It’s every seasonal resident’s worst nightmare. What happens to your summer home when no one is around?
Consider, for example, this passage from A.X. Ahmad’s new novel, The Caretaker.
“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 Jacuzzi’s, keep goats and chicken 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”
At an author event last Wednesday at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven, Mr. Ahmad read from his debut novel. The Caretaker is a thriller, the first in a trilogy, and follows a former Sikh captain by the name of Ranjit Singh as he navigates his way through familial distress and personal trauma all within a backdrop of various immigrant communities living on the Vineyard.
Born and raised in India, A.X. Ahmad went to university in the United States, graduating from Vassar College and M.I.T., after which he worked as an architect.
“For me as an architect, the way into something is that I get interested in a place first,” he explained at the reading. “The Vineyard has always been really appealing to me as a writer. It’s this tiny Island that has all these different worlds in it. And I feel that as an immigrant, our community is both hyper-visible because we look different and yet invisible because sometimes people just don’t choose to see us.”
In addition to the various communities that populate different areas of the Island, “you have all these summer workers, immigrants that have a good time, make some money and then often go back home.”
Unlike most workers, Mr. Ahmad’s protagonist, Ranjit, doesn’t have the option of returning home to Chandigarh, a city in Punjab, India. Haunted by a past that includes a military misdemeanor during the Indian-Pakistani skirmishes within the Siatchen Glaciers, the Sikh immigrant is forced to flee with his wife and daughter to New England, where he attempts to support himself and his family by taking care of vacant Island homes during the winter months.
“For a writer it’s a great spur to the imagination,” he said. “You don’t get to see any of these beautiful houses but you do see these signs on the gateposts that say No Trespassing!”
As a caretaker Ranjit can enter a Senator’s home with just a turn of the key. He not only enters a culturally foreign landscape, but inadvertently steps into a diplomatically charged political scandal that uncovers his own shadowy past. In opening a stranger’s closet, he comes face to face with his own skeletons.
“I feel the past is constantly bleeding into the present,” Mr. Ahmad said.
Perhaps this is what makes The Caretaker so compelling. Both familiar yet ultimately surprising, Ranjit’s journey to save his family and find himself not only illustrates the difficulty of assimilating into an unpredictable and unfamiliar life, but also touches upon a universal truth about individual realization.
“I think as authors we use the emotional truths of our lives in our writing,” Mr. Ahmad said. “When I wrote this book I guess I was trying to reinvent myself and in hindsight I can see this arc in the trilogy. As an immigrant, Ranjit’s old world crumbles away and yes there are going to be ‘plots’ in specific but the larger story is him keeping his place in America while keeping some parts of himself. You can lose certain traditions but he keeps his aspects of his culture with him. The process itself can be liberating.”
And as for Ranjit’s future with the Vineyard?
“My next book takes place in New York, the other one somewhere in California. But wouldn’t that be fun to have Ranjit come back to the Vineyard? I think I’m going to need more than three books, though. Maybe in book five. If I get the readership and people will understand the reference.”
Perhaps, if the suspense doesn’t kill readers first.