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June 17, 2011 10:02 pm
Last Man in Tower, by Aravind Adiga, Atlantic Books RRP£17.99, 560 pages
Land, today, has become the most valuable resource in India, lying at the dark confluence of politics, money, business and pure human avarice. With the economy growing at breakneck pace, the pressure for the acquisition and development of land has never been greater. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. As rents and property prices have skyrocketed, so has grown the public outcry against the city’s rapacious redevelopment. A veteran journalist lamented recently that every government in the region “has been the government of the builders, by the builders and for the builders”.
Aravind Adiga’s latest novel Last Man in Tower examines this sharpening crisis from the perspective of the residents of an old apartment block in north-west Mumbai. Vishram Society “is anchored like a dreadnought of middle-class respectability” in a neighbourhood populated by slums. Despite its peeling paint and 47-year-old brickwork, the grandmotherly building is spoken of with reverence because its residents “pay taxes, support charities, and vote in local and general elections”.
Yogesh Anantha Murthy, a retired schoolteacher and recent widower who is respectfully addressed as “Masterji”, is the novel’s central figure, though Adiga gives ample space to the other residents. There is Ashvin Kothari, the Society’s “strange, secretive, yet somehow sociable” secretary; internet café owner Ibrahim Kudwa who “made his nest in other people’s homes”; social worker Georgina Rego, forever being “trumped” by her richer younger sister; Ramesh Ajwani, whose “eyes were the brightest thing for sale in Vakola market”; the middle-aged Puris, struggling with their 18-year-old son with Down’s Syndrome; Albert Pinto, a retired accountant, and his semi-blind wife Shelly, who are Masterji’s oldest friends; Mary, the cleaning lady; and Ram Khare, the security guard. While the building’s floor plan is made to resemble a microcosm of India, it is the inner world of the characters, the rich tapestry of relationships, alliances and loyalties that lends the story solidity and depth. Envy, lust, loneliness, there is a lot going on behind the walls of Tower A, but most of all there is the quiet desperation of middle-class lives.
Enter Dharmen Shah, owner of the Confidence Group, who “redevelops” decrepit chawls and slums, “buying out the tenants of ageing structures so that skyscrapers and shopping malls could take their place; a task requiring brutality and charm in equal measure”.
At a time when glass and marble towers are sprouting up all over the city with names like Milano and Excelsior, Shah plans to redevelop Vishram as Confidence Shanghai, a high-rise with super-luxury apartments. His proposal of an outright purchase of all the flats at double the market rate electrifies the residents. Most are willing to accept the generous offer, to trade “the equalizing dinginess of Vishram” for greener pastures. The only exception is Masterji. “Though the men and women around him dreamed of bigger homes and cars, his joys were those of the expanding square footage of his inner life.” Shah’s largesse is accompanied by not-so-subtle threats – “The builder is the one man in Mumbai who never loses a fight” – but Masterji adamantly refuses to leave.
Greed provides the ballast for the remainder of the novel, showing how the promise of unexpected wealth spreads its poison and corrupts a community. Pretty soon all of Masterji’s former friends are “jabbing fists and lancing kicks to gouge him out of Vishram”. But “amidst the silent germination of schemes and ambitions all around”, Masterji sits “like a cyst”. Clinging to the memories of his late daughter and wife, he maintains: “If a man wants to stay in his home, then it is his freedom to do so.”
Adiga’s new novel is more contemplative than his Booker-winning The White Tiger, with its voluble, bombastic protagonist. Reflections on life in Mumbai are embellished with acute observations and sharp imagery: a door is covered by “an eczema of blue-skinned gods”, the floor is “an archipelago of newspapers and undergarments”, commuters in a train “multiplied like isotopes”, a bird trills “as if it were darning some torn corner of the world”.
It is also an indictment of the hypocritical mores of the middle class, prepared to cut corners and take recourse to “number two activities” in its hurry to move up in life. Like all cautionary tales, it embodies more than a little truth about our times.
“What is being done to this city in the name of progress?” Masterji wonders at one point. Adiga paints a moving but unsentimental portrait of Mumbai, from its overcrowded trains and arcade of Gothic buildings to its teeming slums and seedy red light district where “the pounding of steel and sex combined in the same postcode”.
Mumbai is a city “that asks at every turn, ‘What do you want?’” It is high time we put the same question to the city.
Vikas Swarup is author of ‘Q&A’ (Black Swan), which was adapted for film as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. His most recent book is ‘Six Suspects’ (Black Swan)
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