Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The spice of a life in conflict

Author Jaspreet Singh talks about how the evocative food of his childhood helped inspire his latest book, Chef...

What are your favourite foods from your childhood? For Punjabi-born author Jaspreet Singh, the answer is easy. ‘The Indian sweet jalebi,’ he says. ‘And a Kashmiri pastry called baker khani. For me a jalebi or a baker khani, if it is dunked in warm milk, is a bit like Proust’s madeleine dunked in tea.’
Singh’s childhood memories of food saturate his new novel, Chef, set in the shadows of the ‘cold white vortex’ of the Siachen ice fields in the conflicted territory of Kashmir. Singh was born in Punjab but moved to Kashmir when he was six after his father, a professional soldier, was posted there during a period of relative peace in this bloodied, beautiful casualty of Partition.
‘At school in Srinagar, I was great friends with a Kashmiri Muslim and during recess we would swap our lunch boxes,’ he says. ‘I introduced him to the food of Punjab and he introduced me to these very delicate Kashmiri dishes such as rogan josh and gushtaba. Those lunch boxes are permanently embedded in my mind. To prepare these complex dishes well, you need enormous skill and patience. You also need enormous imagination. Contrast this with the crude political narratives in the Indian and Pakistani nation states, where there is no complexity, no patience and little imagination.’
Chef, which has been longlisted for the 2010 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, is Singh’s attempt to go beyond the ‘binary narratives’ that have fixed Kashmir in the Western imagination as a straightforward territorial conflict between India and Pakistan. A densely lyrical book seemingly smoked in spices and scents, it is narrated in flashback by Kirpal (Kip), who is dying of cancer. As a young culinary apprentice 14 years earlier, he became the personal chef of General Kumar, chief of the Northern Command. The young Kip is politically naive and sexually inexperienced, and as the older Kip travels back to Kashmir on the invitation of the General to cook one last meal for his daughter’s wedding, his memories of food and cooking are set against the increasing desperation and disillusionment of the Indian troops.
‘I started work on this book around the time there were about one million soldiers on the contested border,’ says Singh, who now lives in the Canadian Rockies. ‘There was a serious risk of a nuclear exchange between the two countries. The question I ultimately pose for Kip is: how does one cook for the enemy?’

Full report here

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