Getting A Rise
Among “Bombay Books”, Aravind Adiga’s new novel ‘Last Man In Tower’ stands right up there with the best of the sub-genre.
Near the end of Last Man in Tower, a tabloid-ish newspaper publishes an article about Yogesh Murthy, or Masterji, with the headline “Old Man in Tower Says No to Builder”. It’s the answer to the question that has been bothering us since we saw the cover of the book in May. Now we know that we can blame the absence of definite articles in the title on the wonky grammar of media headlines.
Last Man in Tower details Masterji’s refusal to let builder Dharmen Shah demolish Vishram Co-operative Society and build a skyscraper called Confidence Shanghai in its place. It’s a curious contest of wills. The two combatants never come face to face. The fight seems to be one-sided initially. Shah has money and his assistant (or “left hand man”), Shanmugham has a bag of tricks that includes everything from bribes to thugs brandishing hockey sticks. In contrast, Masterji has nothing but his determination that the building, replete with memories of his dead wife and daughter, will not be torn down.
When Shah first makes his offer, the residents unconvinced by the Shanghai dream include a communist single mother, Mrs. Rego, and an elderly couple, the Pintos. Everyone else is thrilled at the idea of getting out of the badly-maintained Vishram Society. Ashvin Kothari, the secretary of the society, dreams of living in Sewri and seeing flamingos. Mrs. Puri, who has a son with Down Syndrome, imagines living in a spacious house with nice woodwork. But Mrs. Rego doesn’t trust the promises of builders and the blind Mrs. Pinto is terrified by the thought of having to learn her way around a new building. Masterji shows solidarity with the Pintos but when they and Mrs. Rego decide they’d rather take Shah’s offer, he is obdurate. Little by little, Masterji becomes the villain of the piece in the eyes of Vishram Society. Everyone wants the money that Shah has. They want to get out of the gloom of the tottering Vishram Society. Only Masterji stands in their way. The more entrenched Masterji gets in his stand, the more desperate the other residents become. All their attempts to make Masterji change his mind are unsuccessful and with every failed tactic, they up the ante. This culminates in a rather gruesome climax.
There’s no doubt that Last Man in Tower belongs in the “Bombay Books” shelf, spine to spine with the best of that sub-genre. Adiga’s vivid descriptions of the city are wonderfully observed and will resonate with readers, whether or not they’re familiar with the disconsolate neighbourhood of Vakola (which is where Vishram Society is located). The book is filled with wit, insight and clever turns of phrase. For the better part of the novel, the characters feel comfortably real. They live modest, unexceptional lives that are guided by routine and livened up by banal questions, like what to do about the fact that a condom was spotted in the garbage of the one single woman in the building (a journalist and a Bengali, naturally). But this veil of normalcy slips steadily as the novel progresses and reveals a horrifying malevolence. The conversion from good to evil is brilliantly charted, highlighting both the subtlety as well as the eagerness with which people like Kothari and Mrs. Puri go over to the dark side. We’re still haunted by the image of the flamingo-loving Kothari crushing a baby bird’s head underfoot.
Consider the novel carefully and it reveals cunning storytelling. Dharmen Shah, who seems to be afflicted with the same respiratory troubles that drove Adiga out of Mumbai, is the hero of Last Man in Tower, not the villain. Yes, he is thoroughly unscrupulous but he is also motivated by something more abstract than wealth. By the time we meet Shah, he doesn’t need more money and isn’t greedy. He’s striving to turn the city into a model of progress as he sees it, one construction site at a time. In contrast, Vishram Society epitomises a time warp. It’s unhygienic, ugly and in danger of crumbling. It is seemingly held together by nostalgia and its residents’ inability to leave.
Masterji’s opposition to Shah isn’t fuelled by either friendship or love for his dead wife and daughter but by selfish ego. He is undeterred by the difficulties faced by long-time building friends like Mr. Pinto and Mrs. Puri. He has no vision, unlike Dharmen Shah who is heroically battling his infection-weakened body to bring Confidence Shanghai to reality. At one point, Shah describes Masterji as a “weak man who has found a place where he feels strong”, and one can’t help appreciating the accuracy of that observation. It’s interesting that the only person who ultimately doesn’t take Shah’s money and shows some sense of morality is Ajwani, a real estate broker who was one of Shah’s first allies against Masterji.
Last Man in Tower stands apart from most other books about Mumbai, and not just because few are as well-written as this one. Unusually for a “Bombay Book”, there’s no nostalgia for the old world in Adiga’s novel. His admiration is for the new dream merchants of Mumbai, those who hustle and force change upon this city and have little patience for the past. Last Man in Tower attacks a number of romantic notions, like the idea that the old buildings and neighbourhoods have a sense of community, that new developments are clinical and characterless. He mocks these new constructions that attempt to combine disparate styles like Gothic and Art Deco but he does it gently. The cynicism is at its acidic best when Adiga writes about Masterji and Vishram Society.
Masterji’s nostalgia is a quagmire and although Shah is no beacon of righteousness, the good people of Vishram Society take on far more frightening proportions than the wrongdoers. There is a streak of ferocious cruelty in them that is only matched by Mumbai’s determination to change. At the end of the novel, Adiga writes, “Nothing can stop a living thing that wants to be free”. It is this unbending will and the ambitions it fosters that he commemorates in Last Man in Tower.
Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, Fourth Estate, Rs 699. Buy it from Flipkart.com.