Book Review: The Caretaker

Part of Debut Indian Writers Challenge 2013South Asian Challenge 2013 and Reading Challenge 2013: First Reads

If you are to carry 3 things to an island, that has minimum residents in winter, from the mainland for a month of life there what will they be? (p.s. you will be living in a cozy warm house there)

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An immigrant caught between two worlds and a man caught between two loves.

Subtlety in writing is an art and a fine one at it. And US based Indian writer, in his first novel, A. X. Ahmad wields the said art with such panche that honestly it is a pleasure reading him. In The Caretaker he packs the right punches to give the reader a story that is as much about a story of secrets as it is the story of emotions & the turbulance that they are in combination capable of wrecking. Through the story of captain Ranjit Singh, Ahmad showcases one man, at two places – thousands of miles apart, in two situations – set years apart, yet connected like those thin threads of cheese that refuse to break, stretch as much as you may.

A word-potrait of emotions with some intriguing secrets and revelations infused in the storyline is what, I would call The Caretaker is about.

The book starts with a 6-membered team of climbers of the Indian army deep in Siachen Glacier, 19000 feet above sea level, trying to find enemy camps with a mission to bomb them. The mission is lead by a turbaned Sikh captain – Captain Ranjit Singh. Immediately in the next chapter is Ranjit Singh – a landscape worker on an island called Martha’s Vineyard near Boston in USA. As the story progresses we know, the protagonist has been in the US for more than two years, wants to avoid anything that may remotely associate him with the law of the country, hallucinates about his sergeant talking to him about that last expedition, had spent some time in the Indian army prison and can under no circumstances go back to India. There is also his wife and daughter with him in the US, while the daughter adores her father and loves America, his wife still lives in a life that was and is wasting away to loneliness, desperation and low self esteem.

That expedition in the Siachen was the captain’s last in the Indian army for it went terribly wrong and here at Martha’s Vineyard, all the rich are locking up their houses on the island to spend the winters away in a warm haven. Ranjit lands up with the job of being the caretaker of many of these bungalows including African-American senator Clayton Neal’s (courtesy: the kindness and closeness of Anna Neal, the senator’s young wife). Situations run amok and Ranjit has to shift his family to the senator’s empty house and then hell breaks loose for him. Secrets start tumbling out – Anna’s, the senator’s, Ranjit’s and someone’s who is behind the scenes. Situations turn and Ranjit is on the run to save his family. To just survive. To just live. Not as the proud captain but just as a turbaned brown man in white America.

In this one, Ahmad has played with a plethora of emotions ranging from team camaraderie to paternal love, from desire to guilt ridden love while inserting specks of thrilling truths and breath holding twists. As the protagonist goes through his various emotion laden relationships, the writing is such that it sucks you in. You feel Ranjit’s pain, confusion, desperation and need, you understand why he does things the way he does, you feel victimized by the hand that destiny has dealt him and you wish you can just intervene and end his agony. The differentiation with which the third voice addresses the protagonist in the two places and roles that he is in, is another nuance that you admire Ahmad for.The show, don’t tell rule of writing is on visible display in this one. He is an artist of his craft, truly.

If there is one thing that was left wanting in this read of high quality writing, then it is the character development of Preetam – Ranjit’s wife. Her demure in Martha’s Vineyard, Boston and India is something that changes drastically and too soon. While a very impressive factor remains that while Fox news asserts that a Muslim should not write about Christianity, here is a Muslim who not just writes brilliantly about a Sikh and his beliefs, he also quotes from the Guru Granth Sahib quite aptly in the right situations. Kudos to this celebration called India.

Though not much of a thriller, at least not a high octane one, a recommended read for the craft that is writing.

Happy Reading.

Title: The Caretaker
Author: A.X. Ahmad
Publisher: Harper Collins India
Pages: 292
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Reviewed for: Publisher

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