Aravind Adiga’s new novel: A bittersweet homage to Mumbai
The two Indians who preceded Adiga to the Booker podium, Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy, have produced no expansive fiction since their victory, while he himself followed up his award-winning “The White Tiger” with a collection of short stories called "Between The Assassinations.”
Published this month, “Last Man in Tower” is a finely observed and detailed book, more controlled and mature than “The White Tiger.”
However, its story -- a lone man in Mumbai refusing to sell out to a greedy builder -- is a touch predictable and lacks the imaginative leaps that characterized Adiga’s exciting debut.
Brahmin versus baniya
Dharmen Shah, founder of the Confidence Group, makes residents of Vakola’s Vishram Co-operative Housing Society an offer few can refuse.
Keen to replace Vishram’s aging modernist tower blocks with a baroque complex of luxury apartments, Shah proposes to buy each flat at a price well above the going rate in the eastern suburb, on condition that every society member signs the agreement within a stipulated time.
The relatively young denizens of Vishram’s Tower B quickly arrive at a consensus, but there are holdouts within the senior citizenry of Tower A.
Resistance is whittled away by bribery and threats, until Yogesh Murthy, known as Masterji, remains the only man refusing to sell.
Masterji’s neighbors, the Puris, Kudwas, Regos, Ajwanis, who all lead dysfunctional lives to some degree, begin to view him as the only impediment to a future infinitely more congenial than their paltry current circumstances.
The two antagonists, Shah and Murthy, are the novel’s most interesting characters by far.
They are both widowed, troubled by their health and progeny and cosmopolitan enough to relish meat in defiance of caste prescriptions.
Their personalities and histories, however, are poles apart.
Shah has been dumped at the bottom of wealth’s ladder and huffed and puffed his way to near the top: to a Mercedes and a home in Malabar Hill.
Murthy considers the ladder irrelevant, occupying himself instead with the life of the mind. He sees himself as a lotus in the mud, whereas Shah views him as a stick-in-the-mud.
The two mirror, in some ways, the conflict between the purity of Antigone and the pragmatism of Creon in Jean Anouilh’s version of the Greek legend.
A few decades ago, most Indian intellectuals would have sided squarely with Murthy in this brahmin versus baniya clash set in India’s financial capital. The principled, middle-class teacher would have represented what was most worthy about modern India, and the uncouth builder a moral threat.
In the years since liberalization, we have witnessed a strengthening of Creon’s position and a weakening of Antigone’s.
The argument has gained strength that, since entrepreneurs are straitjacketed by outdated laws and a slothful bureaucracy, their recourse to illegality is not merely understandable but beneficial for the economy.
This argument was advanced in Mani Ratnam’s film “Guru,” loosely based on Dhirubhai Ambani’s life, and was articulated during a memorial meeting for Ambani by Arun Shourie, who, as editor of the Indian Express, had co-authored a series of articles exposing the Reliance founder’s machinations.
“Last Man in Tower” stays within this new zone of ethical ambivalence, expertly guiding the reader’s sympathy first Murthy’s way, then Shah’s, bringing episodes from their past into the mix to make rational decisions appear questionable, and questionable ones rational.
Mumbai in simple nouns
The bulk of the drama plays out during Mumbai’s sweltering summer and sodden monsoon.
The city, dominated like no other by builders and collusive politicians, is Adiga’s adopted home, and he revels in delineating its sweaty streets, jam-packed trains, ill-maintained buildings, sprawling shanties, its venality and energy.
Describing a garbage tip, he writes: “The rains had turned the pit into a marsh: cellophane, eggshell, politician’s face, banana leaf, sliced-off chicken’s feet and green crowns cut from pineapples. Ribbons of unspooled cassette-tape draped over everything like molten caramel.”
Instead of hammering the reader with negative adjectives, he adopts a far more effective tactic, keeping to simple nouns and ending with a sentence that would be appetizing in isolation, but turns nauseating in the context.
“Last Man in Tower” has a thin plot, but is a chunky book at slightly over 400 pages.
About midway, the story loses new impetus and its continued forward movement becomes a function of Newton’s first law of motion.
Had the unrest in Vishram taken on a "Lord of the Flies" dimension, in which petty concerns gave way to a profound moral abyss; or had the author orchestrated a confrontation between the two central figures that raised the debate between Yes and No to a higher level, “Last Man in Tower” could have become the definitive Mumbai-Bombay novel of the current era.
Though not a masterpiece, Aravind Adiga's latest work remains a superbly composed homage to, and critique of, what was once India’s greatest city.