A.X. Ahmad’s debut novel is certainly engaging (albeit predictable) as an action-packed, race-against-time thriller, but what sets it apart is that it is a refreshing departure from desi-centric “immigrant fiction” – despite its bleak outlook on the assimilation of coloured people in America.
Publisher’s Blurb: Who is the caretaker hiding in the shadows of the Martha’s Vineyard mansions he tends? Back in India, Ranjit Singh commanded an elite army squad. But that was years ago, before his Army career ended in dishonor, shattering his reputation. Driven from his homeland, he is now a caretaker on the exclusive resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, looking after the vacation homes of the rich and powerful. One harsh winter, faced with no other choice, he secretly moves his family into the house of one of his clients, an African-American Senator. Here, his wife and daughter are happy, and he feels safe for the first time in ages. But Ranjit’s idyll is shattered when mysterious men break into the house. Pursued and hunted, Ranjit is forced to enter the Senator’s shadowy world, and his only ally is Anna, the Senator’s beautiful wife, who has secrets of her own. Together, they uncover a trail of deception that leads from the calm shores of the Vineyard to countries half a world away. And when his investigation stirs up long forgotten events, the caretaker must finally face the one careless decision that ruined his life- and forced him to leave India. A gripping tale of hidden histories, political intrigue and dangerous attractions, A. X. Ahmad’s The Caretaker introduces a new hero for our times: an immigrant caught between two worlds and a man caught between two loves.
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published May 21st 2013 by Minotaur Books
ISBN: 1250016843 (ISBN13: 9781250016843)
In a recent New York Times op-ed exploring the trappings of writing immigrant fiction, Amit Majmudar (author of “The Abundance”) concluded that in fiction, “the characters must be specific enough to be anyone.” And yet, most of the time when I open a book written by an author of South Asian origin, the cultural generalizations hit me in the face like a gust of holi powder. I can rarely recall characters in these books as individuals; they are desi archetypes in a tableau of exotic desiness, be it a sweeping family saga or a tale of love blossoming from an arranged marriage. The henna, the nosy phuppis, the mangoes, the saris, the gulmohar trees. Desi fiction, more often than not, is largely about selling the desiness, the “ooh, look at how exotic we are!” At its heart, most South Asian fiction we’ve seen over the years has essentially been Monsoon Wedding. Or as Meera Nair recently put it, “Discovery Channel India”.
So it is immensely refreshing to read the odd novel that makes an effort to break out of the ethnic studies tradition of immigrant fiction. Indian-American author A.X. Ahmad’s debut novel “The Caretaker”, I am happy to say, falls within a genre that goes beyond simply being “South Asian” or “immigrant” fiction. The novel is, in its essence, a thriller, a race-against-time potboiler of action, suspense and international intrigue – the kind of book that could be made into a summer blockbuster. Weaving narratives from the Indian subcontinent and the United States, Ahmad uses the Indian immigrant context to lend the story a unique flavor rather than making it the primary identity of the novel. And the flavor certainly is unique. How many people have written about a former Indian army captain who is a caretaker for a powerful African-American Senator’s mansion in Martha’s Vineyard and becomes entangled in a dangerous game of international politics?
One reason why A.X. Ahmad’s novel is a convincing departure from the desi-centrism of most Indian-American fiction is that his protagonist, Ranjit Singh, really could be anyone. Ranjit is an everyman, an average Joe/Jai – if you don’t count the fact that he commanded an elite Indian army squad on the Siachen glacier and was dishonorably discharged before he decided to leave everything behind and move with his wife and daughter to the United States. Getting by in this new country is hard, but when Ranjit lands a caretaker job at the summer estate of a US Senator, he thinks all his financial problems have been solved – that is, until the heating breaks down at his ramshackle house in Martha’s Vineyard in the middle of a harsh island winter. Ranjit then makes the last-resort decision of moving his family temporarily into the absent Senator’s comfortable home – and that is where everything changes and the whirlwind begins.
The plot is certainly engaging, if at times predictable, and the locations are described quite generously, offering readers rather enjoyable mental tours of Martha’s Vineyard and Boston. There are developments that occur in the story that strike you as far too convenient, and there are some gratuitous (and ill-timed) love scenes in there, but the action keeps you turning the pages. I was particularly fascinated by the narrative shifting back and forth between the main storyline and Ranjit’s last mission on Siachen, offering insight into the requisite “dark past” that makes our hero the hardened, battle-scarred soul that he is. The shifts in atmosphere are thrilling – one moment you are in a frenzy in some bustling American city, and the next you are suspended in a frozen limbo where death is your only companion. As a Pakistani reader, I was also interested in reading the Siachen facet of the novel because it was from the perspective of an Indian army squad. “I’ve never seen a dead Pakistani up close,” says one officer. “They look like us,” responds the other. “No different.”
It is noteworthy that white America does not figure significantly in the novel except as a kind of background, not much different from the expanse of snow that is the backdrop for the Siachen scenes. The setting for the main events of the book is Martha’s Vineyard, an affluent summer colony where the cost of living is sixty percent higher than the national average and where you would expect to read about a plethora of wealthy white families – and yet, Ahmad’s focus is on the immigrant population of the island, the people who work behind the scenes. The Senator in the novel is African-American, as is his wife (who is also Ranjit’s love interest). Almost all the characters in the novel are coloured or immigrants, and you get the sense that this is a novel for the Obama age. While Ahmad is emphatic about the struggles of the immigrant and non-white population in America, he does not quite include the black American experience in his lexicon of hardship – when Ranjit visits the Barker Center at Harvard, he marvels at the predominantly African-American crowd and the “strong sense of these people owning this room and its history” – seeing it perhaps as an example of a non-white community “making it” in America, an example of hope.
Ultimately, however, the paradox of “The Caretaker” is that it is not just a thriller, but also a novel pervaded by a sense of self-consciousness in terms of colour and race. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Ahmad talked about how moving from template immigrant fiction to genre writing has been “incredibly liberating.” Yet, there are moments in the novel where the author cannot help himself, and you can see where the clichés have just tumbled from his fingers onto paper. There is the Arab 7-Eleven storeowner who urges Ranjit to fight his case in the courts to disprove the “they” who think “we” are all terrorists. Or there is Ranjit’s wife, for example – the pale-faced, long-haired, shalwar kamiz-wearing housewife who is irrational, petty, disillusioned with life in America, yearns for the old country and loses herself in old Bollywood movies. (In stark contrast, Ranjit’s wealthy African-American love interest, Anna, is flirtatious, dynamic, fashionable and adventurous in bed.) Then there are Ranjit’s own grumblings about “these Americans” and their ignorance about how to make real chai, “these Americans” and their need to put everything in a powder mix. (“At times you’re so Indian,” teases Anna.) Ranjit’s childhood memories are of Sikh temples, of his mataji volunteering at the langar, of chanting prayers and climbing gulmohar trees. And yes, mentions of spices show up a few times too.
The novel’s outlook on assimilation in America is bleak. When fantasizing about a place where he and Anna could run away together, Ranjit imagines the two of them strolling in the sunshine in Rio, where “a brown man and a black woman wouldn’t draw a second glance.” No matter how colourblind you become as you read the story, and how the characters cease (in your own mind at least) to be drawn on ethnic lines, there is the sporadic reminder that this story is written very much in colour – and that it is hard to be a non-white person in America. “You might have been born here,” Ranjit warns his nephew Ricky, “but you are still a brown man in a turban.” To be fair, Ahmad’s inspiration for Ranjit did come to him shortly after 9/11 when he went to a local supermarket in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and encountered a Sikh cashier who had a big American flag sticker on the front of his turban. The reality of the challenges faced by immigrants in post-9/11 America cannot be disputed, and it is a reality that even Ahmad, in his valiant attempt at liberating himself from “immigrant writing”, could not bring himself to ignore. So while I maintain that “The Caretaker” is a refreshing departure from desi-centric fiction, it may be a long time still before we read about a hero who sees himself as a “man” and not a “brown man in a turban”.
Fatima Shakeel is a regular contributor to DWL and her work has also been featured in Papercuts. You can read more of her writing on her blog.