The Caretaker

( 2 )

Overview

Who is the caretaker hiding in the shadows of the Martha’s Vineyard mansions he tends?

Back in India, Ranjit Singh commanded an elite army squad. But that was years ago, before his Army career ended in dishonor, shattering his reputation. Driven from his homeland, he is now a caretaker on the exclusive resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, looking after the vacation homes of the rich and powerful. One harsh winter, faced with no other choice, he secretly moves his family into the ...

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The Caretaker (Ranjit Singh Series #1)

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Overview

Who is the caretaker hiding in the shadows of the Martha’s Vineyard mansions he tends?

Back in India, Ranjit Singh commanded an elite army squad. But that was years ago, before his Army career ended in dishonor, shattering his reputation. Driven from his homeland, he is now a caretaker on the exclusive resort island of Martha’s Vineyard, looking after the vacation homes of the rich and powerful. One harsh winter, faced with no other choice, he secretly moves his family into the house of one of his clients, an African-American Senator. Here, his wife and daughter are happy, and he feels safe for the first time in ages. But Ranjit’s idyll is shattered when mysterious men break into the house. Pursued and hunted, Ranjit is forced to enter the Senator’s shadowy world, and his only ally is Anna, the Senator’s beautiful wife, who has secrets of her own. Together, they uncover a trail of deception that leads from the calm shores of the Vineyard to countries half a world away. And when his investigation stirs up long forgotten events, the caretaker must finally face the one careless decision that ruined his life- and forced him to leave India. 

A gripping tale of hidden histories, political intrigue and dangerous attractions, A. X. Ahmad's The Caretaker introduces a new hero for our times: an immigrant caught between two worlds and a man caught between two loves.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ahmad’s poignant debut, the first of a trilogy, introduces Ranjit Singh, a disgraced Indian army captain who’s eking out a living as a landscaper on Martha’s Vineyard with his discontented wife, Preetam, and his happy nine-year-old daughter, Shanti. Their fortunes take a turn for the better after Ranjit lands a job as the winter caretaker for the vacant house of Senator Clayton Neals in the African-American enclave of Oak Bluffs. Later, Ranjit and his family must flee the senator’s house, where they have moved from their squalid living quarters, after Ranjit interrupts a break-in involving two armed men. Powerful people believe that Ranjit holds critical information and will stop at nothing to get it, so he must not only discover what the information is but how to use it to prevent his family’s deportation and his own demise. Ahmad gradually reveals sordid political secrets and the story of Ranjit’s disgrace in this finely textured story of bravery and knavery. Agent: Stephanie Abou, Foundry Media. (May)
From the Publisher
"This fine thriller debut views disturbing political realism through the lens of Ranjit Singh, a newly immigrated Sikh fleeing danger in India after a politically explosive mistake ends his military career...a cynically smart political thriller that draws parallels of political expediency between Washington deal-brokering and Ranjit’s tragic past. Beyond the masterfully crafted, high-adrenaline story, readers will be fascinated by Ranjit’s strong Sikh faith, rarely seen in American fiction." —Booklist (starred review)

"Combinations of the familiar and the unfamiliar provide a read that moves beyond standard thriller fare. Weaving together Singh’s Sikh faith with very personal moments, taut action sequences, and events with international significance, Ahmad’s thriller should have broad appeal." —Library Journal (starred review)

 "Ahmad debuts with a fast-paced literary thriller, shifting action from the desolate ice-clad Siachen glacier separating India and Pakistan to the posh environs of Marthay's Vineyard. . . . Top-notch effort in the first of a promising trilogy." —Kirkus Reviews

"Poignant. . . . A finely textured story of bravery and knavery." —Publishers Weekly

“Told with propulsive narrative drive, The Caretaker weaves a compelling story, beguiling characters, and two exotic locales—India and Martha's Vineyard—into a suspenseful whole.  A wonderful debut.” —Richard North Patterson, #1 New York Times bestselling author

"...Exciting and involving." —Wall Street Journal

“The Caretaker” isn’t just a solid thriller, it’s a wonderful novel about clashing cultures and painful histories, held together by Ahmad’s crisp writing and his wonderful character of Ranjit Singh.  Shades of Martiz Cruz Smith here, and echoes of Graham Greene.  Bravo, A. X. Ahmad.” —T. Jefferson Parker, author of The Jaguar and The Border Lords

“Though A. X. Ahmad's The Caretaker is a tightly wound thriller, it is equally concerned with themes of insiders and outsiders, race, culture and class. From protagonist Ranjit Singh, a Sikh who once held a position of status in the Indian Army and is now a disgraced, reluctant refuge in the US, to the African American Senator who came up from poverty to become a powerful and influential leader, to the Senator's wife, from a family of longtime Vineyard residents that lost nearly everything they'd once held, Ahmad portrays a modern American reality where privilege is not predictable and identity is formed in a crucible of contradictions. If this sounds dry and didactic, let me assure you that The Caretaker is anything but—Ahmad has crafted a story that is refreshing, sexy and heart-felt. I very much hope that this is not the last we'll see of Ranjit Singh, an original, complex hero for an uncertain, complicated time.” —Lisa Brackmann, New York Times bestselling author of Rock Paper Tiger

The Caretaker is a powerhouse tale, a literary thriller that’s sharply observed and deeply felt. A. X. Ahmad is a remarkable new talent, and his hero, Ranjit Singh, takes his place beside Arkady Renko as a man trapped between the system and his own moral imperatives. The Caretaker is a surprising, gripping love story that manages to be both timely and timeless, and will be a novel people read for years to come. —Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling author of Buried Secrets and Paranoia

"The Caretaker is a promising debut from A. X. Ahmad with a unique perspective and compelling hero, a novel that shines fresh and welcome light on our complex world."  —James Grady, author of Six Days of the Condor

"The Caretaker is a killer book and A. X. Ahmad's Ranjit Singh is a compelling man of action. Ahmad takes his readers on a careening ride from the glacial battlefields of South Asia to the supposedly safer digs of Martha's Vineyard. America may not be ready for a run-and-gun Sikh investigator, but we need him now." —Ed Lin, author of One Red Bastard

"This first novel combines the taut pacing of a thriller with the lush, lyrical writing of Jhumpa Lahiri." —Jenna Blum, New York Times Bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers

Kirkus Reviews
Ahmad debuts with a fast-paced literary thriller, shifting action from the desolate ice-clad Siachen glacier separating India and Pakistan to the posh environs of Martha's Vineyard. Ranjit Singh is a Sikh, once an Indian army captain, a frontier war veteran. Ranjit was involved in a friendly fire incident and imprisoned. Upon release, he knew his life was in danger from a corrupt general. With his wife and daughter, Ranjit sought refuge in America. His wife's uncle, a Boston grocery store owner, financed their flight, but Ranjit chafed under the uncle's patronizing attitude and demands for cheap labor. Ranjit moves his family to Martha's Vineyard and struggles with a landscaping business. As winter arrives and work disappears, Anna Neals, young second wife of a Massachusetts' senator, the nation's longest serving African-American legislator, asks Ranjit to work as a caretaker for the Neals' vacation home. Her request seems innocuous, but Anna is an emotionally damaged woman. The story unfolds in the present, with flashbacks to the mission that cost Ranjit his military career, often in the form of hallucinations in which Ranjit's loyal sergeant appears. Trapped between lack of money and his wife's depression and loneliness, Ranjit temporarily shelters his family in the senator's island house, the first step in an inexorable spiral into personal chaos. Their trespass is discovered when two men break in searching for computer records that could wreck the senator's political career. The action shifts to Boston and then back to Martha's Vineyard, with hairbreadth chases and violent confrontations. The operatives arrest Ranjit's wife and daughter as illegal immigrants and then threaten deportation, attempting to extort the computer records from Ranjit. Ahmad writes with intimate familiarity of Boston, Martha's Vineyard, and the Sikhs and their culture, but his best work comes in his characterizations of the ambitious senator, caught up in Indian and Pakistani duplicity and North Korean chicanery; Anna, the grieving and lonely wife; and the Singh family's stumbling through the swamp of cultural discordance. Top-notch effort in the first of a promising trilogy.
Library Journal
This well-written debut (the first in a trilogy) introduces Ranjit Singh, a former captain in the Indian army currently trying to make ends meet as a landscaper on Martha's Vineyard. When Anna Neals, wife of Sen. Clayton Neals, puts in a good word with her husband on Singh's behalf, the senator offers Singh a caretaker job and other gigs soon follow. Eventually Singh's family moves into the Neals's home, but they must flee when a break-in occurs. As they leave, Singh's daughter, Shanti, grabs a doll that contains a hidden microfilm chip that proves to be the key to the family's survival. VERDICT In Singh, Ahmad has created a character who is both a familiar everyman trying to do right and a figure who may be foreign to many. The author has done something similar with the island of Martha's Vineyard, offering a locale that readers may think they know, but showing us the island's harsh winter face. These combinations of the familiar and the unfamiliar provide a read that moves beyond standard thriller fare. Weaving together Singh's Sikh faith with very personal moments, taut action sequences, and events with international significance, Ahmad's thriller should have broad appeal. [See Prepub Alert, 11/12/12.]—Eric Norton, McMillan Memorial Lib., Wisconsin Rapids, WI
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250016843
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 5/21/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 344,436
  • Product dimensions: 6.54 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

A. X. AHMAD was raised in India, educated at Vassar College and MIT, and worked for many years as an international architect. His short stories and essays have been published in literary magazines. He splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, New York. The Caretaker is his debut novel. More about him at axahmad.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

 

 

The Senator’s wife is late. Very late.

Ranjit Singh stands beside his battered Ford truck and squints down the long, empty line of Beach Road. There is no sign of Anna Neals’s silver Mercedes. Only seagulls coast through the evening sky, their shrieks drowned out by the waves crashing across the road.

He turns and looks at the gray-shingled liquor store behind him, wondering how much longer it will be open. It is mid-December, and shops close early during the off-season on Martha’s Vineyard. If he loiters in the empty parking lot, the Edgartown cops will surely notice him, and that’s the last thing he wants.

If anybody else were an hour late, he would have left. But Anna Neals isn’t just anybody, she is the wife of Clayton Neals, the longest-serving African-American senator. He has worked for her all summer, trimming hedges and building stone steps down to her private beach. When she called this morning, he heard her warm, melodious voice and instantly agreed to meet her.

But she is now an hour and ten minutes late. Damn it.

Ranjit leans against the green flatbed truck, feeling the warm metal against his aching back. Though the gold cursive painted on the door says SINGH LANDSCAPE COMPANY, he’s the only employee, and his six-foot frame has been bent over all day, raking piles of red and yellow leaves. Before driving over to meet Anna, he changed into a red turban and his cleanest army surplus sweater—the epaulettes torn off—and even tried to clean his cracked fingernails, then gave up. The long summer of landscaping has seamed them with dirt.

A car speeds down Beach Road and feathers into the parking lot, but it isn’t hers, it’s a rust-eaten blue Mercury, its front bumper held on with duct tape. In the backseat, caged in by a mesh partition, is a thick-muscled black dog wearing a black leather collar.

The car screeches to a halt and a heavyset man in a red plaid shirt emerges from the passenger seat, mumbling something to the driver. Plaid-shirt walks toward the liquor store with a rolling gait, like a sailor unused to dry land.

Hunters, probably on a day trip from the Cape. Ranjit looks down at his watch: five minutes, no more; as it is, he is late picking up his daughter from her school.

He stares across the road at the cold, angry ocean. When he first came to the island with his wife and daughter six months ago, the water was warm and shimmering, the beaches were lined with parked cars, and long-tailed kites fluttered in the hot sky. All summer and into the fall he’d worked as a landscaper, feeling his unused muscles stretch and harden, feeling the hot sun beat down on him, and felt a kind of peace.

But now winter is upon them and the tourists are all gone. The ice-cream parlors and clam shacks have closed, and the migrant workers—the Jamaicans and Bulgarians and Czechs—have left. Even the sky feels like a gray bowl jammed over the island.

Worse, all the landscaping jobs have ended. For the millionth time Ranjit wonders how he is going to survive the winter months. Food and gas here are so expensive, and lately, the furnace in their old house has been cutting out abruptly. If it dies, he just won’t have the money to get it fixed.

He needs to find another job soon, or else he’ll have to return to Boston and work in Lallu Singh’s cramped, overheated Indian store, and the thought of going back there makes him sick.

An hour and a quarter late. The Senator’s dark-eyed wife definitely isn’t coming, and hope fades away, replaced by a deep disappointment. Forget it.

He strides toward the liquor store for a nip of Bacardi to dull his mind before heading out. At the doorway he slows down, and can’t help looking over his shoulder one last time.

Someone slams right into him.

The man in the plaid shirt staggers and clutches a case of beer to his chest. A tall bottle of bourbon balanced on top of it falls and hits the asphalt with a crack. Its neck shears off and it rolls away slowly, the golden liquor glugging out.

The dog in the back of the car barks once, a sound from deep within its chest.

Aww, crap. Look what you’ve done.” Plaid-shirt’s voice is slurred with alcohol. Despite his thick stubble, he has the face of a spoiled child, his high forehead framed by long, uncombed blond hair. “That was a thirty-dollar bottle of Jack.”

Ranjit stands motionless. “I’m sorry, sir, but you walked into me.”

The man stares at him out of blue, blameless eyes, taking in his red turban, his mustache and full beard.

“Hey, what are you, some kind of Arab?”

“I’m a Sikh from India. Sir, I said I was sorry.”

“Sorry, huh? Well, that bottle cost me thirty bucks. Thirty American dollars.”

There is no mistaking the menace in the man’s voice. There must be no trouble. No trouble and no police. Taking out his wallet, Ranjit counts out a ten and some singles.

“This is all I have.”

“This ain’t worth shit.” Plaid-shirt grabs the bills and turns toward his car. “Hey, you see this bullshit?”

A pale face stares out at Ranjit from the driver’s seat, younger, but with the same washed-out blond hair. This man has a blue-black fish tattooed on each forearm.

“I got an idea,” the tattooed man says, waving at the broken bottle. “You clean up that mess you made, and we might accept your apology.”

His words are followed by the metallic chuck-chuck of a shotgun being racked. A blued barrel appears in the car window, pointed right at Ranjit.

Time stops. As it used to in combat, all noise drains away and the world shrinks to the two men in the empty parking lot. Ranjit is bound to them now by words and actions, bound till something changes.

The tattooed man in the car smiles, showing yellowed teeth. “Come on. Clean it up.”

The shotgun doesn’t waver. It’s a Remington 870 with a twenty-eight-inch hunting barrel, probably loaded with birdshot. At this range the pellets will rip his face to shreds.

There is no choice. Ranjit’s hands are shaking with rage as he bends down and reaches for the broken glass. Under his breath he mutters a prayer.

The truly enlightened ones

Are those who neither incite fear in others

Nor fear anyone themselves …

Glass shards are everywhere, glinting in the fading light, and the sharp smell of alcohol stings his nostrils.

The tattooed man in the car watches him, finger tensed on the shotgun trigger. The dog caged in the backseat paces and growls. Plaid-shirt places the carton of beer on the hood of the car and leans back unsteadily, lighting up a cigarette.

A sliver of broken glass slices into the ball of Ranjit’s thumb. He gasps as warm blood puddles into the palm of his hand.

Plaid-shirt chuckles. “Aww, look at him. He’s bleeding.”

The tattooed man in the car joins in the laughter, the shotgun barrel wobbling with hilarity.

Ranjit’s neck burns with shame.

The truly enlightened ones

Are those …

“Come on, towel-head. My beer’s getting warm.”

Fuck it. Ranjit reaches for the jagged neck of the bottle, calculating his moves. The dog is caged in, not a threat. Go for the man, grab the shotgun barrel and twist it aside. Jam the jagged glass into his throat, hear him burble and beg.

He straightens up, the glint of glass in his hand. There is a sudden screech of tires and a car door slams like a rifle shot.

“What the hell is going on here? Ranjit, are you okay?”

Anna Neals’s silver Mercedes is parked askew. She takes long strides toward them, her boots thudding angrily against the asphalt. Her dark face is hidden behind blank aviator shades, her straightened, jaw-length hair fluttering in the breeze. She’s wearing jeans torn at the knees, a silver down jacket, and thick glass bracelets that clank as she walks.

She is shouting now. “Jeff? Norman? Is there a problem here?”

The two hunters’ faces redden. The shotgun disappears from the window, but the dog barks loudly and flings himself at the door.

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.

The only sounds are the crashing of the waves and Anna’s angry breathing.

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?

“Please, I’m okay. These things happen. People see my turban…”

But the truth is that he had been unprepared. During his two years in Boston he’d been taunted in Southie, almost beaten up in the North End—but on the Vineyard things have been different. Blacks and whites mingle easily here, and a brown man in a turban is smiled at, a sign of the island’s easy tolerance.

Anna is shivering, from the cold or from anger, he can’t tell.

“Those morons and their pit bull. Let me see that cut.”

“It’s nothing.”

Ignoring him, she grabs his wrist, pushes her shades onto her head, and holds his thumb up to the light. She’s almost his height, striking-looking rather than beautiful, her short, boyish haircut emphasizing her long neck and high cheekbones. It is her eyes that draw him in, black as night, so dark that her stare can be disconcerting. Today the skin around them is puffy, and he realizes, with a shock, that she has been crying.

“You won’t need any stitches. It’s a clean cut.”

She pulls a white cotton handkerchief from her pocket, tears off a strip with her teeth, and bandages his thumb, the wrapping tight and professional. Noticing his appraising look, she smiles, and deep dimples appear in her cheeks.

“Surprised? I used to go hunting with my father. He’d get hurt, and I’d bandage him up. I’ve had a lot of practice fixing up men.”

When she’s done, the bandage is wrapped so tightly that his thumb throbs like a drumbeat.

A cold wind blows in from the ocean and she shivers and hugs herself. “Ranjit, I’m sorry I’m so late. I didn’t think you’d still be here.”

He remains silent, waiting for her explanation.

“Clayton arrived this afternoon. Unannounced.”

“The Senator’s here? But I saw him on television just last night, he was at a press conference in Washington—”

“Yeah, well,” Anna says, “he flew in from D.C. a few hours ago. He said he’d had enough of the press.”

She stands in front of him like a hurt child, hugging herself tightly. He wants to lean forward and wrap his arms around her. Instead, he doesn’t move an inch.

“Anna, why did you want to see me?”

She takes a deep breath. “Look, I wanted to say that I’m really sorry. I owe you an explanation for my behavior that day. I was really upset, and believe it or not, you helped me. But…”

He feels the sharp disappointment again. “It’s all right. I understand.”

“You do? You’re kind to say that.” There is a silence and then she continues, her tone brisker. “Listen, I was thinking. Are you still staying here through the winter? Or are you heading back to Boston?”

“I’d like to stay here. I hated it in Boston.”

“Well, I talked to Clayton, and we need a caretaker for the house. Our regular guy just broke his leg. You can start now, and we’ll pay you through next spring. What do you think?”

She smiles and removes a strand of hair that has blown into the corner of her mouth.

He is stunned. It’s impossible to get a job as a caretaker on the island; only old, trusted Vineyarders get to take care of rich people’s houses. And a steady paycheck means that he can stay here through the winter, maybe even move to a house where the heating actually works.

“It’s not a lot of work. Close up the house, shovel snow, check for leaks. What do you say?”

He nods slowly. “Okay, Anna—thank you. I’ll take the job.”

She jingles car keys in her coat pocket and looks away. “Go see Clayton tonight, he’ll fill you in. I better get going. I’m catching the evening ferry to the mainland.”

“You’re leaving?”

“I need a change of scene. The last few months have been so … taxing. But I’m not going far, just to the house in Boston.”

There seems to be nothing else to say. They turn and walk to Anna’s car, its engine still purring, the soft wail of jazz coming from inside. Ranjit knows that the silver Mercedes Kompressor costs more money than he has earned during his two and a half years in America.

She stops, a hand on the door handle. “You’re sure you want to stay here? It’s brutal in the winter. I lived here off-season as a child, almost went mad with boredom.”

He nods. “I’ll be all right. I’m used to the cold.”

“I thought India was hot? Tropical?”

“No. We have mountains too, high ones. With snow and ice.”

She smiles apologetically, and her cheeks curve into dimples again. “I should have known that. Us dumb Americans, huh?”

She puts a hand on his arm, a touch so soft that it’s barely there. She gets into the Mercedes, slams the door, and swings the car out onto the road. The powerful engine growls, and she’s gone.

The pink neon sign in the liquor store window suddenly blinks out. An elderly man emerges from the store and begins to chain the front doors together.

Ranjit kicks the glass shards aside and hurriedly climbs into his truck. What had he expected from the likes of Anna Neals? She is a senator’s wife, and he is just another servant here. Things might have been different if … but there’s no point in thinking like that.

The adrenaline rush has subsided. He feels cold and nauseous, and blasts the heater before leaning back and closing his eyes. If Anna had arrived a few minutes later, he would have killed that man. He imagines sharp glass entering the man’s soft throat, the screams of a butchered animal …

Taking a deep breath, he remembers what the doctors back home had said: The instincts are there, they don’t go away. Anything can trigger them: a loud sound, a movement in the periphery, a threatening shadow. The key is to not follow through, to short-circuit the impulse.

Like the doctors taught him, he breathes deeply and imagines a calm, peaceful place. An image of the Golden Temple at Amritsar gradually takes shape: it sits in the center of the sacred lake, its golden dome burnished by fading sunlight, and from within it he can hear the sound of kirtans being sung.

He is a boy again, following his mother down the long causeway leading to it, the marble warm under their bare feet. It is his father’s death anniversary, and they have come to the temple to pray. Underneath the threadbare dupatta that covers her head, Mataji’s face is pale, exhausted from crying all day, but she grows calm as she sings the evening prayers. The words float in the air, old and comforting.

A faint, putrid smell tickles his nostrils, disturbing the image. He tries to ignore it, but it grows stronger, and when his eyes flicker open, there is a shimmer in the seat next to him. No doubt it is a trick of the fading light; closing his eyes again, he tries to return to the place of stillness.

There is the sudden, rasping sound of breathing. Those bastards are back. His eyes fly open, and he reaches under his seat for a spanner, then stops abruptly.

Sergeant Khandelkar is sitting in the seat next to him, wearing a white snowsuit, an assault rifle lying across his knees. He is bent over and coughing desperately, his eyes strained and watering.

No, please, Guru, no. It must be a hallucination, triggered by the encounter with the two men. It will go away soon, he will wake up.

The Sergeant’s head is shaved to reveal his bony skull, giving him the severe look of a priest. As he wheezes, desperately trying to breathe, Ranjit smells again the putrid smell of decay. Perhaps it’s a seizure, they say that people smell things right before their convulsions, almonds or perfume.

The Sergeant manages to take a deep breath. “What is this place, Captain?” His voice is raspy, as though he isn’t used to talking anymore.

Ranjit cannot answer. The doctors said this could happen and had given him a bottle of blue pills, but he’d thrown them away before he left India.

“Not much in the way of cover here, is there? We’ll have to call for air support.” Sergeant Khandelkar shivers, and his face and hands are blue with cold.

Ranjit finds his voice. “Sergeant, is it really you?”

Khandelkar ignores the question. He flexes his bony fingers and stares down at them. “Those men, Captain. You could have easily taken them. Why didn’t you?”

“I don’t … I don’t fight anymore.”

Khandelkar laughs. “I see, Captain. You don’t fight.”

“I’m not a captain. I’m nothing here. Everything has changed.”

“Nothing changes. Nothing changes, where I am.” Khandelkar’s hands are lilac, the color that comes before frostbite. “The cold burns like fire, Captain, did you know that?”

“Khandelkar, I’m sorry, so sorry—” Ranjit reaches out to touch the Sergeant, and finds himself reaching through the air.

The seat next to him is empty. Heat gushes out of the vents in the dashboard, and the air smells like burning leaves.

“Sergeant, where are you?”

In the silence Ranjit can hear the pounding of the waves across the road. He rolls down his window and feels the cold air buffet his face.

Something is ringing. He fumbles in the pocket of his stained canvas coat and finds his cell phone.

Papaji, where are you? I’ve been waiting and waiting. My teacher is going home.” It’s Shanti’s nine-year-old voice, rolling her Rs like an American.

Beti, I’m sorry, I got tied up. Put on your coat and wait in the lobby, okay?”

The truck engine rumbles into life, and he drives quickly down Beach Road, the ocean a dark blur to his right. After a few turns, he reaches Tradewinds Road and arrives at the long beige building of the Oak Bluffs elementary school. Shanti is sitting in the brightly lit lobby, twirling the ends of her long, curly black hair with one hand. Her high forehead and liquid brown eyes are carbon copies of her mother’s, but she has his tall, lanky build.

She sees the truck and comes running out, her hair flying behind her. When she opens the door, Ranjit is staring at the empty seat next to him.

“Hello, Papaji. What happened to your thumb?” She reaches out and holds his hand, staring at the knotted strip of cotton.

He pulls his hand away, his breathing quick and shallow.

“What’s wrong? Papaji, are you all right?”

Ranjit cannot speak. He holds out his arms and hugs her, feeling her long, skinny body, her breath warm against his cheek.

“I’m fine,” he says, pulling away. “I cut my thumb while working. I’m just glad to see you, that’s all.”

“Can we drive along the ocean? I want to see if the ferry is in. And if the Flying Horses is open.”

He’s told her a hundred times that the Flying Horses Carousel will be closed till the next summer, but she always insists on checking. It will take him out of his way, but he hates to disappoint her.

Sighing, he turns back toward the ocean.

*   *   *

He is silent as they drive away. All these years he has feared this would happen. He tries to remember the name of the pale blue pills but cannot.

Papaji, are you listening to me?”

“Sorry, beti, what were you saying?”

Shanti sighs dramatically. “You need to listen. This girl in my grade, Elena, she’s Portuguese, she said that all Indians are short. I said no way, you should see my dad, and she said you just look tall because you wear a turban, and I said, my dad is tall even without a turban, but she wouldn’t believe me, can you believe it?”

Beti, Americans have strange ideas about us.”

“Not all of them. Just some. And, oh, Miss Heather said to ask you if we’re staying for the winter. She said that all the foreign kids start school in the fall but then they leave, and she never gets the textbooks back. Are we going back to Boston?”

“We’re staying.”

“Hector’s gone back to Brazil. And Jorge.”

He thinks of the two miserable years in Boston, slaving in the basement of Lallu’s Indian store. “We’re staying, beti. Tell your teacher we’re not going anywhere.”

“Okay, good, I like it here. Hey, I know the capitals of all fifty states. Let’s play, okay? Easy one first. What’s the capital of New York?”

As the truck turns onto Seaview Avenue, the sick panic in Ranjit’s stomach begins to fade.

“New York City, obviously.”

“No, silly, it’s Albany. Now, California?”

“San Francisco?”

Shanti peals with laughter. “It’s Sacramento! Everybody knows that!”

“It makes no sense. They always choose someplace that no one has heard of. In India, the biggest city is the capital. Like Mumbai. Or Chennai.”

Papaji, really,” Shanti says, dissolving with laughter, and he smiles too; being with her always makes him feel better.

They enter the town of Oak Bluffs and speed past the large green oval of Ocean Park, surrounded by the sprawling bungalows of the African-American elite. They pass the strip of beach nicknamed the Inkwell, and just as the long pier of the ferry terminal appears, Ranjit swerves left into town. The marquee of the Strand movie theater is blank, and the carved wooden horses of the Flying Horses Carousel are motionless, but lights are still on at Jerry’s Pizza. Ranjit smells hot cheese and feels a sudden pang of hunger, then remembers that he’d given the last of his money to those two men.

“Hey,” Shanti says, “we’re pretty late today. I hope Mama isn’t mad at us.”

Usually Preetam sits at home all day, watching her Hindi movies, and panics if they are even five minutes late. But today she has gone with a neighbor to a sewing circle at the church and shouldn’t be back till dinnertime.

“Mama’s out, remember? I have to go and talk to Senator Neals for a few minutes. I took you there during the summer—it’s the house with all the dolls. He was away, but you met his wife.”

“I remember that house. Is he the man who’s been on television all the time?”

“Yes, that man. But don’t ask him any questions.”

“Why?”

Beti, rich people don’t like that. If he asks you any questions, just answer politely.”

“I’m always polite, Papaji. You know that.”

He nods absentmindedly. They drive through the town and stop at the drawbridge leading to Vineyard Haven. A red light flashes and the middle section of the bridge lifts up to let a yacht into the lagoon. He switches off the engine to save gas, an old habit from India.

He is startled at how much information Shanti soaks up, but Preetam always has the television on, and Neals has been on the news for the last two nights.

The news stations replayed the same footage over and over again, showing the Senator walking briskly up the steps of the floodlit Capitol. Despite his sixty-plus years of age, he had the quick grace of a much younger man, and his dark blue suit only emphasized his barrel chest and wide shoulders. His shaved head and flattened nose—at some point it had been broken and roughly set—only added to his aura of authority.

Reaching the top of the stairs, the Senator made a speech about freedom and democracy, and then handed over the microphone to a young Korean-American woman journalist. Still pale from her months in North Korean captivity, the woman described in a shaking voice her arrest on a trumped-up charge of spying, and her subsequent death sentence. If the Senator hadn’t flown to Pyongyang to negotiate on her behalf, her body would now be arriving home in a plywood box. As soon as she was done, the reporters surged forward, shouting out questions, but the Senator just raised her arm in a victory salute and then escorted her away.

The news stations all called the Senator a hero, and there was even talk of him running for President someday. Earlier that summer, the same news stations had broadcast programs on the Senator’s fading popularity and predicted that he wouldn’t be reelected. Thinking about it, Ranjit shakes his head. Opinions change so fast in this country.

The large yacht slides under the raised drawbridge, only the top of its masts visible. Soon the bridge is lowered, and they clatter across it, skirting the town of Vineyard Haven.

The island of Martha’s Vineyard is small—roughly triangular, twenty miles from east to west, and ten from north to south—but it houses many worlds. The WASPS live amid their white picket fences in Edgartown, while Oak Bluffs is the home of the African-American elite, whose bungalows cluster around Ocean Park. Vineyard Haven, with its wide harbor and bustling main street, is the commercial heart of the island. Senator Neals has chosen to live far away, among the movie stars and tycoons of Aquinnah, his custom-designed house perched high on its red clay cliffs.

They drive down State Road, past the scattered restaurants and boutiques that cater to the summer people. Jenni Bick’s handmade journal store is closed, as is the Vineyard Glassworks, and there are only a handful of cars parked outside Kronig’s grocery store. As the population of the island shrinks from a summer high of a hundred thousand down to fifteen thousand, the Vineyard once again becomes a small town.

The twilight gathers around them and Ranjit flicks on his headlights, illuminating stone boundary walls. Hidden behind these are the summer estates of the millionaires, only their driveways and NO TRESPASSING signs visible from the road; the houses are set far back, facing the water. They’re empty now, inhabited only by mice and the blinking lights of alarm systems. If this were India, poor people would cut the power to the alarms and move in, shit in the Jacuzzis, keep goats and chickens in the empty swimming pools. But this is not India, this is the Vineyard, and all these beautiful, perfect houses lie empty for most of the year.

He drives through the exclusive towns of West Tisbury and Chilmark, and soon the road becomes a causeway, cutting between the dark waters of Menemsha and Squibnocket ponds. Reaching Lighthouse Road, they drive along the edge of the island, the jagged cliffs falling away to the ocean below.

Ranjit turns into a graveled driveway that curves down the hillside, and the truck whines around the sharp turns. After one last dizzying twist the road flattens out, and there, beyond the Senator’s house, is the ink-black ocean, ranks of whitecapped waves racing to the open horizon.

He turns off the engine and the air is filled with the roar of water. Shanti sits silently, mesmerized by the view.

Beti,” he says, “do you know what ocean that is?”

“The Atlantic Ocean.”

“And what’s on the other side?”

“India.”

“How come India? Not Europe?”

Shanti shakes her head firmly. “No, it’s India. That’s what Mama says.”

“What do you remember about India, beti?”

She takes a deep breath. “We were rich in India and we had a big house and mango trees and many servants.”

He nods slowly. Just as he thought: she doesn’t remember a thing about India, and now Preetam is filling her head with nonsense.

“Wait in the truck. I have to talk to the Senator.”

Crunching over the gravel, he approaches the house, praying under his breath. Please, Guru, please let me get this job.

From this level, the house looks deceptively like a modest one-story, its rough fieldstone walls topped by a wide, overhanging roof. The rest of it is hidden on the other side, two lower floors of steel and glass cut into the hillside, ending in a terraced garden with a kidney-shaped swimming pool.

The doorbell chimes deep within the house, but there are no answering footsteps. Despite the chill, perhaps Senator Neals is out on the rear deck, where the sound of the doorbell will be drowned out by the waves.

Shanti presses her nose against the truck window as he walks toward the high hedges that shield the back of the house. He spent hours during the summer trimming them into perfect cubes, but scraggly branches have broken through, undoing all his hard work.

Pushing through a gap in the hedges, he looks at the rear of the house, its rows of tall windows dark and silent. He takes one step forward.

And almost falls over Senator Neals.

 

Copyright © 2013 by Amin Ahmad

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2013

    'At nineteen thousand feet on the Siachen Glacier, there is no l

    'At nineteen thousand feet on the Siachen Glacier, there is no longer earth and sky, just an endless mountain of snow.
    In this infinity of white are six men, walking in line, moving in the drunken lockstep of the exhausted.'

    The debut novel, The Caretaker, by A.X. Ahmad starts on the high altitudes of the Siachen Glacier where Captain Ranjit Singh is leading his team of five on a covert operation into a gray zone with practically no information except a set of coordinates.

    "This mission stinks, sir. We've been walking three days to reach a set of coordinates. Why couldn't they tell us what our target is?"
    "This is how it's done these days, Sergeant. They dream up up these missions down in New Delhi, and we do the dirty work."

    The mission goes horribly wrong when Ranjit finds that the soldiers they have killed are not from Pakistan but are Indian soldiers. Dishonorably discharged and after serving a three year jail sentence, Ranjit comes to America to start a new life and takes up landscaping and other odd jobs to survive. He, eventually becomes the caretaker to the homes of several rich and illustrious people in the island town of Martha's Vineyard.

    Life is going uneventfully for him with his daughter settling comfortably in school and his wife, though restless, trying to adapt to living in the small shack they call home. Suddenly everything changes when one winter, after the heating in his meager flat gives out, they are forced to take shelter in the Senator's house which is lying vacant and for which Ranjit is the caretaker. But there idyll at this new shelter is shattered when mysterious men break into the house and it seems they are looking for a particular doll out of the many present at the Senator's house. Unknown to them, this particular doll is innocently taken away by Ranjit's daughter, Shanti when she flees with her family from the house.

    As Ranjit is sucked into the Senator's shadowy world of politics, dark secrets and a high profile backdrop of war between India and Pakistan, he can trust no one. In a cat and mouse race with unknown forces its a race against time for Ranjit to save his family.

    Who are these mysterious men?
    What is so special about the doll?
    Why do they want it?
    Who is the mastermind behind these men?
    Will Ranjit be able to unravel the mystery of the doll and save his family?
    Can he confront his past that destroyed his career and subsequently his life?

    'The past, long buried, seems to be coming alive, and there is nothing he can do to stop it.'

    A flawed hero and a fast paced thriller setup with unexpected twists and turns and some pretty shocking revelations. Its the perfect recipe for a successful novel and A.X. Ahmad does not disappoint. The story is crisp and the writing interesting where the Author shows after only a few lines that he is knows fully what he wants to deliver and has done his research well!!

    I loved the insight into the Sikh culture that the author provides and am highly impressed by his flawless technique of switching from the past to the present throughout the book. The past and the present scenes are woven so beautifully that they flow effortlessly and it seems like we are watching an entertaining movie except that this one is in our mind!

    Ranjit's relationship with his daughter, Shanti is strong and loving. Their interactions with each other are entertaining and endearing. The life of an immigrant in the United States and the difficulties they face in trying to merge in with others particularly after the 9/11 attack is beautifully and sensitively explained and sketched. The unbiased and third party scrutiny of Indo-Pak relations also provides a fresh perspective and adds depth to the story. Several topics of deep thought are handled with finesse in the book like the arms race and the part that countries like North Korea, India, Pakistan, USA play in it, the freedom of speech and the efforts to curb the rising voice of reforms in third world countries, the plight of old people who are left by their loved ones and thus, forced to lead a lonely life and die with no one to even cremate them etc.

    The characters are realistic and not the typical perfect people we encounter in books. Each character has made his/her share of mistakes and its their choices that pave their path in the story! :)

    I was hooked from the start and read the book cover-to-cover. The supernatural touch to the story adds more spice to an already splendid plot. The only thing that frustrated me was the ending which though complete in terms of the mystery coming to a closure, still leaves some gaps which show that the author has a sequel in mind. Now I have to wait for the next book to come out and my curiosity to know is killing me. I will be awaiting the next Ranjit Singh adventure. :)

    A shining 4.5 stars out of 5 to The Caretaker and a strong recommendation that you read and enjoy this book. A brilliant plot, beautifully sketched characters with many facets to their personality and a depth to their persona and an intelligent piece of writing that is sure to keep you on the edge of your seats. :) This review is also available on blog Njkinny's World of Books..

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2013

    I don't usually read thrillers, but a friend mentioned this book

    I don't usually read thrillers, but a friend mentioned this book to me and it was great.  Unusual perspective -- the hero is an immigrant.  But the books is wonderfully subtle and fast-paced.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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