by David Backer
I like my promises kept, especially when they’re made by people I trust. Jaspreet Singh won my trust with 17 Tomatoes, a sharp, volatile series of short stories set in Kashmir (where Singh grew up). Those stories show the people and politics of that charged area and reach right to the infinite human experience therein. So I was overly excited for his first novel, Chef. But it let me down.
Chef promises tons in the first two pages: war, love, disease, fathers and sons, the mixed-up emotion of going home, the ripe imagery of food and its preparation—the raw vs. cooked, as Levi-Strauss put it. All this against the backdrop of Singh’s Kashmir, that piercing and war-torn land that, as we’re told in a fictional news report of a soldier’s body found preserved in glacial ice, “had to be partitioned by the British to become ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’ so it is not clear whether the body belongs to India or Pakistan.”
This sentence is pitch perfect. Where does a body, a singular person, belong when its home is cut in two by a colonial force? This is a defining question of late 20th century/21st century humanities research and literature. One might well summarize the humanities as being General Occupation Studies (GOS): accounts of occupied lands and occupied consciousnesses in post-colonial struggle. This is a fine trope and we’re not nearly through with it, though I’m always interested in what’s coming next. What was so exciting about 17T was that it seemed new. It wasn’t just the tensions of multiculturalism, or, in India’s case, ancient and colonial tradition in friction with the postmodern world (I’m thinking of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, et al.), but something calmer, more peaceful, more vivid, and therefore more poignant…not just more GOS.
So I read Chef with baited breath. It promised a new trope, unfurled and developed. No dice. What I got was a formulaic on-a-train-remembrance of exotic Kashmiri ingredients and recipes juxtaposed with the main character’s desire, as a young man, to have sex with pretty much anyone—and not getting any. This, and a series of encounters with two-dimensional characters, concatenated in what feels like no particular way. Chef barely makes it to tolerable GOS.
It makes me sad to write this given how wonderful 17 Tomatoes is. Go and read that book, and wait for Singh’s next novel. The short stories are so strong they give me hope that Singh will someday fulfill his promise.
this article originally appeared on www.davidbacker.com