The Last Taxi Ride by A X Ahmad
The Last Taxi Ride by A X Ahmad (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the second book to feature Ranjit Singh and it proves something of a revelation. We meet our hero driving a taxi in New York. As everyone else who finds themselves trapped in this job will tell you, “It’s only temporary.” meaning there’s little chance of escape. Nevertheless, our hero knows large numbers of the drivers and, despite differences based on nationality and religion, he’s fairly well-liked by everyone. As we get underway, he’s lucky enough to pick up a very familiar figure from India. It’s none other than the Bollywood movie star Shabana Shah. Of course, taxi drivers all over New York have the chance of picking up the rich and famous, but this actress has made a real career out of natural acting, something of a rarity in Indian cinema. When he drops her off at the Dakota, he’s amazed to see an ex-colleague from his days in the Indian army. Mohan has fallen equally far down the ladder and is now a doorman. They agree to meet later that night for a drink. Later, Ranjit realises the actress has left an expensive dress in the back seat. It’s therefore convenient he should be going back to the Dakota because he can return it when he meets his friend.
The evening moves slowly because our hero has an evening job as a security guard, but it ends well because, with Shabana Shah away, Mohan shows Ranjit her apartment and they eat food from her refrigerator. When the body of Shabana Shah is found dead the following morning, her head smashed by a statue of the elephant god Ganesh, the police find Mohan and Ranjit’s fingerprints everywhere. We experienced readers should not be surprised Mohan is missing, so the police not unnaturally arrest Ranjit and propose to bring him before a grand jury to decide whether there’s a prima facie case to charge him. This gives our hero ten days in which to find Mohan and clear his name.
What follows is a twin track narrative. On one track, we follow the backstory of Shabana Shah and her family, watching as she proves to have the photogenic quality her sister lacks. This means stardom beckons for Shabana while the best her sister can hope for is the role of manager. She gets to count the money and organise her sister’s appointment diary. At first, everything seems to be going well, but problems emerge when criminals muscle into the production side and take control of the lives of the stars who can earn such large amounts of cash. Then one, and then a second film fail to find box-office success. As she ages, Shabana is forced to come to New York, but even that fails to rescue her career.
On the other, we meet Ranjit who’s trying to find his feet after all his troubles as a caretaker for a US Senator. Inevitably, he finds problems when he meets “ordinary” Americans who fail to distinguish between Sikhism and Islamic extremism indicating membership of a terrorist organisation. Now add in the antisocial hours and the difficulty of making enough money to put down as a deposit on a good place to live, and you begin to get a sense of life in New York for all the different ethnic groups who take on the job of taxi driver. The other factor is that many of the Indian and Pakistani service workers are beginning to feel the threat of violent gangsters arriving from Mumbai. Just as America has experienced waves of criminals coming from Italy, Russia, China and other slightly lawless places, Indian gangsters have also begun to realise just how much money can be made in America. But, in addition to the traditional drugs, alcohol and prostitution as sources of profit, they are also exploiting new commercial opportunities like providing human hair for wigs and hair extensions. In fact, Ranjit works as a part-tine security guard for one of these importers who, perhaps, has less than savory connections in India.
It’s fascinating to compare this book with the unsuccessful Invisible City which dealt with the Hasidic Jewish community in New York. This exploration of Indian and Pakistani immigrants (plus some Guyanese as well) is completely fascinating as our hero finds the only thing he can rely on is the fragile strength of his community. Although there’s a moment of melodrama at the end which would not be out of place in a Bollywood film, the overall tenor of the book is quietly thoughtful and entirely plausible. With everything told in crisp prose, The Last Taxi Ride delivers a genuinely pleasing package combining a reasonable mystery for us to solve all wrapped up in beautifully rendered pictures of life in India and New York.
This book was sent to me for review.