A.X. AHMAD was raised in India, educated at Vassar College and M.I.T., and has worked as an international architect.
He is the author of THE CARETAKER (2013), the first in a trilogy from St. Martin’s Press featuring ex-Indian Army Captain Ranjit Singh. His second book, THE LAST TAXI RIDE, about the murder of a Bollywood actress, was published in June 2014. He is at work on the third book, THE HUNDRED DAYS.
A.X. lives in Washington DC with his wife, Jennifer Nash, Assistant Professor of American Studies at George Washington University. He splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Brooklyn, and teaches the ‘Master Novel’ class at the Bethesda Writer’s Center.
When he’s not writing, he’s either cooking or looking for the perfect cup of chai in the city. He is frequently asked where the best Indian food in DC is, and his answer is always, “For real Indian food, you have to go to New York.”
The other confusing question he gets a lot is “Where are you from?” Sometimes he says ‘Boston’ (where he lived for 20 years), sometimes he says ‘New York’ (his favorite city on the planet) and sometimes he says ‘Calcutta’, a city which no longer exists- it has been re-named Kolkata.
He is also a collector of Tintin figurines and toy wind up robots. (Yes, he had a deprived childhood in socialist India.)
If you see him scribbling away in a coffee shop, please stop by and say Hi. He’d welcome the distraction!
ON ‘THE LAST TAXI RIDE’:
The plot of THE LAST TAXI RIDE is driven by the murder of a once-famous Indian Bollywood actress. Why did you set it in New York?
As a child in India, I grew up on Bollywood movies, entranced by the melodramatic dialogues and the over-the-top song and dance sequences. Back then, nobody else watched these films, but all that has changed: Bollywood is now a global phenomenon. There are half a million South Asians living in the New York area—cab drivers, restaurant owners, investment bankers, hi-tech millionaires—and for them, Bollywood movies, music and style are a key part of their identity.
To explore this new globalized Bollywood, I created the character of Shabana Shah, an actress who was once big in India, but now lives a twilight life in New York City, hoping to make a comeback. New York is a place where she is comfortable, where she has fans, and is recognized, but things don’t turn out the way she intended…
We’ve seen cops, private eyes and spies as protagonists in crime fiction. The protagonist of your book is an Indian immigrant cab driver. Isn’t this unusual?
Crime fiction has a long tradition of outsider protagonists, people who are loners and misfits. My character, Ranjit Singh, follows this tradition. He was once a Captain in the Indian Army, but now he’s a struggling immigrant who drives a cab on the hard streets of New York.
As an immigrant, Ranjit is the ultimate outsider. He exists on the margins of society, and has to observe the world intensely, in order to learn about America, in order to survive. And when he’s accused of being involved in the murder of the Bollywood actress, he must think outside the box to save himself. He has to be very resourceful, because he has nothing to fall back on- except his army training and his network of fellow cab drivers.
And, as a cab driver, Ranjit is a foot soldier on the frontlines of New York City- he goes everywhere, he knows the hidden corners of the city, and he overhears all kinds of conversations in his cab. He sees the underbelly of the city.
Speaking of underbellies. The novel includes many hidden aspects of New York City: cab driver cafes, an importer of human hair, ‘Little Guyana’, a nightclub that employs ‘bottle girls’. How did you find out about these worlds?
New York City exists in many layers. On the surface, there is the workaday city, and the tourist version. I like to poke around in the hidden corners. I’ve been eating at cab driver cafes for years, and, because I speak Hindi and Bengali, I talk to cabbies, and they tell me amazing stories. One guy told me that he’d given a ride to a Bollywood actress, and that became the seed of this book.
I also like small, junky stores, and that’s how I discovered that the headquarters for the human hair trade is centered in nondescript offices in Midtown. (Women shave their heads in temples in India, and the processed hair makes its way here.) Then I read a newspaper article that said the human hair trade had become so valuable that thieves were breaking in to steal it- so of course, I had to research that!
I first visited ‘Little Guyana’ to eat Indo-Guyanese food, and became fascinated by the community- it both reminded me so much of India, and yet was so different. And as for nightclubs, I’m not a night owl, but I have friends who are, and they took me on a tour of the new clubs that spring up downtown, and I found this whole different world, where beautiful women are employed as ‘bottle girls’ by the clubs, to sit and drink alcohol with wealthy customers.
All these strands came together in my novel, woven together by Ranjit’s journey through New York to clear his name.
You, yourself are an immigrant, and came to America at age 17. How does this color your writing? How much of you is in Ranjit Singh?
As an immigrant, I’m always stuck between India and America, and not entirely comfortable in either. It’s a homesickness for a place and an ease of being that no longer exists.
My protagonist, Ranjit Singh, lives that duality: his life, driving a cab through the streets of New York, is hard and very real, but he’s always looking for a place of refuge, for a little slice of home. That’s why he likes to eat Indian food with his cab driver friends, and that’s why he gets involved with Leela, a young Indo-Guyanese woman- she is familiar to him, and he’s attracted to that. Yet he can’t find the refuge he is looking for, and Shabana’s murder thrusts him out into the world and forces him to battle with it.
THE LAST TAXI RIDE is the second book in a trilogy featuring Ranjit Singh. What is this trilogy trying to explore? What’s next?
The narrative arc of all three books is that of an immigrant trying to find his place in America: he moves around, and tries different jobs. In the first book he was a caretaker on Martha’s Vineyard, in this one he’s a cabbie in New York, and in the next book he’s running a motel on the border with Mexico. All he wants to do is put down roots and live a quiet life, but he’s always getting dragged into mysteries.
During these years, Ranjit’s relationships change, he battles ghosts from his past, and his young daughter becomes a teenager. Hopefully he finds some peace and a place to call home. I hope readers will want to accompany Ranjit on his journey.
ON ‘THE CARETAKER’:
So you’ve written a bunch of literary stuff. Why a thriller?
I grew up in India in the 70’s and 80’s, and it was a socialist country back then, and there wasn’t much in the bookstores. I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers: Graham Greene’s novels, Ross Macdonald’s hardboiled mysteries, Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series, and Ludlum’s original Bourne novels, which blew me away.
And I was also watching adventure movies, and it seems like there were a lot of them involved mountain climbing: The Eiger Sanction, Guns of Navarone, and Skyriders. Movies in India would play for years and years, so I’d go back and see them over and over.
When I got to the USA as an undergrad, at age 17, I hadn’t read any of the American canon, and immediately felt ashamed of my literary habits, so I ditched mysteries and thrillers and became a ‘serious’ reader.
In my 30’s I wrote a couple of literary novels, and my friends all liked them, but complained that nothing happened! A few years later I was in New York City and took a class in suspense writing with the mystery novelist Katia Lief. I turned in 20 pages, and she liked it and told me to keep on going. And Ranjit Singh appeared, with all his haunted past, and he hasn’t let me go: I’m now working on book #3.
So you could say that writing thrillers is a return to my old self!
You’re on your third career. What gives?
Well, I’m a good immigrant kid. I came to the USA and studied politics and economics at Vassar College. Towards the end I had an internship with Citibank in Dubai. I was so bored that I used to photocopy my face for fun. So I knew banking wasn’t for me, and I then got a degree in architecture from MIT. It’s a great place, and completely anarchic, and nobody tells you what to do, and I loved it. I went on to practice as an architect for over a decade, in Boston, Singapore and India. I loved seeing a building get built, and to drive past it later, and say “Hey, I did that.” But architecture involves huge teams and I’m by nature a solitary person. During all the years I was making buildings, I was still writing.
When I hit 40, I finally took a chance and started to write full time. And the discipline of architecture has served me well in my writing life- I literally design my novels and sketch out the plots.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Writing is an unusual profession. I write in coffee shops all over DC, and after about 4 or 5 hours, my mind is mush. But the characters and their moods stay with you, and it’s important to get out of the spell of the novel and back to reality. (Whatever that is; in my case, remembering to unload the dishwasher.) My solution is to walk long distances- something about walking brings me back to earth, and into my body.
I’m also a collector. A lot of it is junk, which I justify under the label ‘collage material’. But over time I’ve had a Chinese teapot collection, an old overcoat collection, toy soldiers (only a certain kind), and lately, Tintin figurines. But I now live in a tiny apartment, so I have to keep my collections under check.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t wait for someone to anoint you and tell you that you’re a writer. If you feel strongly about it, call yourself a writer- and write a lot. I think it was Malcom Gladwell who said you need about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve proficiency. Put in your time.
Why the A.X. Ahmad moniker?
A.X. is smarter than I am. He can do things I can’t do. Like answer questions for a website.