Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Caretaker by A.X.Ahmad

Title : The Caretaker - A Novel
Author : A. X. Ahmad
Genre : Fiction / Thriller
Publisher : Harper Collins India
Pages : 304
My Rating : 8.5/10
Reviewed For :
Publisher / First Reads Challenge 2013 / South Asian Challenge 2013 / IQRC 2013


A compelling thriller that introduces a new hero for our times: Ranjit Singh, former captain in the Indian Army, illegal immigrant in the heart of white America and caretaker to the rich and famous.

One harsh winter, Ranjit illegally moves his family into an empty, luxurious vacation home belonging to an African-American Senator. Ensconced in the house, he tries to forget his brief affair with Anna, the Senators wife, and focuses on providing for his family. But one night, their idyll is shattered when mysterious armed men break into the house, searching for an antique porcelain doll. Forced to flee, Ranjit is hunted by unknown forces and gets drawn into the Senators shadowy world. To save his family and solve the mystery of the doll, he must join forces with Anna, who has her own dark secrets. As he battles to save his family, Ranjit’s painful past resurfaces and he must finally confront the hidden event that destroyed his career in the Army and forced him to leave India.

Tightly plotted, action-packed, smart and surprisingly moving, The Caretaker takes us from the desperate world of migrant workers to the elite African-American community of Martha’s Vineyard and a secret high-altitude war between India and Pakistan.

My Review:

The Caretaker by A.X.Ahmad is a compelling read about a man who is trying to run away from the ghosts of his past but they keep following him, no matter how far he runs. In his debut work, the author has given us our very own desi yet exotic hero in the form of Ranjit Singh, who is – a Sikh, a respected and brave former captain in the Indian Army, a fallen soldier, an illegal immigrant & a landscaper trying to pass off as a common brown man in America, in exactly that order.

Ranjit Singh is a tormented man, tormented by the demons of his past. A former captain in the Indian Army, an awry mission forces him to flee from his motherland and settle down in the quiet confines of an island of Martha’s Vineyards in America. The narrative runs in two parallel tracks - one in the present where running away from a past, Ranjit is trying his best to create a comfortable life for his wife and daughter in the unknown land. However, deep down he knows that all his attempts at normalcy are failing as miserably as his relationship with his wife. The other narrative takes us in the past to Ranjit Singh’s glorious military career days where he was appointed as the commander of a squad in the Indian Army for a Top-Secret Mission. However, the mission goes horribly wrong & since then Ranjit is on the run with his family.  Fading away into anonymity, he becomes a part-time landscape worker on Martha’s Vineyard. Opportunity comes knocking to Ranjit in the form of a caretaker’s job for the house of a famous senator one winter. But what seems to be like a boon at first glance turns out to be a horrible nightmare in disguise as Ranjit realizes that there are dark secrets hidden in the Senator’s house and when he uncovers them, all that he has ever believed in his life will change forever.

If I list down the reasons to read this novel, then the first and foremost factor for me will be the protagonist – Ranjit Singh. Unlike the perfect caricatures that we come across in works of fiction, Ranjit is every bit of a flawed & complex hero as you or I can be. Tangled up in the past & taunted by the ghosts of his previous life in army, he seems to be apathetic at first glances. But as the read progresses, the author slowly chips away his hard exterior, one layer at a time, & exposes his vulnerabilities, his fears, his love, his regrets, his guilt & his emotional dependence. It is very easy to sympathize with him and keep rooting for him as the ground beneath his feet keeps slipping just when he thinks he is firm footed. Also, the flashback scenes provide a glimpse into his past and the reason for how he has shaped up today. Being in army, it is expected of him to adapt himself in any environment but even then, we see him struggling as a turban-clad Sikh in post-9/11 America who draws as much as attention as flak and suspicion for his turban & beard. Yet even in the face of these humiliating circumstances, he never loses his sense of identity as an Indian and a Sikh. He has his own flaws but underneath all of the mess that he is in, he makes some choices which define who he is & gains the reader’s appreciation. Needless to say, the author has done an excellent job of sketching and developing the character in a realistic manner.

The second best part of this read, perhaps for me, is
that this novel explores many difficult issues. The most apparent was immigration issues which might strike a chord with many of us. The unsettling idea of settling down in an entirely new country with a totally different culture, the general desperation that stems from trying your best to blend with others and yet standing out amongst them because of your colour, and in spite of that retaining your heritage, traditions and religion because that is what identifies you - are some of the cultural aspects that the author has beautifully drawn out in this novel. Ahmad’s narrative has a distinct and beautiful poetic style to it. The descriptions he offers are vivid and transport you to the different worlds described in the book. Thus, in spite of being a fast-paced thriller, the read has a unhurried tone to it. Also, Ahmad has given the readers a rare glimpse into the Sikh religion and weaving the teachings from the Guru Granth Sahib into the read. For the unawares like me, this was a rare learning experience which I thoroughly enjoyed. Another highlight of this read was the development of the secondary characters & the various sub-plots. The author has done an amazing job at  carefully constructing & seamlessly interweaving the sub-plots which might seem like a jumble at first but at the end fit together perfectly like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. The political history between India, Pakistan & the US, familial relationships, emotional vulnerability and some good plot twists are the other factors that make this an enjoyable read.

It has its own highs and lows but all in all, this is a very well-written debut with beautiful descriptions, engaging characters and a taut plot. If you are looking for an excellent page-turning thriller, then this might be just the one.

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