Thrillers are tough to write. Readers have high expectations. We demand not only quality but also breathlessness. The edge-of-the-seat feeling must never subside. Oh, sure, we can be lulled into a false sense of security, but WHAM! We require being startled and unnerved and pitched right back into the chaos. In the case of A.X. Ahmad’s riveting debut novel, The Caretaker, I took a deep breath, only later realizing that I finally exhaled once I had closed the cover for the final time. If there is such a thing as a literary mechanical bull riding machine, I’d just ridden it. In short, The Caretaker exceeded my expectations and then some.
The protagonist of the story is Captain Ranjit Singh of the Indian Army, who finds himself in a string of situations that would shake, rattle and roll a brave man’s bones. Having been the leader of an elite squad of covert mission climbers on the Siachen Glacier, adventure, danger and fearlessness were his constant companions. But when something unexpected happens high in the mountains, Captain Singh finds himself building a new life with his family on the other side of the world. Boston and Martha’s Vineyard provide a new life for the Singhs. Not ideal for them but workable.
Approached by Anna, the wife of U.S. Senator Clayton Neal, to be the winter caretaker of their upscale island mansion, Ranjit believes this opportunity will provide more financial security than did his one-man landscaping company. Because the Neals are an integral part of the upper class African-American community on the island, Ranjit begins to accumulate more properties to look after.
So far, so good. But this is a thriller of the first degree, and peril and intrigue stay two steps ahead of Ranjit, who becomes part of a teeming community of illegal aliens trying to keep their heads above water while staying below the radar. Following a scuffle with two scruffy gun-toting, booze-buying locals, the job offer as caretaker, and a split-second decision to temporarily squat in the Senator’s home, things spiral out of control with enough neat twists and turns to make you think you’re watching a taut, heart-stopping episode of ABC’s Scandal.
A former architect turned full-time writer, A.X. Ahmad wants to give as good as he gets, and in The Caretaker, he delivers in aces. Knowing precisely what he wants from a book, he is able to translate that energy into his own writing.
“I’m pretty picky about what I read,” he told me via email. “I don’t really have much patience for writing that doesn’t grab me right away: I’ll pick up a book and read the first page, and if the story doesn’t interest me, I’ll put it down. I think writers have to be storytellers, and entrance their readers.”
I admit that The Caretaker was one of those books that I just couldn’t put down, and I wondered how he managed to write such a gripping thriller (and a debut novel at that). In truth, it is actually the third novel he has written.
“(It’s) the first one that I tried to have published,” he explains. “My first two novels, written about 10 years ago, were much more literary, and had lots of beautiful writing, but all my friends complained that nothing much happened! With this book, I consciously set out to write a suspenseful novel, but I still wanted it to have real characters and a literary feel.
When my agent started shopping the book around, we got lots of nice rejections: the literary editors liked it, but found it too thriller-ish, and the thriller editors found it too literary! I was lucky that an editor at St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur saw its potential, and gave me a chance.”
The Caretaker is being promoted as the “first mainstream thriller featuring an illegal immigrant.” It is not, however, alone in featuring a lost-status character. In 2009, Tania James wrote the touching Atlas of Unknowns (India Currents, August 2009), which featured a young Indian girl who becomes an “illegal.” Nevertheless, both James’ and Ahmad’s novels are bold in that they dare to highlight main characters living in the shadowy world of the undocumented.
“I really enjoyed Tania James’s novel; the scenes set in Jackson Heights, in Queens, have stayed with me,” he says. “I think that the nature of immigration in America has changed. In the 1960s and 1970s, only Indian professionals were let in: doctors and engineers and so forth. Now you can go to a city like New York and find Indian cab drivers and hot-dog vendors and shopkeepers. These immigrants don’t have the sense of safety that the previous wave had—they live closer to the edge. Their stories are different.
“It made sense for me to have Ranjit Singh be part of this new breed of immigrants—he came here on a tourist visa, like so many, and just stayed. And this makes him a real outsider, existing on the margins of society. In a thriller, this works: the protagonist is often an outsider, a watcher, one who is not part of mainstream society.”
The plight of illegal aliens is a timely topic, and the release of the novel feels almost crafted to coincide with the Congressional debates. But immigration reform isn’t the only current concern that Ahmad addresses. Woven into the story are morsels and issues that give it a realistic, almost eerie state of being. He manages to utilize current events as not just reference points but also as playing pieces in this telling of Ranjit Singh’s story. There is reference to the President visiting the Neals on the island. The constant tension between India and Pakistan over borders hovers in the background. The North Koreans’ attempts to make a world impact are nothing short of contemporary. Was this an effort to make the story more mainstream and appeal to a wider audience?
“I set out to write a novel that was set in the present, and these topics were just in the air,” Ahmad states for the record. “For example, one of the plot strands in the novel is the North Koreans, and their attempt to obtain a nuclear missile. This wasn’t in the news when I wrote the novel, but a few months ago, the North Koreans did actually launch their first nuclear missile—and I felt as though the book had anticipated reality! But I think that’s what good fiction does—it takes a scenario, and imagines what could happen.”
It is not just a compelling story or the inclusion of current events that brings The Caretaker to life. The book is populated with a variety of characters from many walks of life and different strata of society in uncommon situations. There are Indian Army officers and soldiers, including one who “guides” Ranjit along his path; a Vietnam veteran who is near homeless but content because of his Buddhist beliefs; Ranjit’s wife’s uncle who is a shopkeeper in Boston and his college-aged son Ricky; high-powered political operatives; illegal aliens from Brazil and questionable-status aliens from the Middle East; and many others who cross divides and place obstacles on the pathway to resolution.
“The book is set in Martha’s Vineyard, which is a very interesting place—a beautiful resort island off the coast of Massachusetts. Some of the summer residents are very wealthy, powerful people, and the people who serve them are much poorer. So there was instantly a class divide while writing about the island. Like many immigrants, my protagonist, Ranjit, had a higher class status back home—he was an Indian Army Captain—and in America he is virtually a servant—so he’s very conscious of the class structure.”
Within this class divide of characters, there are no high-profile immigrant professionals, subservient wives, or highly-achieving sons with silver spoons in their mouths. The political operatives may wear overcoats (it’s winter in New England, after all), but they ride in big white, not black, SUVs. And some characters just aren’t who they might have you believe.
“I think when creating these characters,” says Ahmad, “all writers cannibalize from their own experiences, taking a piece of this person, a piece of that person. My goal with the characters was to create real, complex people, not just one-dimensional sketches.
“Indians in the United States are often relegated to the status of the exotic, and play very stereotypical roles: doctors, computer programmers, 7-11 store owners! I hope that by creating a dynamic, resourceful Indian protagonist, readers can move beyond those stereotypes.”
Happily, this is not where the story of Captain Ranjit Singh ends. According to Ahmad, The Caretaker is the initial entry of a planned trilogy. Book 2, Bollywood Taxi, will be published in 2014, and he currently is writing Book 3, Gandhi Motel. Each of the books, as the author puts it, “follows the adventures of Ranjit Singh as he tries to find his home in America, and each book explores a different immigrant community.”
The bottom line is simple and straightforward: The Caretaker is a must-read book, and it’s perfect for summer reading. Tightly plotted and smartly written, it will literally take your breath away. Moreover, it is set on a glacier that never melts and on Martha’s Vineyard in the dead of winter. Plenty of snow and ice will cool you off as things heat up.
And in this book, the heat is on!
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes from Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is happily at work on her young adult novel.
A Conversation with the Author
Jeanne E. Fredriksen: Please tell me a little bit about yourself.
A.X. Ahmad: I’ve been writing stories since I was a child; I’m always more at home in a fictional world than a real one. But, being a good Indian son, I followed my parent’s wishes and became a professional. I was a practicing architect for about 15 years. Even when I worked as an architect, I would wake up very early in the morning to write, and in this way I wrote my first two “practice” novels. I also published short stories and essays in literary magazines.
But it’s hard to have a full-time job like architecture and write at the same time. So when the opportunity arose, about five years ago, I left architecture and began to write full time.
Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours to master any new skill. I’ve certainly put in that amount of time now! It took me many, many years to think of myself as a writer.
There are so many amazing books right now coming out of India. I’m a huge fan of Vikram Chandra’s work—Sacred Games is one of my favorite novels—and look forward to his next book. Manil Suri’s latest work, The City of Devi breaks new ground—it’s a science-fiction type adventure and love story. I loved Nilanjana Roy’s new book, The Wildings about a tribe of cats in Old Delhi. Tarun Tejpal, Arvind Adiga, Sonia Falerio—all fantastic writers who are exploring new worlds.
What was your intent behind the Senator and his wife being African-American? It is a rather timely tidbit since Massachusetts Senator Mo Cowan is the first African-American appointed by an African-American Governor. Which came first: the creation of Clayton Neals or the appointment of Mo Cowan?
AXA: You know, I started writing this book in 2009, so I wasn’t driven by any ideas of being current. Martha’s Vineyard has historically been a vacation destination of the African-American East Coast elite. During the summer, one can see professors there from Harvard and power brokers from D.C. In fact, it’s this status—as a place with an African-American history—that probably factored into President Obama’s decision to vacation there. So it made sense for me to have an African-American Senator who has a house there.
The character Celia from Brazil seems much more relaxed with her illegal status than does Ranjit. Do you think a certain comfort level in the illegal world comes with time?
AXA: I think Ranjit’s anxiety about being undocumented is amplified by the fact that his daughter and his wife depend on him. Celia is in the States illegally too, but she has a brother who is legal, and she feels more secure. I think human beings get used to anything, no matter how awful, but that the fear of getting
caught and being deported never goes away: It recedes to the back of one’s consciousness, but still shapes one’s actions and thoughts.
The two most positive and kindest characters in the book are Ranjit’s young daughter Shanti, and James, the Vietnam vet. They are the youngest and the oldest characters in the book. Was there intent behind that (i.e., a contrast to the violent lives of some of the other characters)?
AXA: Interesting observation! I hadn’t realized that—but both Shanti, who is a little girl, and James, a disabled veteran, are powerless, in different ways, and outside the world of manipulation and violence. They are purely themselves, and unconcerned about what the world thinks of them.
So often in novels by South Asian writers, the main characters look askance at American characters. Yet Ranjit finds that the only person he can trust is James, a just-surviving Vietnam veteran. Are you making a statement with this relationship?
AXA: The character of James was a real surprise: originally he was just the “coughing man” who lives next door to Ranjit at the Chinatown hotel and keeps Ranjit awake by coughing all night! I made James a Vietnam vet, because only another veteran—regardless of nationality—could understand the violence and betrayal that Ranjit had been through in the Indian Army. And James himself has rejected violence and is a Buddhist, so he is empathetic to Ranjit’s situation.
Thank you for making Lallu a shopkeeper. Thank you for making Preetam strong enough to stand up for her and her daughter’s welfare. Thank you for making Ricky a nice, unexpected crossover. How did these characters come about?
AXA: The first image of Preetam I had was her curled up on the couch, watching Hindi movies and not being very nice to her husband and daughter. As I wrote more, I began to uncover more of her past, and understood why she behaved the way she did.
Ricky was an easier character for me; I went to MIT for graduate school, and I know lots of Indian-American computer nerds. They certainly don’t fit the stereotypes—some of them are good looking and even have muscles!
Ricky’s father, Lallu, is based on a very familiar dynamic that happens in Indian families—the elders are frightened for their children’s future, so they end up bullying them—but it comes from a place of concern. Ricky, being American, is much more secure in America than his father; he both disagrees with his father, and wants to honor him at the same time.