Thursday, July 17, 2014

Taking care of business

The Caretaker A.X. Ahmad
I was very excited when I heard about A.X. Ahmad's The Caretaker, for probably obvious reasons.  It's centered on a Sikh man, Ranjit Singh, former officer in the Indian army, who now works odd jobs on Martha's Vineyard, trying to take care of his family.  He works as caretaker for a rising political star, an African-American senator named Clayton Rivers Neals (Seriously, how do authors come up with names like this?  Supposedly, Clayton Rivers Neals is also from a rough area of town, which makes the name even more difficult to believe).  And then his daughter takes an old raggedy doll from the house, and suddenly he and his family are the targets of some very scary people.

I don't know many books at all in which the main characters are people of color from different cultures - here, an Indian family and an African-American one.  It's so sad, but true - how many books can you name that fit these criteria?  So I was pretty thrilled by that.  And it was nice to read a book in which the main character is dealing with the more subtle racism that you can come across in educated and wealthy circles.

So lots of strong points!  But...

But as I continued reading this book, things started to bother me.

The main one was Singh's relationship with his wife.  Singh brought his wife and daughter to Boston after being dishonorably discharged from the army.  There, they stayed with his wife's uncle and he worked in an Indian convenience store, which he hated.  So he moved his family to Martha's Vineyard and started working odd jobs, which he liked more, but meant that he didn't make enough to do much more than pay rent.  Then he made his wife and daughter live at a horrible, poorly insulated house, during a brutally cold winter.  And his wife was lonely and depressed because she missed India, so she often just sat and watched Hindi movies all day, while he worked and tried to care for their daughter.

Oh, and throughout the story, Singh has a very sexually charged relationship with the senator's beautiful and athletic wife.

This bothers me on so many levels.  Singh is supposed to be this totally upstanding, morally incorruptible man who would never put his honor at risk.  But that somehow goes out the window when he's having an affair because his wife is just so difficult to deal with?  I'm tired of this situation.  If you are supposed to be so wonderful at all things, then you should be wonderful at marriage, too.  Especially when your wife crossed an ocean, left a really comfortable home, and is now living on a tiny island in a freezing home, with just your pride in your work to keep her warm at night.

I went into this book thinking it was a mystery, but it's actually a thriller.  I don't read many thrillers, so I am not sure how they usually go, but I thought some of the key points of this one were hard to believe.  For example, at the end of the book, Singh is just on the street and then someone comes up to him saying, "You have something for us?  I was sent to collect it."  And then Singh just hands over this thing that he spent the entire book keeping safe from other people.  Just because someone told him that he was sent to collect it.

Also, some of the means used to progress the story forward were pretty clunky.  For example, a computer genius sends an email with key information about the thing referenced above.  The email reads:
"Dear Dickhead, 
Nice joke...So this is #11,078 in a set of 23,010 engineering drawings for the Agni developed by IGMDP?  Ha ha.  Very funny.  Though I did enlarge the image of the circuit and it looks pretty real to me."
Wow.  Convenient that the computer genius didn't think anything strange or note-worthy was going on here and that this was all just a joke, but just so happened to provide the information that Singh really needed.

And then Singh goes to Google and looks up words like "Agni" and "IGMDP" and finds information on the internet that is apparently super-important and makes everything clear to him.  But since this is super-secret information, he makes sure to warn the computer genius to "Tell your friend that your e-mail was a joke.  Delete the whole exchange, and don't talk to anyone."

Yeah, because that will solve everything.

So, I don't know.  I am glad that this book exists.  It's pretty clear that Singh's religion and culture are important to him, and I was glad to see the author inform readers about the Sikh religion - hopefully, that will lead to greater understanding and tolerance in future.  And I'm glad that this is a book about two people of color of different cultures.  But the women lacked dimension, and there were some hard leaps to make in the plot.

1 comment:

  1. Pity. Because you are right: It's sadly rare to read a book where there are multiple people of color from different ethnic backgrounds. Woefully rare! And I'd love it if more authors wrote books where that happened.


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