Kindle Edition (400 pages in hardcover)
Putting A Price on “Home”
When I was looking for a novel to read on the long plane ride to India for my first visit there last month, a friend recommended Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga’s second novel. It was a fine suggestion: I am a long-time fan of Indian writing, which is one of the reasons I wanted to go to India, and I had enjoyed The White Tiger ― Adiga’s first novel, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. As it turned out, I didn’t start reading Last Man in Tower until after I arrived in Delhi and set out on my overland trip to Mumbai, where the novel is set. In fact, most of the plot is set in the slums that border Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, so I felt I could look right down on “the tower” as I flew out of India’s largest city en route to Goa at the end of my Mumbai visit.
Last Man in Tower is the story of the residents of a 50-year-old apartment building, Tower A of the Vishram Co-operative Housing Society — a six-story building that has for many years been an island of respectability amid the slums that surround the domestic terminal of Mumbai’s airport. Now that the land around the airport is becoming more desirable, businessman Dharman Shah wants to purchase Towers A and B of Vishram Society, tear them down, and build a shiny new structure in the image of those he’s seen in Shanghai – a city he admires so much that he is going to name his new complex after it.
In addition to his desire to make money and expand his empire, Shah wants to challenge the supremacy of another Mumbai construction magnate, J.J. Chacko of the Ultimex Group, who has just offered a ridiculously high amount (81 lakh [8.1 million] rupees) for a single slum property －apparently just to attract attention. Shah is so intent on the role the Vishram project can play in this pissing contest with Chacko that he is willing to risk his life for it, ignoring the advice of his physician who tells him that his lungs are so bad that if he doesn’t leave Mumbai, the pollution is going to kill him.
Vishram Society Tower A is occupied by about fifteen middle-class families, most of them parents with children still at home, working in such fields as hardware, finance, real-estate and social work. They come from a range of religious and cultural backgrounds: their ability to live in relative harmony despite their differences is a quality I learned even during my short visit to be one of the many admirable characteristics of the Indian people.
The most respected resident in Tower A is the retired teacher Yogesh A. Murthi, “Masterji,” 61, whose apartment is filled with memories of his recently deceased wife and his beloved daughter, who died in a train accident several years before. His son – impatient, ungrateful – and daughter-in-law, Sonal (a “hyena” to him, Murthi says) live closer to downtown, with his grandson, whom he loves, and Sonal’s father, who suffers from dementia and for whom Sonal must care. Masterji takes a few of the edges off his empty days by teaching “top-up” science to the children of Tower A and eating his meals with the Pintos, but now that he is retired and alone, it is a struggle every day to avoid caving in to the siren calls of gravity and indolence.
Tower A is affordable, and it is home, but the residents long ago resigned themselves to the fact that it is less than a perfect place to live: the elevator rarely works, there is running water only for two hours in the morning and ninety minutes in the evening, the building needs many repairs that are never going to get done, the guard drinks, the secretary is lazy, and day and night low-flying planes shake Vishram to its core.
Shah and his henchman, Shanmugham, believe that it is going to be a simple matter to buy out the owners of the Vishram Society – in fact, Shanmugham is distressed at the price that Mr. Shah is offering: he is certain that the residents would take much less. The residents of Tower B﹣most of whom have lived there for less time than the denizens of Tower A ﹣ quickly agree to Shah’s offer, celebrate their good fortune together, and then head off to their new, more affluent lives. The fact that Mr. Shah pays the Tower B owners the second, “move-out-on-time” installment of the agreed-upon sale price early is not missed by the owners of Tower A. But all of the residents of the tower must agree before the deal can go through, and a few of those in Tower A have issues to deal with before they can come to a final decision.
The novel concerns the process of bargaining that will ultimately see Mr. Shah win or lose his prize and the glory he believes will accompany it. Several Tower A residents move quickly to support the sale of the building, most notably Mrs. Puri, who without this windfall faces a lifetime of cleaning up after and caring for her 18-year-old son who has Down Syndrome and is frequently incontinent. Others take longer to persuade.
Masterji heads the resistance movement − at first primarily in defence of the Pintos: Mrs. Pinto, the oldest woman in the building, is nearly blind and fears she will not be able to find her way around a new apartment. But as time goes on, his wish not to lose his last contact with his wife and daughter, his indignation at reprehensible tactics of those who are trying to secure unanimity – including his son and Sonal, who urge him to sell—his sense of self respect and his respect for history and ethics, all begin to influence his decision. Gradually the community begins to disintegrate as neighbours turn on neighbours, form factions, and work against one another behind the scenes. One by one they turn on the man they have always held in the highest respect.
Last Man in Tower has power and many strengths. As he did in The White Tiger, Adiga has created believable characters with human problems that are exacerbated by their circumstances. He has a keen ability to portray India’s complex cultural relationships so that those of us who do not live there can relate totally to the issues at hand. The story is funny and moving by turns, and it is grounded in its setting, which gives it an external validity that is both pleasing and interesting to non-Indian readers.
In addition to being a storyteller, Adiga is a fine writer. Some of his insights made me stop and reread them several times simply to enjoy them over and over again. Here’s an example of his keen eye:
A cow had been tied up by the side of the fried-snacks store, a healthy animal with a black comet mark on its forehead. It had just been milked and a bare-chested man in a dhoti was taking away a mildewed bucket, inside which fresh milk looked like radioactive liquid. Squatting by the cow a woman in a saffron sari was squeezing gruel into balls. Next to her two children were being bathed by another woman. Half a village crammed into a crack in the pavement.
I was not particularly keen about the ending of Last Man in Tower. It seemed to me as though the author had been unable to wrap things up and had just gone on and on until the characters came to some kind realization about what had happened﹣almost stumbling on awareness rather than drawing any direct line to it from their experiences. But I have been thinking about endings a lot lately, of films I’ve seen and novels I have read. I’ve been thinking about how life doesn’t come to any neat conclusions either. Maybe if a book or movie is interesting and fulfilling, the ending doesn’t need to be as tidy as I’d like. Like my trip through India, the experience of Last Man in Tower will ultimately have more effect on my view of the world than will the fact that I made it to the end.