Last Man in Tower by Arvind Adiga
Within a few minutes of arriving at Mumbai airport, passengers get their first experience of the gulf between poverty and wealth in this city.
Right on the fringes of gleaming business districts and five star hotels lie some of the Mumbai’s largest slum settlements.
The contradictions of the new India – and particularly its sprawling metropolis of Mumbai – form the background to Aravind Adiga’s novel Last Man in Tower.
Amid the slums of the Vakola district sits Tower A, a block of apartments that is a relic from the Vishram Society, a co-operative housing society established in the 1950s. Its residents pride themselves on their respectability and their spirit of comradeship.
Though it’s not much to look at with its “rainwater-stained, fungus-licked grey’ facade and the tenants regularly complain about the unreliable water supply, they still consider Tower a model of a middle class abode. It’s a ‘pucca’ place to live in their eyes.
Not that they wouldn’t just as happily change it for an even swankier dwelling if the price was right.
When Dharmen Shah, an ambitious property developer, offers to buy each flat for a sum of money beyond the tenant’s wildest dreams, the residents immediately plan how they could use this new found wealth.
Mr and Mrs Pinto will send some of the money to their children in America, Mrs Puri will get a better home in which to care for her 18 year son who was born with Down’s syndrome; social worker Georgina Rego, sees a way to “trump” her well-to-do sister while the Vishram Society secretary Kothari realises he can once again live in sight of the flamingos of his youth, obliterating “all the wasted decades in between.”
Just one problem lies in their way.
Or rather one man.
Long-standing tenant, retired schoolteacher known as “Masterji”, decides that no matter how much money Shah offers him, he will not sell his apartment. It holds too many memories of the daughter killed in a railway accident and his, now dead, beloved wife.
Masterji quickly becomes the linchpin of opposition to Shah’s plans, persuading a few of his closest friends in the tower to reject the offer. Unless all of them sign, the deal will fall through.
The battle ground is drawn. Shah deploys his “left-hand man” Shanmugham to ‘persuade’ the tenants to turn on Masterji and get him to cave in. Will Shah’s strong arm tactics prevail or will Masterji stick to his principles? Which will prove the strongest driving force: sentimentality or material desire?
Last Man in Tower warmed on me ever so gradually. Initially I found the slightly comic tone used to introduce the characters rather irritating. They felt more like stereotypes than real people. That does however change as the novel gets fully into its stride.
There were some touches of humour that worked well, particularly the scenes where the residents gather on plastic chairs to meet as a “Parliament”, the seriousness of this event undermined by the necessity for each parliamentarian to lift their feet clear of one tenant’s dirty laundry water.
But about half way through the novel became far more interesting as Adiga ratchets up the tension and forces us to switch our allegiances, not once but several times. Masterji is initially presented as a sympathetic character who spends his afternoons breathing in the scent of his wife’s clothing but then doubts crept in about whether his highly principled stance is in fact selfish. He is denying his neighbours a brighter future.
And yet these neighbours are not exactly squeaky clean people themselves. As the money looks to be slipping from their grasp, their behaviour deteriorates. Their frustrations are understandable. Mumbai is a city where everything is already for sale:
In the continuous market that runs right through southern Mumbai, under banyan trees, on pavements, beneath the arcades of the Gothic buildings, in which food, pirated books, perfumes, wristwatches, meditations beads, and software are sold, one question is repeated, to tourists and locals, in Hindi or in English: What do you want?
Shah’s offer simply means another opportunity for a trade is opened up. This is in a city being transformed into a landscape of silvery skyscrapers at dizzying speed. The residents just want a piece of the action. If they don’t grasp Shah’s offer now they could lose out forever.
What Adiga shows is how their desire for a better future quickly becomes greed that drives them to behave more and more maliciously. Gossip and mutterings are set aside in favour of ostracising the teacher. When that doesn’t work, they resort to some particularly vicious actions.
In essence this is a novel about the nature of personal corruption and what it takes to turn perfectly decent law abiding citizens into nasty, monstrous creatures.
Along the way Adiga takes a pop at some of the flaws within his native India: the corruption that allows people with ambition and money the ability to thrive for example, and the ineffectiveness of the police, legal system and the media to step in and aid people like Masterji.
Is this a fair portrayal of Mumbai? All I can really go on to answer that is some newspaper reports I saw while visiting the city a few times in recent years. Every time I arrived, it was to see yet more apartment blocks and business districts. Yet the slums were just as much in evidence.
Aravind Adiga: Key Facts
- Aravind Adiga was born in 1974 in what is now called Chennai, and grew up in the south of India.
- He was educated at Columbia University in New York and Magdalen College, Oxford.
- His debut novel, The White Tiger, (review) won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2008.
- Last Man in Tower is his second novel, published in 2011.