from region to region, with no simple consensus on how to prepare anything. But in Jaspreet Singh’s outstanding debut novel, as the characters learn to understand the origins of their food, they begin to understand each other… Quintessentially Indian, Chef is a book that eschews complex prose in favor of authenticity. Touching in its deft handling of Kip’s journey into maturity, Chef  helps its readers realize that true understanding comes when you recognize not only how people are alike, but also how they are different.”—Bookpage

“An artful and mostly beautifully poised indictment of the shameful role of India in the political and human-rights hell that is Kashmir now… The great strength of this brave book is its technique of indirection in imparting information to the reader. Singh comes at things aslant, seemingly casually; when their importance is revealed, it comes to the unsuspecting reader with the weight and shock of an unsuspected explosion.”—NeelMukherjee.com

“[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.”—BostonGlobe

“Jaspreet Singh’s sense of rhythm and his lyricism move the novel fluidly through time. Kirpal’s journey is complex and layered like any flavorful dish. Sit back and delight in this delectable story.” —Sacramento Book Review

“Unfortunately, I've already finished Chef by Jaspreet Singh…an ideal summer read for anyone who loves to eat and loves to cook, too.” —Hungry for Paris

“The most mesmerizing novel I’ve read this spring.” —James Mustich, Barnes & Noble Review

"Thought-provoking...Throughout, Singh’s writing is lean and muscular, pithy and precise. Observations carry the ring of truth and linger in the mind." —PopMatters

Library Journal
Shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Prize for Best Book, this first novel takes place in Kashmir, long disputed by India and Pakistan and also the setting of Singh's short story collection, Seventeen Tomatoes. The novel serves up the memories both delicious and bitter of Kirpal, or Kip, the son of an Indian war hero. Kip, who trained as a chef under the passionate and skillful Kishen, known simply as Chef, joined the military after his father's death and was shipped to a post near the Sichuan Glacier. The story is relayed while Kip, who has a brain tumor, travels by train back to Kashmir. He is returning not only to prepare a wedding feast for his former general's daughter but also to negotiate and resolve his past. VERDICT Throughout, Kip's emotional passivity stands in opposition to his culinary abilities. Canada-based Singh adroitly blends lyrical accounts of Kip's past with sensual renderings of the cold climate and piquant cuisine. The result is another successful work of fiction from the Indian diaspora. Recommended alongside other recent powerhouse titles from younger Indian-born writers, such as Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu or Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss.—Faye A. Chadwell, Oregon State Univ. Lib., Corvallis
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781550652390
  • Publisher: Esplanade Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2008
  • Pages: 242

Meet the Author

Jaspreet Singh is a former research scientist who holds a PhD in chemical engineering from McGill University. His debut collection of short stories, Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir won the 2004 McAuslan First Book Prize, and his stories have appeared in The Walrus and Zoetrope. Born in Punjab and brought up in Kashmir, Singh now lives in British Columbia.

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Read an Excerpt

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 himin 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 Kumar
weds
Shahid 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.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Reading Group 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.)

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 20, 2011

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    Fantastic

    This book is so good. It's full of thrill and i think people will really injoy it. I want more. please.

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  • Posted January 6, 2011

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    Great writing style!

    A good read...all the way through.

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  • Posted December 30, 2010

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    Great characters and setting

    Moral dilemmas, war-time love...wonderful story!

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