A gripping tale of hidden histories, political intrigue and dangerous attractions, The Caretaker introduces a new hero for our times: an immigrant caught between two worlds and a man caught between two loves.
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.
“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
“Ranjit Singh, the beleaguered Sikh protagonist of A.X. Ahmad’s exciting and involving debut novel is…looking to be redeemed. An ex-Indian army captain, he has taken his wife and young daughter to the U.S. to escape old-country shame. But new troubles catch up with him on Martha’s Vineyard, where he has found winter work looking after the summer homes of the rich…. “Better to do battle with the world,” Singh decides, “than to hide from it.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Ahmad… spins a cynically smart political thriller…. 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
THE CARETAKER was born out of a casual comment. I was standing on the porch of my wife’s family’s house in Martha’s Vineyard, talking to the African-American man next door. He lived on the Island year-round, and during the off season, he worked as a caretaker and looked after super luxury houses all over the island. During the depths of winter, when the Island was deserted, he would spend each evening in a different house, watching television. He told me about how elaborate these houses were- with water views and designer kitchens and closets full of clothes- yet they were only used for a few months of the year.
I thought then it would be interesting to write a novel about a caretaker; but it remained a vague thought, buried in the back of my mind. Later that summer I was in the grocery store in Vineyard Haven, and asked the blond kid who worked there where the salt was. He said, “Salt? What is salt?” I thought he was kidding, but then he told me he was from Poland. And then I realized that most of the summer labor on this staunchly old-fashioned island came from all over the world: Jamaica, Brazil and Eastern Europe. I filed that fact away, too, but didn’t know what to do with it.
The final piece of THE CARETAKER came when I happened to find a book in a used bookstore. It was Martin Sugarman’s “War Above the Clouds”, about the conflict on the Siachen Glacier, which lay between India and Pakistan. As I looked at the book’s stunning black-and-white photographs, this hidden world came to life: there, at altitudes above 20,000 feet, Indian and Pakistani troops fought each other. The images of the men in their white snowsuits haunted me, as did the photographs of the detritus of war: the grinning skulls of dead mules, and the tall shapes of frozen parachutes, which were used to drop in supplies.
The different pieces lay side-by-side, tantalizing facets, but I still had no story. Then I took a Sikh Army Captain, who had served on the Siachen Glacier, and made him into a summer worker on the Vineyard. Suddenly I had a dire situation: how was Ranjit Singh going to survive the winter on the Island?
I gave him the caretaker job, and the novel took on a life of his own. I was further spooked when I started writing Ranjit’s scenes and realized that he was haunted by a ghost from his past. There were a lot of writing challenges to follow: how does one write a ghost? And what the heck happened to the Senator’s daughter?
But now I had an entire world. I began to cannibalize my own past: the Indian store in Central Square, Cambridge, where I’d shopped for years, and my fascination with Boston’s Chinatown, which had once been an Italian neighborhood. (A plaque with Garibaldi’s profile on it remains on one of the buildings.)
I made up many environments, but memorialized others, too: Hubley’s Auction House, which is no more (the original was in Cambridge) and the much-lamented Filene’s Basmement. (Thinking that it has been replaced by a hole in the ground even now makes me very sad.) And of course, I had to weave in my alma mater, MIT, and include some computer nerds.
So, like all novels, this one was born out of disparate strands, and writing it was largely a matter of finding the connections between them. And now that I’m done, it’s strange to realize that the book is an echo of my own life: raised in India and living here, I am, like Ranjit, a ‘nowhere man’, a strange hybrid of Indian and New Englander. And like him, I am always in search of the perfect cup of chai.