Last Man in Tower, By Aravind Adiga
There is a Dickensian breadth to this novel of Mumbai life, and the conflict between the haves and have-lesses
Sunday 12 June 2011
In Mumbai, property development is a serious business. Sometimes deadly serious.
Prime land is costly; human life is cheap. The Vishram Society is a middle-class housing co-operative based in a block to the city's east. The area has become intensely desirable, and property developer Dharmen Shah is determined to tear Vishram down and replace it with luxury apartments. Yet not all Vishram's residents are willing to be bought out, despite Shah's generous offers. Opposition centres around Yogesh Murthy, nicknamed "Masterji", an obdurate retired teacher and widower.
Aravind Adiga is most famous, of course, for his Booker prize-winning novel The White Tiger. It told the story of a downtrodden servant who was willing to go to shocking extremes to get the better of his masters. Subtle it wasn't, but the savage energy of its satire could not be ignored. Adiga's next volume, Between the Assassinations, was a collection of stories set in a fictitious southern Indian town, also focussing on poverty and corruption. In it, Adiga's facility with language came further to the fore in a series of evocative cameos that captured the town's stagnation.
Last Man in Tower retains The White Tiger's dynamism and adds some of the finesse of Between the Assassinations. When it comes to plot, Adiga takes no chances, baiting no fewer than three hooks. Though Masterji's chances of blocking the development are not good, it cannot be certain that Shah will prevail. It is unclear, too, whether Shah's chronic bronchitis will do for him before he can buy out all of Vishram's residents. Moreover – like so many Mumbai tower blocks – Vishram itself is in a precarious state. After decades of neglect and lashings from monsoons, it could collapse at any moment and make losers of everyone.
If the main players in The White Tiger were overly archetypal, here Adiga offers more complexity. Each of his main characters is floundering. Shah arrived in Mumbai with 10 rupees to his name, but his rise has come at a cost. His respiratory system has been wrecked by the dust and dirt of his construction sites, and Mumbai's dire pollution. His relentless drive is destroying his health, but he cannot stop himself. There is strife in his private life. He is well aware that his attractions for his mistress Rosie, a wannabe Bollywood star, are entirely financial, and when his son, Satish, gets into trouble with the police, Shah lacks the moral authority to dissuade him from hooliganism, given his own woeful example.
Masterji, meanwhile, values civility, decency and his memories of his wife above monetary gain, but he is also an unpleasant martinet. When bereavement makes him seek refuge in the Hinduism he previously spurned, this vulnerability makes him more appealing. Nonetheless, his opposition to Shah starts to resemble nihilism, rather than an exercise of virtuous principle.
Last Man in Tower is most obviously ambitious in the breadth of its subject matter. It is a cliché to observe that contemporary Indian novels often have a Dickensian aspect, in their purview of seething city life dominated by fearful contrasts between wealth and squalor. Adiga is Dickensian, however, in the extent of his cast. Around his two main characters he marshals more than 20 others, mainly Vishram's residents and their servants. Among these memorable figures are the pugnacious social worker Georgina Rego, the insecure internet café proprietor Ibrahim Kudwa, Vishram's slum-dwelling cleaner Mary and the co-op's mysterious administrative secretary Ashvin Kuthani.
The brutal cynicism of Adiga's previous work has been tempered here by an ambivalent acknowledgement of the benefits which India's rise is bringing to its growing middle class. The spread of affluence is a process as impersonal as it is pervasive; certainly, if Shah wasn't around, another developer would step in to tempt Vishram's residents with riches. Even so, he is something of a Satan. "You have to respect human greed," he says, as he recasts the world for Vishram's inhabitants entirely in terms of money and what it can buy them. And their new world is a place where a man who spurns materialism is both anachronism and hindrance to his fellows.
Dominating the narrative is Mumbai itself, once again one of the mightiest cities on earth. The macrocosm for the novel is the countless millions of workers who endure nightmarishly crammed commuter trains each day and pack themselves into teeming communal housing each evening. But we are also taken to the fragile democracy of Versova Beach, where bankers and film producers jog alongside homeless people performing their ablutions; to the foetid slums, opulent high-rises, venerable temples; and in and around streets packed with a kaleidoscopic range of inhabitants. Adiga lays out this most frenetic of megalopolises before us, by turns fascinating, sensual and horrifying, as his writing takes an impressive step onwards.
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