The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue
Books In Conversation

AMIN (A.X) AHMAD with Charlene Allen

A.X. Ahmad
The Caretaker
(Minotaur Books, 2013)

I met Amin Ahmad at a fiction-writing workshop at The New School in New York City, where he quickly rose to stardom. Filled with nervous beginners, the class was hungry for guidance and validation. Is my concept too obscure? Should my piece be in first person instead of third? Is my protagonist likeable? In the midst of all that anxiety, and a certain jockeying for position, Amin transformed our group into a rapt audience as he presented The Caretaker’s first chapter, complete with vibrant characters, palpable conflict, and a multi-layered plot already beginning to reveal itself. Our professor, always ready with a thoughtful critique, was left speechless.

Amin and I got to know each other, and I was fortunate to share in the journey as The Caretaker becamethe provocative thriller released in May by Minotaur Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press. The first of a trilogy, The Caretaker features Ranjit Singh, a Sikh immigrant eking out a living on the elite island playground of Martha’s Vineyard. No sooner does he receive the job that will allow him to survive the Vineyard’s harsh winter, than disaster strikes. To save his family from homelessness—or worse, humiliation at the hands of his smug uncle-in-law—Ranjit takes unauthorized residence in the home of his employer, African-American Senator Clayton Neals. Soon he is caught in the Senator’s web of secrets, and Ranjit and his family must run for their lives. In addition to present-day henchmen, Ranjit’s past life as a captain in the Indian Army also pursues him. Revealed through flashbacks, scenes of warfare on a Pakistani/Indian glacier add to the novel’s action and suspense. Finally, Ranjit has a failing marriage and a beautiful, precocious daughter. The demons of a military past together with the complexities of family life allow Amin Ahmad to do what he does so well: bring us deeply into his characters’ emotions so that we feel closer to them as they face each hair-raising exploit.

Last month, Amin and I met at a West Village café to talk about the process of writing The Caretaker, and the response the book has garnered.

Charlene Allen (Rail): The Caretaker has been dubbed a literary thriller, described by words like “thoughtful” and “beautiful” as well as “fast-paced” and “exciting.” Given that you have a talent for literary writing, what made you decide to write a thriller?

Amin Ahmad: As Indian immigrants, there are certain roles prescribed to us: we can write books about arranged marriages and mangoes, about the home country and assimilation in America. But why can’t Indians have an Indian action hero in America? The Caretaker is the flip of the traditional thriller deal where the American protagonist goes to a foreign country. I think it’s a relief for people, finding a different viewpoint. For example, when I first came to the States there were very few Indian writers writing about their American experience, and at first when I read these books, there was this shock of recognition. But I think that story has been told, and it’s important not to be confined to it.

Thrillers aren’t just about plot. While I hope my book is well-plotted, what interests me most about the genre is the characters, their family involvement, and their personal search for some kind of a home. To me, the characters are what keep me coming back, and so I wanted to have real characters. I think the best thriller characters are romantics; for example John le Carré, who created a master spy called George Smiley. Smiley’s whole emotional journey is that he’s married to a beautiful woman who’s cheating on him, and he puts up with it because he loves her. Henning Mankell created a character called Kurt Wallander whose whole thing is that he’s divorced and lonely, trying to connect with his adult daughter. I think they are romantics and the romanticism dovetails with their search—they’re in this dirty, sordid, murky world and they’re looking for something real and lasting and true.

Rail: I agree. What makes The Caretaker such an absorbing read is its characters. For example, Ranjit Singh is smart, savvy, and honorable. He has the politeness, the inclination to the servile that America expects of its immigrants, but when the surface is scratched—look out! Ranjit will do what he must to protect his loved ones. Talk a little about how you created Ranjit.

Ahmad: As writers, we always use the emotional truths of our lives in the writing, if not the actual detail. I think the congruence between me and Ranjit is that we’re both immigrants trying to find our place in America. Funnily enough, writing the book has helped me to carve out that space.

In choosing to write about a Sikh character, I was set on a path of writing about honor. Honor is a large part of the Sikh experience. Sikhs have a distinctive appearance and rules of dress, and because they are so distinctive looking they have had to fight for their beliefs. They became a martial people, and honor became critical to their culture. The idea of honor dovetails with the immigrant story, because as immigrants you have to do things you would never do back home, like doctors driving cabs. So the question is, how do you remain honorable and retain a sense of yourself in the face of a world that doesn’t see you as you see yourself?

It is a particular issue for people of color and immigrants, being invisible and hyper-visible at the same time—that thing where you have to dress well in public because how you present yourself in the world is so much more important, and it becomes a part of your honor. In the book, that plays out both in the Vineyard and in the military scenes up on the glacier. India has fought these ground wars with Pakistan and China—but you can’t fight that kind of world anymore, because now both sides can launch nukes. Instead, the wars are played out by proxy, in places like the glacier, fighting over a completely symbolic piece of ice and snow. And so we’re sending honorable people, trained to fight a just war, to kill each other on this glacier. That too is symptomatic of the times we live in. And in an environment like that, honor becomes very important.

Rail: The book’s female lead, Anna Neals, known from the opening passage as “the Senator’s wife,” is also a complex character. Talk about creating Anna.

Ahmad: There are some people who come into your life like a bullet, and wham, you change direction and will never be the same again. That’s what I wanted to capture with Anna.

I also wanted to explore being in a relationship with somebody who is unattainable—because she was unattainable to Ranjit. In another world and in different circumstances, it might have happened, but not the way things are. In the West, people are looking for certain answers. Anna is searching for solace and wisdom, and Ranjit shows up and he’s different, he can talk to her about religion and fate. That offers them an initial connection that offsets class. Anna starts off unattainable, and then they’re thrown together by circumstances. Initially I had only a glimpse of her as the young, glamorous wife of the older Senator, and then I had to write my way into the character. I figured out her place as a black woman growing up in the Vineyard and then entering an elite world. When I got details of her family, it all came together and the psychology made sense.

Rail: The Caretaker is a multicultural book in a way that is rare in U.S. literature. Ranjit is Indian, Anna and the Senator African-American, and other important characters are Brazilian and white. Did you set out to write a multicultural book, and if so, why?

Ahmad: The reason that the Vineyard comes up again and again in fiction is that it’s a layered world. It has rich white folks, the black elite, and then all the immigrants who come in for labor. Some of the immigrants now stay there full time, so underneath that quaint New England exterior you have all this interesting diversity. It’s not a one-liner of a place. I chose the Vineyard for that reason. And what I find most interesting is the race and class aspect of it.

Rail: I was able to attend one of your readings in the city, and I was surprised at one of the questions an audience member asked you. He wanted to know if you were concerned, as you wrote the book, that it would be too Indian for the comfort level of U.S. publishers and readers. Can you speak to that now?

Ahmad: I didn’t worry about that at all. I just wrote a book that interested me, because I didn’t even know who my audience would be, or what might be too Indian for them. But to flip the question, the book is being published by HarperCollins India, and I’m very interested to see how it will do there. I found it so interesting that they used the same flap copy except for adding that: “Ranjit Singh lives in the heart of white America.” I’m so curious to see how it plays out there, because in the U.S. people have a mental image of Martha’s Vineyard, but I don’t know how that will play for Indians. Who knows, maybe I’ll be too Indian for the Americans and vice versa. But that’s a role I’ve played my whole life, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Rail: Anything to add about the writing process, for new writers like those from our New School class?

Ahmad: Everyone in my family is a storyteller. Nobody has ever had a normal day, and the stories always started with, “You won’t believe what happened!” And they would reshape the experience to make it funny, and palatable, and interesting, even when it was difficult. So, storytelling comes naturally in that way. Added to that, I left India at 17 and came here, and I never really feel completely at home in either place. But when I’m writing, my writing can bring together the two worlds as nothing else can.

Now that I’ve written the book, one of the real and unanticipated pleasures is how the book has been a way of having a conversation about these things. There has been a community of folks built around the book—people who have emailed me and “friended” me, and who come to readings and tell me how the book has resonated for them. I think that’s the wonderful thing about writing: it’s impersonal because the reader doesn’t know you, but it’s also very intimate.


Charlene Allen

CHARLENE ALLEN is a writer and critic living in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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