I am an avid consumer of mysteries and other assorted low-brow products, so a few months ago I was happy to meet the writer A.X. Ahmad. Ahmad's new thriller drops this week featuring an unusual detective in the canons of Western literature. In "The Caretaker," we encounter Ranjit Singh, an undocumented Sikh immigrant struggling to make a life for himself, his wife and his daughter on Martha's Vineyard, the summer get-away island for a good number of the country's wealthy families, including the black elite.
Struck with a rush of bad luck so common in the lives of poor people, Singh ends up moving his family secretly into the home of one of his clients for the winter months, when the Vineyard is largely abandoned. When intruders enter the house and Singh goes on the run, a conspiracy of global proportions begins to emerge. Singh also happens to be an ex-soldier in the Indian Army, and the book pivots between Kashmir, the site of Singh's last battle, and Massachusetts, the site of his current one.
I asked Ahmad some questions about how he wrote the book.
Your protagonist is an undocumented Sikh immigrant who is an ex-soldier. What were some of the factors that led you to this character? What effect do you hope he will have on your readers?
The day after 9/11, I went into my local grocery store in Cambridge, Mass. The cashiers were all elderly Sikh men, and one of them had put an American flag sticker on the front of his turban. He was clearly frightened about what had happened and afraid of a backlash. That incident stayed in my mind when I began to conceptualize "The Caretaker."
I wanted to write a fast-paced story, yes, but I also wanted to explore what it felt like to be an immigrant in post 9/11 America: simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible. I chose a Sikh protagonist--Ranjit Singh--because with his turban and full beard, he is unmistakably different, and becomes a lighting rod for all sorts of hidden currents in American society.
I also wanted my protagonist to be a capable man, a man of honor, so I made him a highly principled soldier. He now has to survive as an undocumented immigrant in America, which set up all sorts of conflicts for his code of honor. Plus, Sikhs have a long martial history, and have always served in the Indian Army. So my decision was rooted in actual history.
For readers who are immigrants, I hope they will recognize in Ranjit some of their own experience. For other readers, I wanted to go beyond the shell of foreignness and otherness, and let them experience being in Ranjit's skin. With any luck, the next time they see a Sikh or a Mexican laborer sweating while trimming hedges, their reaction will be tempered by empathy.
You locate the story in Martha's Vineyard--largely among its wealthy African American residents--and Kashmir. What do these two places have in common, or not for you?
Clearly, the exclusive resort island of Martha's Vineyard doesn't have much in common with a battleground high up on glacier in Kashmir. Yet, in Ranjit's mind the two places coexist: his past life in India is always running through his mind as he goes about his everyday tasks on the Vineyard. This experience--of mentally being in two places at once--is something that all immigrants experience.
For example, today is a scorching hot day in Washington, D.C., and as I walked to my local coffee shop, the shimmer of sunlight and the smells of the city reminded me of my hometown of Kolkata. And there are times when I'm visiting Kolkata and feel homesick for summer barbeques in America. My two worlds only come together in fiction, which can span different places and times and give them a coherence that is missing from the messiness of real life.
In many ways, your book is a political thriller, but the politics run second to the thrills. What was your process for negotiating the politics and the story?
That gets at something larger about the value of fiction.
I've heard "The Caretaker" called a "literary thriller," an "immigrant thriller" and a "political thriller." I think these labels are all attempts at communicating that the book has more value than "just fiction." ("Just fiction" being, in people's minds, a story fabricated purely for entertainment.)
And yet, stories are complete worlds that can resonate with us in a deep way.
For example, take my coffee shop in Washington, D.C. It's within walking distance of the White House, the Capitol, and Embassy Row. Sitting here and writing, I overhear diplomats talking about the situation in Rwanda, student interns discussing office politics on the Hill; there is a livery car chauffeur who has great stories to tell about the senators he drives.
I could try writing something about the White House or the Capitol, but I don't really have access to those worlds, and neither do most readers. But I could write a story about this coffee shop, and the characters who hang out here. Readers might relate to it in an intimate way, and learn about the way that politics saturate Washington, D.C.
"The Caretaker" hopes to create a compelling fictional world that draws readers in. And as they accompany Ranjit Singh on his adventures, I hope they also gain some insights into what it feels like to be a brown-skinned, bearded man in post 9/11 America. For me, that immediate, visceral connection is where the magic of fiction resides.