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.
About the author
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, (the link is to my review) won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2008. Last Man in the Tower, is his second novel, published in 2011.
The God of Small Things, the debut (and to date sole) novel by Arundhati Roy sparked a hoo-ha when it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 1979. A lawyer from Kerala (Roy’s home state in India and the setting for the book) filed a complaint of obscenity against the author. Reviews in the USA were extremely positive but those in the UK, less so. The Chairman of the Booker judges, Gillian Beer, a professor of English literature at Cambridge praised the book for its ”extraordinary linguistic inventiveness” but some commentators said it was too popularist. One previous Booker judge called the novel “execrable” and The Guardian newspaper labelled it “profoundly depressing”.
Was I reading a completely different novel to the one read by the UK critics? I’d agree that The God of Small Things is not an ‘uplifting’ book – it’s one you read it with a sense of sadness for the characters whose lives take a turn for the worse. But depressing? No way. It’s thoughtful, insightful and an often funny tale of the decline and fall of the dysfunctional Kochamma family who “tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.” As for the allegation of ‘popularism’ I’d be mightily offended by that if I were the author for it’s a term that suggests a kind of book that can be read without taxing the brain too much wheras Roy’s novel is full of ideas and questions about the caste system, communism and family loyalty. Added to this are the insights we gain into aspects of life in Kerala including the growth of Communism and the tradition of the Kathakali dance.
The novel opens with one of the members of the Kochamma family returning to her childhood home at Ayemenen House in Kerala at the southernmost tip of India. This is where Rahel (one half of the Kochamma “two-egg twins” ) lived for seven years with her brother Estha and their proud, beautiful mother Ammu who bears the stain of a divorce from her alcoholic, violent husband. Other residents include the twins’ blind grandmother Mammachi, their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, serial womaniser) and their great-aunt Baby Kochamma. Ayemenen House was once an elegant property befitting the proprietors of a successful chutney and pickle business but by the time of Rahel’s return the gardens are overgrown, the windows are filthy, the corpses of insects litter the rooms and grease dulls the shine of the doorknobs. The only occupants are Baby Kochamma, now a fat old woman who spends her days sprawled on a sofa watching soap operas beamed in via a huge satellite dish, her maid and Estha, now a young man who refuses to speak.
It’s Estha that Rahel has come to visit. They were inseparable as children, thinking of themselves
… together as Me, and separately, individually as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
For the first seven years of their life they rode above the antagonisms and tensions of the household with a blend of affection and inexhaustible energy. But when Chacko decides to bring his estranged wife and his daughter Sophie Mol to Ayemenen for Christmas, the twins are jolted into a realisation that their mother’s love cannot be taken for granted. Their ensuing jealousy of Sophie Mol has tragic consequences.
Twenty-five years have passed since Rahel and Estha last saw each other. It the night Sophie drowned in a river. What happened that night, what part the twins played and why Sophie’s death had such damaging consequences for the family is something we learn only in fragments “resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.” Roy’s reconstruction of the past is a circuitous one, told via flashbacks and foreshadowings whose significance becomes apparent only when all the strands come together at the end of the novel.
It could make for a deeply frustrating read but what captivated me and sustained my interest throughout was the exuberance of the characters and the richness of the writing itself. The twins’ private language is a case in point. They love all forms of word play, including reading backwards, but particularly the one where they take words and phrases uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version. Instructed for example to be good ‘Ambassadors of India’, when they meet Sophie Mol at the airport, they instantly adopt new titles as ‘Ambassador E. Pelvis’ (reflecting Estha’s love of pointy shoes and quiffed hairstyle) and Ambassador S. (stick) Insect’ (for the moth disovered by her father that flutters in Rahel’s heart). On the way home they give a rendition of the song they’ve been taught to sing in welcome:
RejOice in the Lo-Ord Or-Orlways
And Again I say re-jOice
Their Prer NUN sea ayshun was perfect
This is writing that dances and sparkles with nonsensical rhymes, jokes and rogue capital letters that perfectly capture the effervescent nature of the twins, often with tremendous comic effect.
The twins of course are at the heart of the novel. It is their reaction to Sophie Mol’s visit that provide the impetus for Sophie’s death and for a revelation about their mother’s love affair with Velutha, an Untouchable, that will be her and her family’s undoing. But my favourite character is Baby Kochamma, a woman who in her youth fell in love with a Roman Catholic priest and converted to his faith to try and win him. Embittered by her failure she degenerates into a mean, resentful figure who loves nothing more than stirring up trouble for everyone else. So determined is she to protect her family’s reputation from the shame of Ammu’s forbidden love, that she fabricates a story that Velutha is a rapist and a child abductor just so he can be got out of the way. The grossness of this woman’s mind is matched by her physical presence.
In the old house on the hill Baby Kochamma sat at the dining table rubbing the thick, frothy bitterness out of an elderly cucumber. She was wearing a limp, checked, seersucker nightgown with puffed sleeves and yellow tumeric stains. Under the tale she swing her tiny, manicured feet, like a small child on a high chair. They were puffy with oedema like little foot-shaped air cushions. …
She was eighty three. Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses. … Her hair, dyed jetblack, was arranged across her scalp like unspooled thread. The dye had saine the skin of her forehead a pale grey, giving her a shadowy second hairline. .. A sly touch of rouge. And because the house was locked and dark and because she only believed in 40 watt bulbs, her lipstick mouth had shifted slightly off her real mouth.
With characterisation this glorious, with language that dances and dazzles and with a story that mingles sadness with joy, The God of Small Things has become one of the best novels I’ve read all year.
About the book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy was published by Flamingo in the UK in 1997. It went on to win the Booker Prize in 1997, was listed as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year that same year and reached fourth position on the New York Times Bestsellers list for Independent Fiction.
About the author: The God of Small Things is semi-autobiographical, reflecting Arundhati Roy’s childhood experiences in Aymanam, Kerala. Though its success gave her financial security she turned her back on fiction writing to devote herself to political activism. She is a spokesperson of the anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and a vehement critic of neo-imperialism and U.S. foreign policy. Late in 2016 Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India announced she was working on a new novel – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – with a publication date of June 2017.
Why I read this book: It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I hadn’t got around to reading.
It concerns Gustad Noble. The surname is significant for this is a fairly ordinary guy who tries to do the decent thing by his family and an old friend and ends up embroiled in a political scandal.
As the book opens Noble is working as a bank clerk and trying to deal with the problems posed by his offspring. His daughter Roshan has a mysterious illness and his son Sohrab has won a college scholarship to just about the best university India can offer but, to his parent’s dismay, refuses to accept it. Such problems pale into insignificance however when Gustad receives a letter from his old friend Major Bilimoria. The major works for Indira Ghandi’s secret police and asks Gustad for some help by collecting and depositing large sums of money into an account in a false name at the bank where he works. Scandal erupts when Bilimora is arrested under suspicion he was using the money to aid guerrillas in East Pakistan.
The experience shakes Gustad’s faith in his friend and opens his eyes to political corruption in the highest echelons of government. Gustav survives although around him the country is in turmoil when the war with Bangladesh escalates.
Such a Long Journey is a finely textured look at what happens to an honest, modest guy gets compromised by events he doesn’t understand. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai with its noise and poverty and into the heart of one corner of the city, the apartments of Khodadad where Nobel and his family lives. This is 1971 and a time of upheaval in the country but in the community of Khodadad, the difficulties are of a more domestic nature, sometimes uncomfortable in nature (especially when they taunt and tease Tehmul, who is a physically and mentally disabled man with the character of a boy) but often with gentle humour (the scenes where Gustad brings home a live chicken to feed his family are hilarious).
This is a novel populated with real people, they bicker with their neighbours, they hide long term illness beneath a veneer of bravado and resort to magical potions and rituals. But just like Gustad Noble they are simply trying to do their best for their family and their friends and to negotiate the difficult world around them.
Such a Long Journey is, in short, a wonderful novel. I’ve seen comments that it’s not as good as A Fine Balance which is magic to my ears since I also have that on my shelves to read.
Three families. Three countries. More than 100 years. In The Glass Palace Amitav Ghosh takes us on a journey across cultures and generations, navigating some significant milestones in history but never losing sight of the people who loved, laughed and cried through political upheaval, invasion and war.
It’s the human dimension that grabs our attention as the book opens. Rajkumar, a poor orphaned Burmese boy, finds himself in the royal palace on the day in 1885 when British soldiers storm the gates and forcibly evict the royal household. He befriends Dolly, one of the young women in the queen’s entourage and guides her to safety. She stays in his mind and his heart throughout the following years as he slowly builds a business in wood logging. When his position is secure as the head of teak trading empire, he goes in search of her in her new home with the exiled royals in India . The remainder of the book traces their life together in Burma, India and Malaysia, their ambitions and disappointments and the fluctuating fortunes of their children and grand-children.
Clearly this is a family saga on a grand scale. Its settings range from the rubber plantations of Malaysia, to the Burmese teak forests and the bustling cityscape of Rangoon and Singapore. But it’s also a history of a tumultuous period in history in south east Asia, covering the rise and fall of the British Empire in the region, the second world war and India’s struggle for independence. One of the themes of the novel looks at the way indigenous populations fight against oppression from an alien nation. In case readers needed reminding that the fight for liberty and freedom is still an issue today as it was in the nineteenth century, the novel ends with the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi on the lawn of her home where she was under house arrest.
Little wonder that Ghosh took five years to research and write The Glass Palace.
I read hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks, published and unpublished; I travelled thousands of miles, visiting and re-visiting, so far as possible, all the settings and locations that figure in this novel; I sought out scores of people in India, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. (source: http://www.amitavghosh.com/glasspalace_r.html)
It’s an impressive achievement. For me the earliest part of the novel was the most interesting, largely because of the strength of Ghosh’s characterisation. We see this not just in his principal characters Dolly and Rajkumar but in some of the smaller players, I loved the image of the exiled King Thebaw who with no kingdom to rule, resorts to supervising the movement of boats across the bay below his deteriorating palace in Ratnagiri. Later chapters, where the focus switches to the second, and then third generation, were less engaging. By then I was losing track of who was who as the parallel narratives of various children and grandchildren and friends got more and more tangled in my head. By the time we got to World War 2 and the Japanese invasion it felt as if the human dimension was subsumed in favour of details about the historical events.
I’m still glad I read it the novel however. It is complex at times and a few of the characters seemed too lightly sketched but Ghosh had a such a masterful ability to conjure up a culture in rich and beautiful detail that I forgave him for those lapses. He’s an author I certainly want to read again, most likely Sea of Poppies, which has come highly recommended by Alex at Thinking in Fragments. It’s set against a background of China’s opium wars in the nineteenth century; could be a perfect read for my next trip to that part of the world.
EndNote: There is a short extract from The Glass Palace available on line at http://www.amitavghosh.com/glasspalace.html