I was definitely intrigued when I was given the opportunity to read a review copy of a thriller published by a major American publishing house (St. Martin’s Press) featuring a turbaned Sikh American protagonist.
The good news is that A.X. Ahmad’s “The Caretaker” does not disappoint as a suspense novel. The main plot, involving an ex-Indian army captain named Ranjit Singh, feels current enough to keep the reader interested, and there is a potboiler quality to the book that keeps the reader coming back for more. Ranjit Singh takes up a job looking after the Martha’s Vineyard property of a prominent African American senator, and is then drawn into a geopolitical plot involving India’s nuclear capability and American hostages in North Korea. He is also drawn into a romance with that senator’s unhappy wife (also African American) that becomes the novel’s emotional core.
Besides Ranjit Singh there are a number of other immigrant characters in Ahmad’s novel, including Brazilian ferry operators and a particularly wise and helpful Arab shopkeeper. The various immigrant characters in “The Caretaker” are clearly aware of their difference, and as many of them are in the United States illegally they are forced to acknowledge the precariousness of their position. Meanwhile, the African American characters in the novel seem unproblematically “American” — as if their complexion and the fraught history of race in New England was essentially a non-issue.
By contrast, in another recent novel about the African American community in Martha’s Vineyard, Stephen L. Carter’s “The Emperor of Ocean Park” the black characters (even the “conservatives”) are well aware of the history of discrimination and conscious of their difference — even as they rise up the political ladder.
While Ahmad is curiously silent about this issue, he is much more sensitive with regard to immigrant identity and the idea of “America.” The passage quoted below follows a tense encounter between Ranjit Singh and a pair of white working class thugs outside of a liquor store. The two men have threatened Ranjit at gunpoint and called him things like “towelhead.” In the middle of this dangerous situation, Anna Neals (who is the wife of a U.S. senator and also marked as African American) drives up and intervenes on Ranjit’s behalf:
Anna doesn’t flinch. ‘Control that dog. I said, do we have a problem here?’
‘No problem, Mrs. Neals. No problem at all.’ Plaid-shirt picks up his case of beer and ducks around the side of the car. ‘Hey, your husband is a hero. Stood up to those damn Koreans. Showed ‘em.’
‘I’ll pass on your compliments. Now leave before I turn you in for hunting illegally. Open season for waterfowl is over.’
Nodding his head, Plaid-shirt stumbles into the car. The dog’s nose is pressed against the rear windshield as the car squeals out of the lot, accelerates down Beach Road, and disappears in a blue haze of exhaust. […]
Standing up, Ranjit squeezes the pressure point below his thumb to stop the bleeding. He doesn’t want the Senator’s wife to make a fuss.
‘Anna, it was my fault. I bumped into that man, I was helping him clean up…’
‘I know those two, they’re real losers. You don’t have to put up with their crap. This is America.’
He presses the base of his thumb. People are always saying to him, ‘This is America.’ What the hell does it mean?
There is a lot going on in this passage. The person who has the ability to control this situation is Anna Neals — by virtue of her class and her connection to political power (her absent husband). The fact that she is black and the antagonists are white seems not to figure — there is no engagement with that axis of difference. Intriguingly, the idea of America and Americanness, which for the two men attacking Ranjit Singh justifies their treatment of him (he is not an American, therefore worthy of scorn) can also be invoked by Anna as part of her explanation of why that treatment is unjustified: “This is America.” America is for her a society defined as a place of inclusivity — where her husband, a member of a minority community, can be in a position of high political power, and therefore her immigrant employee should be accorded the same degree of respect.
As a recent immigrant, Ranjit Singh, of course, hasn’t quite grasped the nuances that inhere in the way different kinds of people might say “This is America” to quite different ideological ends. In what might appear to be a bit of a throwaway passage — and in a book that on the whole is more interested in its potboiler suspense plot than in making complex sociological points about race — Ahmad manages to say quite a lot about the status of immigrants in the version of America he is creating in “The Caretaker.”
A word should also be said about Ahmad’s handling of Sikh material. In interviews in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times India Ink, Ahmad has indicated that he was inspired to pick a Sikh immigrant as a protagonist after seeing the fraught response of many Sikhs in service jobs after 9/11. Ahmad, though from a Bengali Muslim background, has clearly done a fair amount of homework, and inserted a substantial number of translations of passages from the Guru Granth Sahib into his story. He does have one or two howlers here and there — at one point there is a description of a “picture of Guru Nanak in battle, seated on a rearing white horse, the curved sword in his hand dripping blood.” (He evidently means Guru Gobind Singh — Guru Nanak was a man of peace.) I also felt that his handling of Ranjit Singh’s decision to cut his hair at one point in the novel (i.e., to avoid capture by the bad guys as well as USCIS) was pretty thin: for a man like Ranjit (i.e., with an Indian military background) the decision to cut his hair would be a deeply traumatic event.
Despite its flaws, I enjoyed “The Caretaker” on the whole, and wish Ahmad good luck with his first novel. (I’ll be curious to see whether he can find a broad readership. Will the huge constituency of people who read James Patterson potboilers pick up this book as well?)