Chef is a tale of a modern India which, like the West, is faced with unending war, political corruption, bigotry towards minorities and the fear of terrorism; all working to nurture the worst in ourselves.
Kirpal ‘Kip’ Singh hasn’t even reached middle-age but he is already facing his own mortality. Never married and living with his ailing mother in Delhi, India, Kip has been told that a tumour found in his brain means he has at most a year to live, perhaps only a few months. Then, he receives a letter that he has been expecting for fourteen years.
Kip’s father was a respected officer in the Indian Army, serving in Kashmir. When his father suddenly died in an accident, Kip, nineteen years old at the time, rashly enlisted in the Army himself, something he had never previously considered doing. He is sent to the disputed region of Kashmir to serve where his father once did. Though his first role is somewhat lowly – as an understudy to the personal chef of the General who commands Indian forces – it is on the understanding that as the son of a distinguished officer, he will be fast-tracked to better things.
I find myself asking the same question over and over again. Why did I allow my life to take a wrong turn?
That General is now the Governor of Indian-controlled Kashmir and he has written to Kip to ask him to be chef of his daughter’s wedding. Despite his mother’s frailty and his own worsening health, Kip diligently packs his old army bags with spices and recipes and boards the train to Kashmir. As the landscape of northern India flashes past and as Kip observes the other passengers on the train, his mind returns to the five years of his youth spent in the Army in Kashmir. While a part of him wonders if there is anything in the Governor’s power to help him with his health, Kip also hopes the Governor can help him understand the things he witnessed while he was in Kashmir.
Kip’s memories of that time centre around two people who dominated his life there. The first was the chef Kip served under, who prepares a diverse range of food for the General and his house. But Chef does not merely want to instruct Kip on the ways of food and its preparation. If anything, he believes his main duty is to teach Kip about women.
A virgin, how is Kip supposed to learn about women in this war-torn land? He has practically no interaction with women when at work and outside the only women around are the bored and lonely wives of the officers, the jaded nurses of the local hospital and the local Kashmiris who are Muslim (Kip, as you would expect, is Sikh) and dominated by their conservative male relations. Nevertheless, Kip must listen attentively to Chef and his somewhat perverse views of women and sex.
When a woman who is none of the above unexpectedly enters his life, Kip finds himself drawn to her. Irem has been caught entering India from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Treated as a suspected terrorist, she is either unable or unwilling to speak to the authorities. Kip, who has taught himself some of the local dialect offers to interrogate and translate.
Succeeding in ingratiating himself with Irem, she explains that, fleeing an unhappy marriage where she was unable to bear children, she threw herself into a river expecting to drown only to wash up on the Indian side of the border. Kip’s assignment with regards to Irem is quickly wrapped up yet he contrives to stay in her orbit. Like many refugees, she faces a life in limbo, will probably never escape the suspicion that she may be a terrorist and, with no administration and therefore no accountability for those of her ambiguous status, is vulnerable to the danger she will be abused and forgotten.
As well as these two, Kip also dwells on the land of Kashmir itself. A land that haunted him with its beauty and sadness from his first arrival; a feeling that has never left him all these years.
Why should the most beautiful place on earth be spared bad things? People are turning mad here. This place is becoming a pagal-khana, a lunatic asylum.
The last book I read before Chef was Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. I said in my review of Burnt Shadows that it lacked a little subtlety. It therefore may sound like an overcorrection for me to say that one of the things to note about Chef is its subtlety! But I think recent experience does not make it less true.
To be sure, Chef, a short novel, has some shocking and dramatic moments, but its themes are delivered with subtlety. For example, the humanising power of food – its ability to bring people together, the way it transcends culture and other notions of identity and, despite the current Western preoccupation with ‘cultural appropriation’, food is perhaps the best example of how the transmission of ideas stimulates creativity and celebrates our shared humanity, while the alternative, cultural segregation, only achieves the opposite – you would think would be the chief theme of the novel given that the main character is a trainee chef in a land torn by war and prejudice. But it is barely hinted at.
The same could be said about other aspects of the novel; of military leaders who seem to be out for securing cushy positions for themselves after their service is done; of rife corruption within the military-political complex; of prejudice and bigotry towards the local populace and of the broader question of what do India and Pakistan want Kashmir for? What is the point of all the effort and expense that only serves corruption, bigotry, suffering and national pride? These too are only briefly hinted at. Even when they are explicitly questioned, the novel quickly moves on; Kip will not provide answers and the reader must ponder these things by themself.
The colonel, the brigadier, the major general and other senior officers involved in the scams were not even charged. Instead they received early retirement with full pensions and benefits. Now they run big hotels and malls, and reside in fashionable glass towers and drive yellow Hummers. Two or three represent our country in foreign lands as ambassadors. […] Why was I born in this country?
It is worth pointing out as well that Irem is partially modelled on a real person – Shahnaz Kauser – whose story inspired Chef.
One aspect of the novel that was somewhat glaring and that I can’t quite understand is its preoccupation with sex. Particularly in the first half of the novel when Kip is under Chef’s instruction. It may simply be a realistic depiction of the mindset of men, in the absence of available women, in a remote military posting. It may be a method of showing increasing tension, a growing risk of something dangerous occurring. But for a while it was the loudest aspect of a novel that has much else going on.
I am on a mission of sorts of reading Indian literary fiction, in English, and I have reached a point where I feel I can make a certain generalisation. So far, it seems to me that most of these novels can be put into three categories. First, there are those set during the British Raj and tend to both romanticise and vilify that period. Second, there are those whose characters are caught up in a tumultuous period in Indian history like Partition or the Emergency.
Shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, Chef belongs to the third category. Like The White Tiger or The God of Small Things, it is a novel about a modern democratic India dealing with contemporary issues without the obscuring cloud of a colonial empire or extraordinary historical events to point to. Issues that, despite the exotic setting, are familiar to non-Indian readers. Issues such as unending war, political corruption, forces that dehumanise those who are different, inspire good people to do evil things and destroy compassion; and the resulting disillusionment.