An ex-military officer with a haunted past. A Senator on the way to the White House with secrets to kill for. A mourning mother. A lonely wife.
The debut novel, The Caretaker penned by A.X. Ahmad has all the right elements and yet, apropos of the same, the book only ends being an average thriller with a predictable plot, and the characters who turn out to be more or less stereotypical. A commander of the elite army squad, Ranjit Singh leads a mission to hunt down the enemy in one of the world’s harshest and coldest terrains, the Siachen Glacier. But one mistake not only brings him disrepute but ends up compromising the life of his men.
Now, running away from his past, Ranjit Singh finds a new life at Martha’s Vineyard, taking care of the vacation homes of the rich and famous. However, life is not easy and unable to make the ends meet, Ranjit Singh takes an ill-fated decision to secretively move his family into the house of one of his clients, an African-American Senator. Trouble once again enters the paradise and their idyllic world is shattered when someone breaks into the house of the Senator looking for an antique porcelain doll. Unable to find the doll, they realize that someone is illegally staying at the place and discover the identity of Ranjit Singh and his family. A chase begins. They want something that Ranjit has, but Ranjit is not willing to hand it over so easily.
Digging deeper, Ranjit realizes it all connects to India and Pakistan and the Senator’s secretive past. Joining forces with the Senator’s wife and his lover, Anna, Ranjit gets embroiled into a deeper conspiracy where everyone plays their moves with precise calculation. And Ranjit Singh seems to be the only one who appears to be clueless. Fighting against time to save his family from deportation, he must come to terms with his past. The narrative moves fluidly between the past and the present, between Ranjit Singh’s mission in India and his hunt to save his family in the present.
Despite having all the makings of a hit Bollywood movie, the plot loses its grip mid-way and the reader guesses the complexities thrown in the way of the protagonist before the protagonist realizes it. Once a celebrated hero, Ranjit Singh now relies on his dead Sergeant for the directions which sound rather unrealistic. So, is the portrait of most of the characters, Anna – a lonely wife who seeks comfort in the arms of the caretaker and far from realistic, her character shifts to extremities pretty quickly, Preetam – another depressed wife who virtually plays no role in the narrative, James – another war veteran who plays no role in the narrative except to crowd the book, the Senator – an ambitious politician who rather turns out to be a dud. It is ultimately his patronizing attitude towards his wife, towards Anna which is most problematic. He is not a man of many layers – his worldview is more or less Manichean.
However, not just another thriller; the book is also a reflection on the life of immigrants in the U.S. Ranjit Singh, proud to be a Sikh, refuses to part away with his turban which subjects him to constant scrutiny by the police and civilians alike. As soon as he takes off his turban, the scrutiny ceases, and he easily becomes one of them. Preetam, nostalgic about her life in India, fails to fit in. She complains to her husband, “It’s just…It’s just that these women, they all look at me as if I’m so strange…One woman asked me when I learned to speak English. I told her that I grew up speaking English, that I went to a convent school, but she acted like she didn’t believe me, and…”
The narrative moves half-way around the globe and yet, not able to chalk out a promising antagonist. For all his talk and show of power, the villain in the book falls apart in the span of two to three pages. The book promises the global conspiracy to the reader, and though it has one, it’s just not that promising. As the author confuses the Indian and the American military ranking system, it becomes a bit frustrating. All in all, the book is a one-time read at the most and can be given a go-by, if one is searching for a fast-paced thriller.