Kashmir has been a hotspot ever since India and Pakistan declared independence from the British Empire—and each other—in 1947. An overwhelmingly Muslim province ruled by a Hindu raja installed by the British as part of Britain’s divide-and-conquer strategy, Kashmir was an anomoly; most Kashmiris expected to join Muslim-majority Pakistan. Nehru and the Indian army had other ideas, and the two countries have fought a protracted, low-level conflict in the disputed area ever since, twice exploding into full-scale war. UN resolutions demanding a plebiscite, to allow Kashmiris to decide which country they wish to be a part of, have been ignored by India since 1948.
For its part, Pakistan’s efforts to stir up unrest in the area are well documented, and its infiltration of militants into the province, with their attendant bloodshed, can hardly be shrugged off. Meanwhile, according to DefenseNews.com, India has some 350,000 troops and 200,000 paramilitaries occupying a piece of land the size of Ohio, which undermines the claim that Kashmiris are overwhelmingly loyal Indian citizens spoiled by a few malcontents and bad apples. On Siachen glacier, a slab of ice 80 miles long, Indian and Pakistani troops lob artillery at each other and occasionally into the villages on the other side.
What risks being overlooked in the tit-for-tat military reprisals is the wretchedly difficult existence of the Kashmiris themselves, who live with both the fear of militant infiltration and the army’s excessive paranoia. Books like Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night have recently given voice to these concerns, telling horrific stories of torture and rape at the hands of the army and garnering much attention in India itself.
The attention seems to be trickling into India’s English-language fiction, as well. Anirrudha Bahal’s Bunker 13, published a few years ago, tells the story of an adrenaline-fueled drug dealer equally comfortable with fundamentalist militants, drug smugglers and army brass; the book was notable for its unglamorous portrayal of the Indian military. Now comes Chef by Jaspreet Singh, a book which stops short of wholsesale condemnation of India’s Kashmir policy, but which nevertheless suggests that corruption and torture are very much a part of life there.
Kirpal Singh is the son of a deceased Indian colonel who died under murky circumstances on Siachen glacier. As the story opens, Kirpal—or “Kip”—is returning to Kashmir, having left his army posting many years earlier. Riding the train north to perform a final favor for his superior officer, he falls into reverie about his military career and the events that led to his disillusion and departure. These recollections make up the bulk of the book.
Compared to the grim realities of life in the occupied state, the events leading to Kip’s disillusionment are fairly tame, involving a prisoner named Irum and various instances of corruption and abuse. Officers are noted for participation in numerous scandals, including one involving soldiers’ coffins. Kip is also deeply affected by his mentor, head chef Kichen, who trains him upon his arrival and whom Kip eventually replaces in the General’s kitchen. A series of events leads Kishen to a posting on the glacier itself, and Kip’s visit to him in that most inhospitable of environments is one of the strongest sections of the book.
Throughout, Singh’s writing is lean and muscular, pithy and precise. Observations carry the ring of truth and linger in the mind: “How impatient we people are in this country. Yet how patient we are when it comes to food.” Later: “When my assistant was not around I smelled the garment. It smelled of the sweat of a beautiful woman.” Perhaps most tellingly, “Kashmir was a beautiful place and we have made a bloody mess of it.”
Despite the languid frame—much of the story involves staring dreamily out of a train’s windows—simple declarative sentences serve to keep things moving along at a brisk pace. “The land is parched and yellow and flat with an occasional rise, then flat again. Flatness is terrifying. An occasional animal passes by. A defecating man or woman flash by. The town of Pathankot flashes by.”
If Singh has a weakness, it is his overuse of the food trope. Granted, Kip is a cook and the book is called Chef, but at times the recitation of dishes and ingredients grows wearisome, as if, not knowing what else to evoke, the author falls back on a litany of the familiar. “Soup is cream of corn. Starter is seekh kabab. Main course is seven items, including pork in mago-coriander sauce. Memsahib is vegetarian… Navrattan paneer and dal makhni have been prepared especially for her. Lady Fingers are also for her. Biryanyi, kakori and fish are for the colonel.”
Despite this, Chef is an engaging and often compelling novel, the story of a soldier who grows to question his mission. We could do worse than wish for such transformations to be real, rather than fictional, in the years ahead.