Monday, 5 September 2011

Book Review: “Last Man in Tower” by Aravind Adiga

Actually, it ought to have been Tower ‘A’. You see, the Vishram society has two towers, A and B, and considering Adiga’s love for detail, I’m surprised Adiga didn’t specify the tower in his title. It’s in Tower A that almost all the action takes place and Masterji, as retired school teacher Yogesh Murthy’s neighbours address him, makes his last stand.

I hadn’t liked Adiga’s first novel The White Tiger all that much. What I didn’t like about it was the very idea that Balram Halwai, a semi-educated, self-made man and a murderer would write a series of letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, cribbing about India. Last Man in Tower is a better book. Much, much better. The prose is just as good and the story is a lot more interesting with a half-decent plot. I wouldn’t call the plot very original. In these days of globalisation, there are so many stories of men and women who refuse to be evicted, to make way for a shining glass and steel builing or a factory. However, Adiga takes this very basic plot much beyond a mere last stand.

Adiga loves details. He doesn’t give his reader any choice in this matter. Anyone who manages to complete the Last Man in Tower cannot help but acquire a wealth of knowledge about Mumbai and its building societies. However, Adiga’s prose and story-telling ability takes Last Man in Tower to a higher plane. Consider this:

'South Mumbai has the Victoria Terminus and the Municipal Building, but the suburbs built later, have their own Gothic style: for every evening by six, pillars of hydro-benzene and sulphur dioxide rise high up from the roads, flying buttresses of nitrous dioxide join each other, swirls of unburnt kerosene, mixed illegally into the diesel, cackle like gargoyles, and a great roof of carbon monoxide closes over the structure. And this Cathedral of particulate matter rises over every red light, every bridge and every tunnel during rush hour.'

Adiga gets you to meet his characters up and close, front and back, inside and outside, from above, helicopter view as well as from a hovercraft, and finally from below, using one of those mirrors stuck at the end of a long stick used to check under cars for bombs. Adiga shoves his characters into your face and forces you to swallow. At times, you wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to let you observe the character from some distance and maybe get up close just once and walk away rather than force you into a close hug. Nevertheless, you get to know each of the major characters and some of the minor ones as well. Last Man in Tower is a study in human nature and since it revolves around middle, middle-class Mumbaikars living in a dilapidated building being offered an extraordinary sum of money (250% of the market value) to move out of their flats to make way for a very posh building, you end up with a fascinating insight into how the human mind works when confronted with forces of greed, avarice and ego. ‘You should always be thinking, what does he have that I don’t have? That way you go up in life. You understand me?’ Mr. Shah advises a young lad who has recently arrived in Mumbai.

Yogesh Murthy, aka Masterji initially decides to not move out mainly because his closest friends in Tower A, the Pintos, do not want to leave. Mrs. Pinto is blind and she is petrified at the idea of having to leave familiar surroundings and go elsewhere. Masterji’s opposition to the exodus soon turns into something else, in the face of popular support for the scheme and a demand from people who respected him till then, that he too agree to move out.

The occupants of Tower A are less well-off than those in Tower B. Flats in Tower B are larger and better maintained and of course they are to be paid more than those in Tower A. However, it is in Tower A that Mr. Shah’s offer to pay 19,000 rupees per square foot arouses greater excitement. They all need the money for various things and since they are being paid so much more above market value, they will have enough to buy a decent house and a handsome amount leftover to pay for their dreams. The only catch is that the acceptance of the offer has to be unanimous. If even one individual objects, the generous offer made by the Confidence Group will not translate into money.

Why does Masterji keep objecting even after the Pintos give in? Even after handbills denouncing him make an appearance and those who respected him till then start boycotting him? Masterji has old students who are now in eminent positions who will fight for him. Or will they? Did they really like him all that much or did they merely respect him? After all, even his only son does not seem to like him much. The bait dangled by Mr. Shah and his left-hand man Shanmugham are so tantalising that Masterji’s neighbours become vicious in their campaign to get him to agree.

What can make a man change his mind and agree to move away from memories of his wife who died a year ago? A job-less teenager with a hockey stick and some empty threats? A man sitting on the footpath outside, merely keeping a watch on all his movements? Human shit smeared on the outside of the front door?

Will Masterji give in or will he force Mr. Shah to go away? Masterji is not fighting for more money. He is only, to quote a minor character in this novel, an American journalist with a goatee living in Mumbai, ‘making a statement against unplanned development’. Adiga keeps you guessing till the end.

Adiga likes to break down stereotypes, at the risk of eating into his realistic capital. Mr. Shah, the villain of the book, is shown to enjoy not only his booze, as many Gujarati businessmen in Mumbai do, he also enjoys fish and prawns and crabs, very unlike the average Gujarati businessman. We see him entertain one of the inhabitants of Tower A at a Mangalorean sea-food joint at Juhu (which incidentally doesn’t have many places serving non-vegetarian food since it is a Gujarati locality). We also see him serve meat and fish and liquor at his Malabar Hill home, something unthinkable for a Gujarati, who are by and large, vegetarians. One of Mr. Shah’s competitors is one Mr. J. J. Chacko. I haven’t heard of any Keralites among the leading builders in Mumbai, but then, I don’t claim to be an expert.

There was only one detail, one tiny detail in the whole 419 page book which I thought was outright wrong. Since Adiga is a stickler for detail, this error sort of stands out. Mr. Puri, an accountant, commutes from Tower A to Nariman Point. Tower A is in Vakola and Adiga tells us that Mr. Puri’s commute involved – ‘auto, train, change of train at Dadar and then a shared taxi from Victoria Terminus to Nariman Point, from where he would call Ramu, to enquire about the state of the Friendly Duck’s health that day.’ My question is, if Nariman Point is the final destination, the change at Dadar should be to the Western Line which gets one to Churchgate. Nariman Point is much closer to Churchgate than to Victoria Terminus. Also, wouldn’t it make better sense for Mr. Puri to get to Santa Cruz by auto and take the Western Line to begin with, and avoid the need to change at Dadar? I mean, this error is inexplicable for an author who has dedicated this book to (I’m not making this one up) “my fellow commuters on the Santa Cruz-Churchgate local line”. I sort of take this omission personally since I commute on the Western Line daily to get to work at Nariman Point.

I really liked Last Man in Tower though I can’t say I enjoyed it. It is not a book meant to be enjoyed, though it is actually unputdownable. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins a Booker. I mean, this one’s twice as good as The White Tiger.

In case you want to sample Adiga’s prose, some of his short stories can be found online.

1 comment:

bart said...

very nice and sharp review