Jaspreet Singh’s Meeting with Ernest Hemingway: An Unknown Station, “Chef”, and “Hills Like White Elephants”.

Jaspreet Singh is a Punjab-born, Canadian-resident writer who had been brought up in Kashmir. His novel Chef (2010) narrates the story of Kirpal Singh – or, Kip – a former chef in the army as he, after many years, returns to Srinagar (in Kashmir) and the army general he once served. The narrative unfolds as Kip lives through a train of past memories as he sits in the Kashmir-bound express. Though inferior to Singh’s second novel Helium (2013), Chef is a powerful work that is sensitive to the hypocrisies of a war-gripped marginal world, its complexities, and deeply-human, ,yet unlikely, moments. Chef is a critique of blind patriotism and the underbelly of militaristic nationalism. But, this essay is about something else.

9781408805183As Kip’s journey progresses, the train stops for 40 minutes at an “unknown station” in an indistinguishable place(pp. 81-84). This is where Jaspreet Singh has an encounter with Ernest Hemingway. In Hemingway’s short story collection Men without Women (1928), the fourth story is titled “Hills Like White Elephants”. It is a particularly short short story – four pages in all – and takes place within 40 minutes, as a couple – a man and a woman – await a train in an unnamed station in a remote part of the Madrid-Barcelona line. The story is highly dialogue-driven with minimal narrator intervention. In fact, the narrator steps in mostly to break the tedium and to explain something that cannot be known through the dialogue – such as, for example, the weather and the scenery.

In characterizing the couple in Hills Like White Elephants Hemingway doesn’t use names. Few physical details or attributes are given. They seem to be in disagreement over a personal matter – something that weighs on their company and interaction. Though it is not explicitly detailed, their conversation insinuates that a pregnancy has taken place and the couple is undecided what to do. The woman wants to go through and have the child, while the man seems to want an abortion performed. The couple Kip encounters in Chef, too, carry some tension between them. The woman is pregnant and  there is a disagreement over a proposed ultra-sound test: the man wants to do a scan of the partner’s womb to determine the child’s sex, while the wife doesn’t want it carried out.

JSingh
Jaspreet Singh

A small girl selling tea and pakoras walks along the station platform. The man buys two teas and passes one to the woman. Later, he buys another tea, and two pakoras. In Hills Like White Elephants, the man and the woman – between them – have five drinks. Together, they drink beer and anis. Later, just before the train arrives, the man goes into the station bar and has a second beer. The waitress who brings the beer and the woman cannot communicate properly – the former speaks Spanish, and the woman doesn’t speak that language. She seeks her partner’s help to convey and receive. In Chef, too, the girl selling tea and the wife are unable to communicate properly. The girl presses the couple on to buy pakoras, to which the wife gets annoyed and screams in order to chase the girl away.

Sections of the dialogue that takes the action over echo of an eerie familiarity. The following are examples:

Chef:

“Listen,” the man said to his wife, “the lady-doctor says she can do it quickly. Nothing goes inside you.”
“But, I don’t want to get it done.”
“Don’t worry, I will go with you. The lady-doctor says it is safer than X-ray. Ultrasound is like taking a picture only.”
“But, I really don’t want to.”
“Think about it.”
His fingers were grubby with pakoras.
“For you I will do anything. But, not this thing,” she said.
“Please don’t do it if you feel like that. No one is forcing you.”

Its correspondent in “Hills Like White Elephants”:

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not
really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let
the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in
and then it’s all perfectly natural.”
“Then what will we do afterward?”
“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”
“What makes you think so?”
“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us
unhappy.”
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of
two of the strings of beads.
“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”
“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people
that have done it.”
“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”
“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t
have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

The dialogue in “Hills Like White Elephants” is caught between intent, half-heartedness, and defense. The couple tries to press on with their individual position while already being aware of the other’s will and need:

“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you
don’t really want to.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and
you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like
white elephants, and you’ll like it?”
“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I
get when I worry.”
“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”
“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”
“Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.”
“What do you mean?”
” I don’t care about me.”
“Well, I care about you.”
“Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything
will be fine.”
” I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.”

Here, both players shift the responsibility of the act to the other, and seek a kind of control through that shifting. In Chef, the corresponding section reads as follows. In Singh’s composition, questions asked are being answered with questions : a more clear demonstration of responsibility being pushed or ducked away from:

“What if the picture isn’t right?”
“It will be alright.”
“Are you sure?”
“Have I ever lied to you?”
“But how can one be sure?”
“Because if it isn’t alright then we must find out a way to fix it. Don’t you want it to be alright?”
“But what if it is a girl?”
“Of course it will be a boy.”
“You don’t like girls?”
“I like you,” the man said. “I go to work every morning because I like you. Have I done anything to show you I don’t like you?”
“I know you like me. But would you stop liking me if I don’t get this thing done?”
“You don’t go to the lady-doctor, nothing will change between us. I assure you. But, it will make me unhappy.”

hemingway-e1568254410986
Ernest Hemingway

In both stories, it is warm weather while something big and imposing is found as a part of the scenery. In Hemingway’s story, it is the mountains that lie across a field and a river, as they are seen from above an intersection of trees. In Chef, the left end of the station is cluttered with “a pile of dismantled army vehicles and a badly damaged MIG-21 fighter plane with only one wing” (81).

This episode of 40 minutes has no bearing on Chef‘s bigger concerns. Unless it was to force an inter-textual conference with Ernest Hemingway’s short story, there can be no other perceivable reason why Jaspreet Singh took four pages over this redundant set piece.

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