Buckle your seat belts and hang on tight! Ranjit Singh (The Caretaker, Review published in India Currents September 2013) is in trouble again in A. X. Ahmad’s second novel, The Last Taxi Ride. Following the incidents on Martha’s Vineyard, Ranjit relocated to New York City and has been working as a cab driver and moonlighting as security for a company that imports human hair from India. A chance fare by famed-but-fading Bollywood actress Shabana Shah and an unscheduled reunion with an old army buddy at the famous Dakota, where the actress lives, set Ranjit’s newly-quiet life on an unwanted trajectory.
Implicated the next morning in Shabana’s grisly murder, a stunned Ranjit has ten days to clear his name. The problem is that the only person who can vouch for him has disappeared. Plus the deeper he looks, the closer he gets to the new arm of the Mumbai mob now working in New York.
This time around, it’s not men in overcoats and SUVs hunting for Ranjit. Instead, Ranjit becomes the shikari, searching for Shabana’s killer and the evidence that will prove his innocence. His logic-based search takes him all over New York from the diner where cabbies eat to the teeming world of immigrants in Little Guyana and Jackson Heights to the famed Dakota apartments, all the while contrasting the scrimp-and-save lives of cabbies with the designer lives of the rich and famous. As per character, his detective work lands him in harm’s way more than once.
Ranjit, ever the staid warrior he was trained to be, always looks to do the right thing, even when warned off by those who know better. However, sometimes he—with proper regret—makes the decision to employ unconventional methods in order to fulfill promises made along the way. He can’t do it alone, so as needed, he enlists the help of the colorful Ali, a fellow cab driver; Kikiben, a worker at Nataraj Imports owned by the shady Jay Patel; and Leela, a young mixed Guyanese woman who works at a night club catering to nameless clientele, including select members of the Mumbai mob.
The book is filled with “Don’t Do It!” moments for both Ranjit and Shabana. The intensity in The Last Taxi Ride differs from that in The Caretaker because the storytelling alternates between Shabana’s life over the decades and Ranjit’s real-time immediacy. As a result of this duality, there is double the suspense as if both parties were scaling different faces of Mt. Everest in a race to meet at the summit.
Shabana’s struggles with her manager, who is her twin, and her association with the mob and mob-funded films belie the sparkling, confident woman on the screen. Her story reads like the gentle-grown-gossipy retrospective of one actress’s life straight out of the pages of Stardust or Filmfare magazine: her humble beginnings, a fortuitous screen test, constant pressures to produce box-office hits, the tethering to the mob, her supernova career, and a rapid plummet into dusty history books. Her story is a peek into the grim side of Mumbai’s star factories in contrast to the glitz and glamour that the audience sees. She is part victim, part diva, and the more dependent she becomes on those who control her, the more she longs to break free. When she does, there is tragedy worthy of a Bollywood film.
As Ahmad mentions in his conversation with Manil Suri, the seed for Ranjit’s new occupation and the notion of a Bollywood actress in New York City came from a real life experience. As for the connection between Bollywood and the Mumbai mob, he gleaned information from Anupama Chopra’s King of Bollywood (India Currents, September 2007) to add that extra touch of realism.
That realism is as much a part of The Last Taxi Ride as is the star-studded hopes and dreams of the silver screen. In fact, Ahmad’s realism is so strong that there is often the sense of a thin, unobserved layer of dust that permeates the surfaces of places haunted by the working poor and those who wish to remain anonymous, the places where it’s never truly spotless, literally or figuratively, a distressing reminder of one’s station in life or morals. For Shabana, her anguish is so palpable that she is easily pitied despite her many faults and transgressions.
The Last Taxi Ride can be read as a stand-alone book, which was a smart move on Ahmad’s part. One needn’t have read The Caretaker to enjoy its sequel, but certainly, having read the second, the uninitiated reader will be prompted to read the first.
For those who are keeping up with Ranjit Singh’s thrills and chills, fear not! The third book is in progress with a working title of The Hundred Days.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she freelances in advertising and public relations. Between assignments, she writes fiction, enjoys wine, and heads to the beach as often as she can.