Last Man in Tower: a parable built on ambiguity
In the space of just a few years, Aravind Adiga has become the foremost chronicler of Indian life. It's often repeated, but is so because it's true: in terms of method and subject, Adiga is the closest the modern age has to Dickens. Their central theme is the same, which is why Dickens's own country could not produce a similar writer at present. Both ask a simple question: in a world of rapid progress - economic, industrial, and arguably social - what are we leaving behind?
Like Dickens, Adiga writes for the everyman. His is a total commitment to the populist basics of story and character. In both writers there is a profound love for the good in people, and a severe awareness and understanding of the bad. Above these tendencies, what really sets Adiga apart from those who have failed to emulate the great Victorian is his imagination in creating a plot trope around which to shuffle the pieces at his disposal.
Take the opening to Last Man in Tower. Dharmen Shah, a wealthy developer, approaches the inhabitants of a block of flats (Vishram Society A) in Mumbai; they are middle class, middle-aged, emphatically pucca people. He makes them an offer: 1.52 crore rupees - around $330,000 per family - for each of their flats. It's well over twice what the flats are worth, enough to set the inhabitants up for the rest of their lives, and there is only one condition: since the building is slated for destruction, everyone must accept the offer. If only one refuses, no one benefits.
It's such a simple set-up, yet one redolent of Adiga's concerns. Shah seems symbolic of the new India, a callous, unstintingly ambitious man who apparently arrived in Mumbai "on bare feet". The residents of Vishram Society, by contrast, have until now desired little more than respectable, comfortable lives. They have lived together as a cooperative for decades. The tower is creaking - aeroplanes fly narrowly past it, running water is only sporadically available, the walls are peeling and crumbling. But it is also a symbol of community and cooperation: within it "cross beams of affection" are wont to grow: "If one couple went to bed early the other couple turned off their television and went to bed." It was built first for Catholics, then gradually accepted Hindus and Muslims. The inhabitants know most of the details of each other's lives. They share duties, and hold "parliaments" over what needs to be done.
Adiga populates his building with a diverse cast. Among others we have Sanjiv and Sangeeta Puri, a middle-aged Hindu couple whose 18-year-old child has Down's syndrome; Ramesh Ajwani, loving father of two, shifty estate agent and failed stockbroker ("in the movie of his own life, he had to admit, he was just a comedian"); Georgina Rego, a "battleship" of a social worker desperate to "trump" her well-off sister, and at the centre of the story, Yogesh A Murthy or "Masterji, a retired schoolteacher who, having lost his wife to illness and his daughter to an accident, lives alone and passes his time playing with his Rubik's Cube and offering extra lessons to the children of the residents.
Masterji is the protagonist - perhaps the wrong term - because he refuses to take Shah up on his offer. He is the eponymous "last man".
Shah's methods are not subtle: those who delay their decision are offered "sweeteners"; those who delay longer are offered threats, and there's a distinct possibility of worse to come. Masterji wishes to live and die in his flat, the flat where his family lived: "a man's past keeps growing, even when his future has come to a full stop." Moreover, he feels he should have the right not to sell his home, if that's the decision he wishes to make. It seems a fair point. Is this, then, a novel about the clash between good and evil, as embodied by a man attempting to defend the old against the invasion of the new?
It certainly seems so at first. The tower may be crumbling, but Masterji's actions provoke a far more serious decay. What was merely the benign flipside of the residents' neighbourliness - gossip, prying in rubbish - rapidly degenerates into something a great deal more sinister and at times shockingly malicious.
Shah plays the part of the serpent in the garden dutifully, cajoling and manipulating to increase the pressure put on Masterji by his friends of decades' standing, all the while hinting that he is prepared to engineer a far more violent resolution to the matter. But Adiga is far too skilful a writer to present such a black-and-white tale. Shah may not be a pleasant man, but he is no one-dimensional villain either. His life's efforts have destroyed his health to the point where there's a distinct likelihood he may not see the story's end. His son is sliding off the rails, and he believes it's due to his karma, a karma which he feels has doomed him from the start.
In his ambitiousness he is looking over his shoulder as often as he is ahead. And how bad an act has he committed in making his offer? He stresses, fairly, that most would be desperate for the money.
As the novel goes on it seems that Shah's perpetual striving for expansion is a consequence of the environment around him rather than, as we might expect, vice versa: "Look, how this city never stops growing, rubble ... plants, mulch, left to themselves, start slurping up sea, edging towards the other end of the bay like a snake's tongue, hissing through salt water, there is more land here, more land." The bare facts of the story don't correlate with the depiction, in which he's as much a victim as anyone else.
At the same time Masterji appears, on a simple ethical level, to have a case. There's something of Camus' Mersault or an EM Forster character about him: "He had spent his forty-four years in Mumbai exactly in the manner prescribed by the Hindu philosophers: like a lotus in a dirty pond, be in the world but not of it."
Does that make him our hero? If he is, he's deeply unlikeable. A status-obsessed snob, he might not believe in caste, but his unerring belief in institutions and in the power of his old students' network runs in neat contrast to Shah's zeal and winner-takes-all assault on a playing field which, if not level, isn't nearly uneven enough to dissuade him from his course.
Masterji's moral grandstanding has removed any trace of empathy for the people around him. They are living in difficult circumstances and needn't any more. Is he any less selfish than Shah? He's simply fighting for "The earth, in infinite space. A point on it was the city of Mumbai. A point on that was Vishram Society. And that point was his."
And what of those suddenly persecuting him? Greedy hypocrites willing to betray long-standing companionship for money or vulnerable human beings simply trying to do the best for their families?
This is where the distinction between Adiga and a Victorian novelist is laid bare. The latter's public would have expected answers to questions like this. And to continue the comparison, Dickens, in spite of his genius and undoubtedly with half an eye on his popularity, would often submit to this whim. Adiga's readership is less inclined to believe we live in morally straightforward times. It's the ambiguity with which he draws the story - even as it becomes by turns tenser and more brutal - that makes it so powerful.
It's not a perfect book. Shah's "turning" of each of the residents before Masterji refuses to sell is a little predictable given the novel's title, and at times implausible in terms of the ease with which he does it. And one last resemblance - Adiga, like Dickens, is at his best when the city is oozing into the drama, from the fetid slums to Shah's lavish apartment, from the children's impromptu games of cricket, to the packed crowd on the commuter train moving "like an abdominal muscle". And as with Dickens, this strength serves to highlight the clumsiness with which he often describes thought processes and interior monologues. But these are spots on the sun. It's one of the best novels I've read in years.
Alan White's work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, Observer, Private Eye and The Oldie.
Published: July 29, 2011 04:00 AM