Last Man in Tower
- Aravind Adiga
- Alfred A. Knopf
- 400 pp.
- October 18, 2011
A showdown between a real estate mogul who wants everything and a widower who wants nothing is the setting for the author’s powerful second novel.
Reviewed by John Wilwol
Expectations are high for Aravind Adiga’s second novel, Last Man in Tower. The White Tiger wowed critics, garnering Adiga the 2008 Man Booker Prize. It’s impossible to say whether Last Man in Tower will make it two in a row for Adiga, but it’s good enough to do so.
The White Tiger benefited from a compelling protagonist and an unusual but effective narrative technique (the protagonist’s story unfolds through a series of unanswered letters to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier). Last Man in Tower relies on a straightforward narrative to recount a remarkably simple, visceral story about the perils of greed. The plot unfolds in a housing complex called Vishram Society, “anchored like a dreadnought of middle-class respectability” among the slums of Bombay.
Everything about Vishram Society, we are told, is pucca — solid. Except that it’s not, exactly. The building’s exterior used to be pink, but now it’s become a moldering “fungus-licked grey,” and the water only works twice a day. The residents pride themselves on their respectability, but they root through the rubbish pit outside when they want to dig up dirt on neighbors. Still, folks are relatively lighthearted about the place. In one instance, for example, a resident beams with pride after changing a construction sign on the property from “Work in Progress/Inconvenience Is Regretted” to “Inconvenience in Progress/Work Is Regretted.” But it doesn’t take long for things to get ugly when a builder presents them with an offer they can’t refuse.
Dharmen Shah is a real estate mogul in Bombay, and though he’s now one of the richest men in town, he’s quick to remind everyone how very self-made he is. Here, he coaxes men suffering under the midday sun at one of his construction sites to return to work. “This Dharmen Shah of yours knows what it is to work and walk and sweat in the heat,” he says of himself. “When he came to Bombay he had just twelve rupees and eighty paise on him and he came in summer. He took the train, he took the bus, and when he had no more money for the bus, he walked. His chappals wore away and he tied leaves around his feet and he kept walking.”
Shah wants to tear down Vishram Society and in its place erect his masterpiece, a monstrosity of “Gothic, Italian, Indian, Art Deco styles, all in one” to be called The Shanghai. He makes the residents of Vishram Society an unbelievably generous offer — roughly $330,000 per family, an amount Adiga puts into perspective in a note at the front of the book identifying the average 2008-09 income in India as 37,490 rupees, £500 or $800. All residents must accept the cash for the deal to go through.
Not surprisingly, nearly everyone is eager to accept, and those initially reluctant are soon persuaded to see things differently. “The builder is the one man in Bombay who never loses a fight,” Shah says. But one man, Yogesh “Masterji” Murthy, stands firm.
Masterji is a widower and retired school teacher who lives alone in Vishram Society. His daughter was killed tragically in a train accident and his relationship with his son is rocky. Masterji understands that his little corner of the world isn’t a palace, but it houses the memory of his wife and daughter and their lives together. He doesn’t need cash or a new home to feel wealthy. Things as simple as fresh coconut water are enough. “Sucked through a straw, the cool sweet water was a bitter thrill: he understood, for four or five seconds, what it was to be a millionaire.”
Adiga’s stage is set, then, for a showdown between Shah, the man who wants everything, and Masterji, the man who wants nothing. Picking a favorite here seems like a no-brainer for the reader — the gold-ringed Shah, constantly hacking up black phlegm from all the time he’s spent at dusty construction sites, seems a clear choice for villain. But honest readers will be torn in their sympathy. Some residents of Vishram Society have good reasons to make the deal, like the Puris, who have a son afflicted with Down’s syndrome.
Adiga earns high marks for keeping the outcome of this struggle uncertain until the very end. Even better is the richly textured way Adiga brings Bombay to life. Readers will be alternately booking their next trip to see the carnival-like atmosphere of the markets first hand, and heading for the sink to scrub away the filth of the slums. Here’s a sample of a Masterji’s walk home through the city late one evening after a bite to eat with his neighbor:
“A fifteen-minute walk later, the two old men reached their local market, a row of blue wooden stalls, lit by white tube-lights or naked yellow bulbs, in which the most disparate trades were conducted side by side: a chicken shop smelling of poultry shit and raw meat, a sugarcane-vendor’s stall haloed in raw sucrose, a Xerox machine in a stationery shop yawning flashes of blinding light, and a barber’s salon, busy even at this hour, stinking of shaving cream and gossip.”
At the end of the novel, a resident of Vishram Society remarks to his wife, “Life is good. It is not perfect, but it is better with money.” It’s hard to argue with the logic behind that statement, especially in this economy. But Last Man in Tower reminds us that while a house may be bought or sold, a home is one of the few things in life worth fighting for.
John Wilwol is a writer and teacher living in Washington, D.C. His work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The New Yorker’s Book Bench, The Daily Beast and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnWilwol.