23 May 2013

Spotlight and Guest Post: A. X. Ahmad (The Caretaker): On Writing and Cooking

It's always exciting to discover a debut author who is quietly garnering high praise from print media and bloggers alike. A. X. Ahmad's The Caretaker is a literary thriller that doubles as a immigrant story.

Here is a quick summary of the premise. Ranjit Singh is an ex-captain in the Indian Army who has fled to the United States with his wife and daughter to escape his past. He is now working as the off-season caretaker for a senator on Martha's Vineyard. Plagued by hallucinations stemming from a traumatic event in his past and trying to cope with his wife's worsening depression, Ranjit is far removed from the America that's paved with gold.

When the furnace in his house goes out, Ranjit moves his family into the now-empty senator's house until he can see to the repairs. Unfortunately, the house is robbed, pulling the Singhs into a deadly game of political intrigue. Ranjit must evade the bad guys while figuring out what they think he knows, and at the same time, he must protect his family and hide his own misdoings.

When I first met A. X. Ahmad through e-mail, I learned that we shared something in common: a love of food and cooking. When talking about a possible guest post for Beth Fish Reads, Amin immediately suggested that he write about the role food plays in his fiction. A perfect match for me, my blog, and my readers! I hope you enjoy his post as much as I do.

On Writing and Cooking

I have a confession to make: I'm obsessed with novels that involve food and cooking. And until I wrote my first novel, I never really realized why.

Ranjit Singh, the protagonist of my debut novel, The Caretaker, knows how to cook only one Indian dish: khitchri, a mixture of spices, lentils, rice and vegetables.

He learns to make it in the Indian Army, where he cooks it high up in the mountains, in the midst of a war. When he moves to America and lives on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, he cooks it to feed his depressed wife and young daughter. Later on, when his world falls apart and he’s in hiding, he scrounges the ingredients and cooks it again, savoring every bite.

In the book, I describe, step by step, how Ranjit makes khitchri: meticulously sautéing the spices, then the onions, measuring out rice and lentils, adding hot water, and finally, potatoes and peas. If you, the reader, follow each step, you can probably cook it, too.

When I wrote the book, I wasn’t sure why I included all these details. Only later did I realize the connection between cooking and my character. Ranjit Singh is a poor illegal immigrant in a new country but is too proud to admit that he’s homesick for India. His wife deals with her alienation by losing herself in Indian movies, but Ranjit clings to his roots by making and remaking khitchri, the one dish that he knows.

Cooking reveals character. That was my revelation. As writers, we create characters by showing the choices that they make: and what is more fundamental than the way we choose to feed ourselves?

I’m writing this at my favorite coffee shop in Washington, D.C. I come here every day. As soon as I walk through the door, they start making my breakfast: a turkey-and-onion omelet with whole wheat toast. Strawberry jam on the side. No butter. I sit at my usual table, and eat while I write.

I wonder what that says about me.
I've just started Amin's debut novel, but I can tell you right now that I plan to give khitchri a try. Indian spices with perfectly cooked lentils and rice sounds like the ultimate comfort food. No wonder Ranjit craves it.

As for Amin's breakfast? I'm not sure what it says about him, but I think I'm going to have to ask for the name of that coffee shop next time I'm Washington, D.C.

Buy The Caretaker at an indie or other bookstore near you.
Minotaur Books, 2013
ISBN-13: 9781250016843

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).


bermudaonion 5/23/13, 11:11 AM  

I love this guest post! I wonder what the fact that I'm not cooking much these days says about my character?

rhapsodyinbooks 5/23/13, 12:14 PM  

What a great post! However, what a shame I went to the grocery store *before* reading it, because now I totally want to make some khitchri! Well, I should probably read the book first to get the amounts right, but it sounds right up my alley! (i.e., both the book and the food!)

Swapna 5/23/13, 1:56 PM  

What a thought provoking idea! I hope you enjoy THE CARETAKER as much as I did.

(Diane) bookchickdi 5/24/13, 7:51 AM  

Such an interesting revelation about character and cooking. I have heard good things about this book, it looks like I'll have to add it to my TBR pile.

Julie P. 5/24/13, 2:34 PM  

I can tell from this guest post that I will appreciate his writing and especially his food themes.

Christine 5/25/13, 9:25 AM  

This book sounds both delightfully rich in character and compelling. So glad you brought it to my attention.. I'm putting on the list!

If you find out the name of the DC coffee shop, please share!

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