Monday, August 5, 2013

The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad

The blurb:

Ranjit Singh, a former Indian Army Captain trying to escape a shameful past and working as a caretaker on Martha's Vineyard, moves his family into an empty Senator's home.  But one night, their idyll is shattered when mysterious armed men break into the house.  Forced to flee, Ranjit is pursued and hunted by unknown forces and becomes drawn into the Senator's shadowy world.  As the past and present collide, Ranjit must finally confront the hidden event that destroyed his Army career and forced him to leave India before it costs him his family as well.

A.X. Ahmad has given us an unusual and fascinating lead character in this debut thriller.  On the most basic level,  we learn about the military conflict between India and Pakistan and about the Sikh religion and we travel to the wealthy pockets of Martha's Vineyard and the working class parts of urban Boston.   But The Caretaker stands out because former Indian Army Captain Ranjit Singh is so real.  Singh suffers from PTSD and his conversations with the men that he's lost gives us an idea of the demons that he carries. The PTSD and appearance of these presences reminded me of Charles Todd's Detective Inspector Ian Rutledge series set in England after WWI, but Singh's problems are particular to a dark skinned man with a turban living and working in the US today.  Singh doesn't have the skills or a US degree.  He's overstayed on his tourist visa and must find a way to support his family as an undocumented worker.  

He's tried working at his wife's uncle's Asian goods store as a clerk and all around handyman.  Sorting insects from the ice, ringing up purchases, unpacking spices and lentils for below minimum wage and having to act grateful for the job has taken its toll on his spirits.  On a tip from one of the Latino cooks, Singh moves his family to Martha's Vineyard and tries to make a living as a handyman/caretaker.  

Ahmad captured the feeling of being an outsider, of missing one's home country, of being evaluated and labeled that many foreign nationals feel when they emigrate.  With his turban, Singh is regarded with more than the usual wariness and hostility.  He undertakes his tasks with the same meticulousness and attention to detail that won the respect of his men and the higher ups in the Indian Army.  A Senator and his wife are impressed with his work and agree to hire him as a caretaker for their summer home.  

But just as Singh seems to be getting toehold, his furnace breaks and he must find shelter for his family for the winter.  He makes the decision - and my stomach turns - to move his wife and daughter into the Senator's beautiful summer home and claims that "a friend has offered to lend them the house".   His wife's depression seems to lift at this improvement in their living situation and she makes herself very much at home.   As Ahmad described how Singh's wife enjoyed the shampoos, lotions, etc in the Senator's wife's bathroom, I started to dread the inevitable.

Ahmad is a riveting storyteller and his hero, Rajit Singh, quickly won my respect and my sympathy as he faced one awful situation after another.  His skills, moral core, and willingness to face the demons all help to make Rajit Singh someone to care about.   I hope that Mr. A.X. Ahmad is working on book two of Rajit Singh's story.

ISBN-10: 1250016843 - Hardcover $28.99
Publisher: Minotaur Books (May 21, 2013), 304 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Reviewers Program.

About the Author:
A. X. AHMAD was raised in India, educated at Vassar College and M.I.T., and has worked as an international architect. As Amin Ahmad, his short stories and essays on immigrant life have been published in The Missouri Review, The Harvard Review, The New England Review, Narrative Magazine and The Good Men Project. He was a finalist for Glimmertrain's Short Story Award, and has been listed in Best American Essays. He lives in Washington, D.C, where he teaches writing.

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