In any big city, there are worlds within worlds. In A. X. Ahmad’s New York, the focus is on the one centered in Jackson Heights, Queens. This is the heart of the South Asian subculture, home to Indian and Pakistani cabbies and service workers — and the violent Mumbai gangsters who prey on them.
Ahmad’s latest novel, the second in a proposed trilogy, once again features Ranjit Singh. Singh is a divorced and disgraced Indian Army captain who, after the adventures of Ahmad’s first thriller, “The Caretaker,” is now driving a taxi in New York.
As a Sikh, Singh wears a turban for religious reasons and is subject to a fair amount of post-9/11 paranoia and racism. But when Shabana, an aging but still beautiful Bollywood star, gets into his cab, he is transported — briefly — back to his youth.
After she leaves an expensive dress in his taxi, he has a reason to swing back to the Dakota, the prestigious building where she is now living. It’s summer, sweltering, and Shabana has already left for the Hamptons. But an old Army buddy of Singh’s is working as a doorman, and he invites Singh in to drink and feast, literally, on Shabana’s leftovers.
If this all seems too easy, it is. The next morning, Singh is arrested as an accessory to murder. His former friend has supposedly murdered Shabana, who reportedly was his lover, and disappeared. To complicate matters further, the arresting officers are also asking about Singh’s occasional second job, guarding deliveries for a shady importer (who may have underworld ties), and their questions imply a connection between the deliveries and the dead star.
Out on bail, and with his teenage daughter coming for a trial stay, Singh has days to find his friend and clear himself without attracting the attention of the Mumbai mob. And as he feels himself falling for a sexy Guyanese bar girl, he takes on the responsibility not only for her safety, but also that of her mother and young son, who are in the country illegally.
Without recourse to official resources, Singh draws on his almost-forgotten former self, the discipline of his religion and his army background. He also learns he can rely on his community, specifically the informal network of cabbies who can locate just about anybody in the five boroughs.
Himself an Indian immigrant, the Brooklyn, N.Y., and Washington, D.C.-based Ahmad does a wonderful job of conveying the vibrant underworld that has become Singh’s new life. As the action unfolds in the old garages and cheap ethnic restaurants where the cabbies congregate and where jailhouse lawyers hold meetings in back rooms, he builds a vision of a city that is more “Slumdog Millionaire” (or “Dirty Pretty Things”) than “Manhattan,” a parallel universe where Indians and Pakistanis may get along (as long as cricket isn’t involved) but where the NYPD cannot be trusted.
While the immigrant perspective isn’t new to crime fiction, the South Asian one is unusual, and its complications — both from organized crime and the authorities — put the burden of proof firmly on the amateur detective.
This take also offers an intriguing glimpse inside the South Asian immigrant experience, rich in flavors and expressions that can conjure a memory or throw a character back in time. Ahmad plays up these evocations well, alternating his current-day story, as the clock ticks on Singh’s desperate investigation, with flashbacks to Shabana’s youth, a narrative that will gradually explain how she came to be in New York.
Both threads ultimately come together in the kind of melodramatic finale that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bollywood musical, with star-crossed lovers, feats of daring, and a dawn face-off to the sound of tablas. Still, as one villain says right at the end, his gun trained on Singh, “This isn’t Mumbai, this is New York.”