by Terry Hong
“Everyone in my family is a storyteller,” A.X. Ahmad told Charlene Allen in an interview for The Brooklyn Rail. “Nobody has ever had a normal day, and the stories always started with, ‘You won’t believe what happened!’ And they would reshape the experience to make it funny, and palatable, and interesting, even when it was difficult. So, storytelling comes naturally in that way.” Ahmad, therefore, had decades of practice before he finally shared his stories publicly, when he published his first novel, The Caretaker, at age 45. When it hit shelves in May 2013, The Caretaker introduced readers to Ranjit Singh, perhaps the only Sikh American immigrant crime-solving protagonist in print. But between Ahmad’s story-ed childhood in India and his debut as a bonafide writer with an initial two-book contract from a major publisher (Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press), Ahmad had several lives to live before his peripatetic hero arrived in bookstores around the world.
Born in Kolkata, India, Ahmad’s upbringing included stopovers in Mumbai, Hyderabad, and a boarding school in the Himalayan foothills, until at 17, he landed stateside as an undergrad at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. He studied politics and economics—“I’m a good immigrant kid,” he insists—and interned with Citibank in Dubai. But he wasn’t that good: “I was so bored that I used to photocopy my face for fun. So I knew banking wasn’t for me.” He left the financial world and headed back to New England where he got an architecture degree at MIT—“completely anarchic,” he calls the lofty institution, where “nobody tells you what to do.” Again, Ahmad went mobile, creating buildings in cities around the world, including back in India, as well as Singapore. That he could drive by a structure and say, “’Hey, I did that,’” kept him architecting for some 15 years.
As he moved between projects, cities, careers, he never lost sight of his storytelling roots. He began writing stories and poems as a child, creatively fueled by doses of mysteries, thrillers, and adventure movies. “I grew up in India in the ’70s and ’80s, and it was socialist country back then, and there wasn’t much in the bookstores.” As an immigrant student with access to larger libraries, he morphed into a “‘serious’ reader” of the American canon. While he excelled as an international architect, he managed to take writing classes at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and GrubStreet in Boston; he got up to compose in the wee hours of the morning before he went off to make buildings. His essays and short stories began appearing in print: he was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award and was listed in Best American Essays. He published then as Amin Ahmad, his given name; his better known A.X.-moniker was yet to come.
Somehow, in the midst of real life, Ahmad even managed to write a couple of literary novels: “[M]y friends all liked them but complained that nothing happened!” Perhaps because those first attempts remained dormant, Ahmad went from literary to genre, enrolling in a class in suspense writing at The New School with mystery novelist Katia Lief: “I turned in 20 pages, and she liked it and told me to keep on going. And Ranjit Singh appeared.”
And so did the newly mysterious A.X. Ahmad. “When I wrote for literary magazines, under my own name, agents often read my literary work and were interested in it, but when I told them I was working on a suspense novel, they seemed to quickly lose all interest!” he explained in an online “Tête-à-Tête” with Suprose. “I came to realize that there was a huge split between the literary world and the genre world. So when I sent out my suspense novel, I chose to call myself ‘A.X. Ahmad.’ I figured that way, readers wouldn’t get the two genres confused. And in the future, if I write something literary, I can use ‘Amin Ahmad.’ It can be an open secret, but the name on the book can signal to readers what they’re getting.” He adds—showing his hybrid thriller-and-canonical reading backgrounds—“My model here is the literary writer John Banville, who writes amazing mysteries under the pen name Benjamin Black.”
Motivated by his protagonist and authorial alter-ego, Ahmad finally decided to write full time: 40 proved to be his magic number. Five years later, A.X. Ahmad and Ranjit Singh debuted together in The Caretaker, the first in a trilogy-in-the-making. Caretaker is a novel full of Very Important Topics to deliberate and dissect—from post-9/11 profiling to military cover-ups, itinerant illegal immigrant workers, racial and socioeconomic hierarchies, political elites, the Pakistan/India divide, the North Korean threat, not to mention the more mundane issues like infidelity, mental instability, and the overprivileged lives of the rich and famous—all reaching boiling point together in one blood-pressure cooker of a ride. The fast-paced, dual-timed narrative moves back and forth between a disputed glacier border 20,000 feet up in the sky, down to an exclusive island getaway on the other side of the world, following the past and present lives of former Sikh Indian Army Captain Ranjit Singh.
Forced to flee his native India after a tragic military disaster, Ranjit eventually arrives with his wife and daughter—all undocumented immigrants—on posh Martha’s Vineyard, hoping to ride out the off-season with multiple caretaking jobs for luxury homes. Unable to afford to keep his family in even a disintegrating rental, Ranjit risks temporarily relocating to the waterfront estate of one of his wealthy clients, a Massachusetts Senator, just for a few days while he attempts to arrange alternative accommodations. The family’s plush enjoyment is interrupted when two men enter in the middle of the night, setting in motion a chain of runaway events from betrayal to deportation to murder. Guided by the ghost of a fellow Indian officer and assisted by a terminally ill American veteran, Ranjit’s survival depends on an antique doll, a computer-savvy relative-by-marriage, and an override alarm code of BLUESKY.
Finally, Ahmad’s decades of storytelling practice paid off: he’s not undocumented, he’s not Sikh, he’s not a former military officer, but he sure can tell convincing tales. He culled together numerous personal experiences, he told The New York Times, to create The Caretaker: location was inspired by his wife’s family’s home on the Vineyard where summer laborers are mostly immigrants; Ranjit’s Vineyard job was a nod to a family friend who “looks after many super-luxury homes . . . that lie empty most of the year”; and Ranjit’s military past came by way of a book featuring black-and-white photographs of the Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas, in which Ahmad “was stunned to find that India and Pakistan were fighting each other in this remote, freezing cold world of ice and snow.” As for Ranjit being Sikh, 9/11 gave Ahmad a “real-world incident” in his Cambridge neighborhood supermarket from which to begin his story: “[A] lot of the cashiers were Sikhs. They were very scared that they would be mistaken for terrorists, so one man had put a large sticker of the American flag on the front of his turban . . . Sikhs, with their beards and turbans, are hyper-visible in America at a time when people are more and more xenophobic. In my book, I wanted to explore what it felt like to be an immigrant in post-9/11 America, and so I chose a Sikh protagonist.”
In another interview, this time for the blog Colorlines, Ahmad expounded further on his protagonist as “a lightning rod for all sorts of hidden currents in American society.” Ahmad often uses the phrase “man of honor” in describing his good Captain: “[S]o I made him a highly principled soldier. He now has to survive as an undocumented immigrant in America, which set up all sorts of conflicts for his code of honor. . . . For readers who are immigrants, I hope they will recognize in Ranjit some of their own experience. For other readers, I wanted to go beyond the shell of foreignness and otherness, and let them experience being in Ranjit’s skin. With any luck, the next time they see a Sikh or a Mexican laborer sweating while trimming hedges, their reaction will be tempered by empathy.”
Hedge-trimmer no more, Ranjit leaves behind his duties as The Caretaker and returns for another thrill-ride of corruption and intrigue in the murderous lives of the power-elite. This time, in The Last Taxi Ride, which pubs June 24, Ranjit is a seasoned New York City cabbie, divorced and living solo in a Queens basement, waiting out the final three weeks until his teenage daughter Shanti arrives from India to spend a trial year with him. One humid August afternoon, he picks up a woman in a white dress whom he recognizes as former Bollywood megastar Shabana Shah, whose fame has already peaked in a fickle youth-worshipping industry. When he drops her off at the legendary apartment building, The Dakota, the doorman—initially trying to get the cab off the posh premises as quickly as possible—recognizes Ranjit as Captain Singh, and his insults instantly turn into teary open arms. What seem like doubly fortunate coincidences too soon land Ranjit on the wrong side of the law, accused in the gruesome murder of the Bollywood star. Ranjit’s doorman buddy is the only person who can clear Ranjit’s good name, but Mohan’s suddenly gone missing. More than his freedom, Ranjit’s long-awaited reunion with his beloved daughter fuels his determination to find the real killer. Once more, Ahmad intertwines a double narrative set some 20 years apart, seamlessly moving between the mafia-controlled glamour of Mumbai’s Bollywood to the invisible-in-clear-view immigrant service world of multi-culti New York City. From oversized city rats to the designer-clad two-legged variety, from Dubai mansions to hidden Chinatown backrooms, from human hair to Prada couture, Ahmad lives up to his heart-thumping A.X.-moniker once again.
With novel #2 on its way to bookstores, Ahmad revealed that Ranjit is westward-bound in the final installment, which takes him to a Sikh farming community in Northern California. Called The Hundred Days, Ahmad told The New York Times that Ranjit, now a motel manager, “gets involved with a plot involving a white supremacist group.” Uh-oh. So much for a bucolic reprieve.
With the trilogy almost finished, Ahmad will certainly be in search of his next big adventure. While he’s currently settled [for now] in Washington, DC—where he writes most mornings at the same neighborhood café in longhand (no computer distractions allowed!)—his upcoming book tour should fling him far and wide. Given his tendency to create fiction from real life, who knows what he’ll put into his future titles. Beware of too much chit-chat when A.X. signs your book . . . lest you end up his next inspiration!
Terry Hong’s previous features: Pauline A. Chen and The Red Chamber: “To finish the story for myself…”, Don Lee’s Pure Stories, Kim Thúy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader, Vision and Reinvention: Julie Wu’s The Third Son, Nina Schuyler: “Like most writers, I work at the edges of the day”, “To transform suffering into art”: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan