Last Man In Tower
Rs 699 pp 421
There comes a point in Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, a chronicle of his love-hate relationship with Bombay, where he takes Paul Theroux’s ‘Bombay-smells-of-money’ argument up by a notch to conclude, “Bombay is a city in which everything is on broad, public display. Nothing is hidden.” This simplistic observation stands apart from the rest of the book, which repeatedly asserts that you cannot describe Bombay in black and white, for beneath the surface of this seemingly monochromatic megalopolis lies a vibrant spectrum of greys.
This is where Aravind Adiga enters with his third book (and second novel) Last Man In Tower. If people, not steel and glass, impart Mehta’s florid and fragile Bombay its character, Adiga’s admiration for Mumbai forms the foundation of his latest novel.
“I was born in India, raised here and I love it here,” says Adiga. But that love didn’t go unopposed. In 2008, Adiga faced the ire of self-styled nationalists who read too much into the journalist-turned-author’s debut novel The White Tiger (which went on to win the Man Booker Prize), and involuntarily transformed him into a critic of India’s social and economic dichotomies. The story of the clash of an advancing India with its primitive self, where the eponymous character-narrator Balram Halwai’s “schematic and limited” vision of life was mistaken to be that of Adiga’s, exposed to the world a nation caught with its pants down, ‘loyalists’ felt.
But Last Man In Tower is not The White Tiger. Here judgements and social commentary are locked up, and ambivalence is let loose. Adiga has no qualms identifying himself with either Yogesh A Murthy or Dharmen Shah, the two central characters, neither of them the hero nor its anti. “One is the man that I am, and one... I wish I were.”
The story of Last Man In Tower originated from a news report about a redevelopment project in Mumbai, where an old man (Murthy) opposed a developer’s (Shah) offer to convert the housing society where he lived into a luxury apartment complex. Conflate it with Adiga’s experiences here since he relocated in 2006 and you get the book’s Vishram cooperative society in Vakola, Santa Cruz (East) — a suburb where water is available twice a day, where life comes to a standstill every year during monsoon and whose proximity to high-rises (and slums) and airport make it a nonesuch site for a block of luxury flats — with its Mahabharata-like cast of residents.
It is this ensemble of middle class saps, primarily made up of an unscrupulous gatekeeper, a ‘communist’ social worker, a precarious internet café owner and a devout but crooked secretary, that makes Adiga’s Mumbai breathe, prosper and dream. Human greed, as the canny Shah, a non-Mumbaikar, has learnt the hard way while rising from being a nobody to a distinguished man of affairs, must be respected. No wonder then that the sweetheart deal he proposes to the denizens of Vishram temporarily teleports them into a world where pigs can fly.
Between the god-fearing Shah, who believes that the key to prosper is to adopt a ‘look around and dream of what others have but you don’t’ policy, and an atheist Murthy, whose principles and attachment with his flat where his deceased wife and daughter once lived with him, make him stand up to the deal, we witness Mumbai’s many ambivalences, which, Adiga feels, are essential for “the city to keep growing”. They also point at an India that has forsaken shame and guilt in its rush to be ahead of the curve.
The idiosyncrasies of Shah and Murthy accentuate these conflicts and take away the method from the madness of a city where “the law … was not blind. It had two faces and four working eyes and saw every case from both sides and could never make up its mind”. Be it Shah’s reciprocal relationship with his dusty city that gives him chronic bronchitis for the ‘dirt’ he spreads, the retired teacher’s nihilism (or ego?) in the guise of principles, the dilapidated but “pucca” Vishram towers that stands as memories for some and aspiration for others, a stray dog that is accustomed to being kicked out of its slumber, or the incessant reference to the Friendly Duck toy of an 18-year-old patient of Down’s syndrome — they all strengthen the foundations of this cesspit of decaying morality that has lost its shock value.
For Adiga, who maintains a flawless aesthetic distance between his observations and judgements, the Mumbai of Last Man In Tower is “just the city that [he] lives in”. For readers, it’s a zoomed-in view of a collossal grey area where people judge each other by their reactions, and where “a man is not what his neighbours say he is”.
One can argue that Adiga’s Mumbaikars are prototypes of people warped by circumstances at a given time. But when it comes to the ambivalent beast of a city that nurtures and prepares them to wage their personal wars, there is unlikely to be another Mumbai, a city that craves to be left to its own devices.