A Sikh soldier. A powerful American politician. Murder. Military operations. Illicit affairs. A.X. Ahmad’s first novel, "The Caretaker," is an attempt at a fast-paced, suspenseful combination of Ian Fleming’s "James Bond" with Jhumpa Lahiri’s "Namesake."
His cast of characters is wide-ranging and familiar. His locations are real and exciting. Nevertheless, the novel falls short of its promise as either a breakthrough South Asian thriller or a heart-wrenching immigrant tale. "The Caretaker" tells the story of Ranjit Singh, a former Indian military officer who takes refuge in the United States with his wife and teenage daughter. He takes on a winter job as a caretaker of large mansions in the summer resort town, Martha’s Vineyard, and is subsequently plunged into the secrets of the wealthy clients for whom he works. Ranjit eventually moves his family illegally into a politician’s home, and becomes embroiled in a modern day Watergate.
His family gets deported, his lover gets implicated and Ranjit gets chased across New England by the immigration service, the FBI and crooked bureaucrats. The plot is interesting enough. Some may call it far-fetched and fanciful. After all, it does include daring escapes from federal agents, secrets stashed in antique dolls and visions of a dead soldier. But I would argue that it’s no more prone to drama than an average Bollywood extravaganza.
Ranjit Singh may not be a Shah Rukh Khan, but his history and his Punjabi heritage certainly entitles him to take a dramatic approach to life. The story is great to while away a few hours on a lazy evening. But what kills the book is its ambition.
The storyline takes on everything from the Indo-Pak war to the American civil war relics to the sociology of blacks at Harvard. Ahmad has clearly done his research. But to clutter his narrative with shallow characters and undeveloped references to such deep issues seems careless. He brings up concerns and realities that would take many authors several books to unravel. Yet he leaves them hanging there simply as a reality to be noted instead of a project to be understood. For example, he skims the surface of characters like Shanti, Ranjit’s daughter, and her mother, Preetam. These two women take a strong stand on Ranjit’s redemption at the close of the novel but neither is well explained or fleshed out. Instead, both make brief appearances as caricatures – the depressed, lonely immigrant wife who wants to return to India on the one hand, and the talkative, materialistic, Americanized teenager who knows and cares little for gurdwara etiquette on the other.
Still, in large part, Ahmad’s portrayals of Sikhs and our holy scriptures are beautiful. He uses verses from the Guru Granth Sahib to introduce each chapter, and injects key moments in the story with images from Darbar Sahib. The resulting effect is similar to "Bhaag Milkha Bhaag," the recent Bollywood blockbuster that depicts a Sikh runner haunted by memories of his tragic past at the most momentous times in his life. In Milkha’s case, the memories led to his own Olympic failure. In Ranjit’s, his faith is described as what gives him the strength to carry on. But, even in that, Ahmad’s ambition is laid waste by his writing.
Ahmad has publicly held that his inspiration for the Sikh character was the post-9/11 plight of Sikh cashiers at his local grocery story. Inspired by their visible identity – now the biggest danger to their lives – Ahmad wanted to put Sikhs at the center of his conversation about immigration and identity. But when Ranjit discards his dastaar and cuts his Kesh, the decision is made without skipping a heartbeat. The depiction of this scene didn't do justice to the anguish of that decision. Though Ranjit is plagued by guilt about a good many things in the book, he seems to have almost none about cutting his Kesh. Granted, later scenes do discuss the difference in others' attitudes towards Ranjit once his hair is cut (“A pretty, middle-aged white woman actually smiles at him, and he smiles back, surprised.”) But Ahmad misses the depth of his protagonist’s connection with his Sikhi, even as he is describing it in prose.
Overall, "The Caretaker" is a fun read for fans of spy novels. While it may fall short of telling an elegant immigrant story, it does tell a darn interesting Sikh one. And though it may not be a groundbreaking new genre of South Asian immigrant thrillers, it does do one thing very differently: It attempts to put an interesting plot behind the mundane narrative of identities lost and rediscovered.
TITLE: The Caretaker
AUTHOR: A.X. Ahmad
RELEASE DATE: May 21, 2013
GENRE: Literary Thriller
The author, Neha Gohil, is a freelance writer and editor, and the co-author of "Civil Rights in Wartime: The Post-9/11 Sikh Experience." She currently is a views editor at Sikh News Network, and previously served as the Western region director for the Sikh Coalition. She is a graduate of Yale Law School and the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Commentaries are the opinions of the authors, and not necessarily that of Sikh News Network.