ARAVIND ADIGA’S NEW NOVEL, Last Man in Tower, takes us into the mildewed walls of Mumbai’s Vishram Society Housing Cooperative. Decades ago, it was a symbol of pride for its residents, a shining step removed from its surroundings: the slums of Vakola around it and the airport flight path directly overhead. The inhabitants, originally Catholics, were an open-minded, good-hearted type, opening their doors over the years to Hindus in the 1960s and “the better kind of Muslim” in the 1980s, until now its eclectic mix of people is united by class structure more than religious bent. “They had the security of titles and legal deeds that could not be revoked, and their aspirations were limited to a patient rise in life earned through universities and interviews in grey suit and tie,” writes Adiga. “It was not in their karma to know either gold or tears; they were respectable.” But being upwardly mobile in modern-day India, a place that is changing faster than anyone within or beyond its borders can keep up with, is a relative position, and with the passage of time, the Vishram group has stagnated as surely as its building has deteriorated, risking imminent collapse.
So it seems like a no-brainer when Dharmen Shah, a fat and greedy real estate developer, and his “left-hand” man show up offering the residents of the Vishram apartment building double the market rate for their property so he can demolish it and build a luxury apartment building in its stead. Finally, their gold! The stage is set for a showdown, and the resistance emerges from apartment 3A, where Yogesh Murthy, known as Masterji, a retired schoolteacher who has lost both a wife and a child, lives. And intends to continue to live. Hence the “last man in tower.”
The strength of Adiga’s first novel, The White Tiger, which earned him the Booker Prize in 2008 and launched his name into the international literary scene, was the singular voice of his main character. In Last Man in Tower, there is an epic cast of at least twenty individuals, including the apartment building residents and staff as well as the developer and his seedy sidekicks. In this, the book loses something, skimming the surface of too many characters, leaving the reader longing for something more as the prose dips into the deeper waters of India’s brave new world, but retreats to keep the pace of the narrative going.
Nonetheless, Adiga does capture the vicious underbelly of modern-day real estate in India’s maximum city. Even more so, he taps into the lives and minds of India’s growing middle class. They inhabit the sphere between the city’s slums and, say, the world’s first billion-dollar home, a twenty-seven-story structure, recently built in Bombay, with more square footage than the Palace of Versailles. Like the United States more than half a century earlier, India is in its ascension, and all the materialism and belligerence about who might be getting left behind is a perfect echo of our Cold War era. The Indians of Adiga’s book yearn for material stability. What that means, how much one really needs to be secure, is at the heart of the story. Is it the ability to hire help to take care of a disabled son? Is it trumping a rival sister? Is it sending money to a child in America, instead of waiting to receive it? For the defiant Masterji, it is the dangerous desire of wanting nothing other than to die in the place where his family’s memories reside. It is this that pits him not only against Shah, but, one by one, against his neighbors.
“Only a man must want something,” writes Adiga. “For everyone who lives here knows that the islands will shake, and the mortar of the city will dissolve, and Bombay will turn again into seven small stones glistening in the Arabian sea, if it ever forgets to ask the question: What do you want?”