Last Man In Tower
Aravind Adiga's novel about gentrification in India explores the dark side of human nature.
It sounds far too clinical to say that Aravind Adiga writes about the human condition. He does, but, like any good novelist, Adiga’s story lingers because it nestles in the heart and the head.Skip to next paragraph
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In Last Man in Tower, his new novel about the perils of gentrification in a Mumbai neighborhood, the plot turns on a developer’s generous offer to convince apartment residents to leave their building so that he can build a luxury tower in its place. (“You have to respect human greed,” the developer tells an assistant by way of explanation.) The book mines the tricky terrain of the bittersweet and black humor, always teasing out just enough goodness to allow readers a glimmer of hope for humanity. But, again, such descriptions veer off into the mechanical, stripping Adiga of his cacophonous cast of characters and the messy, frenzied tableau he sets them loose upon.
The last man referenced in the title is a retired teacher who stands in the way of the other residents ready to cash in on the offer. The developer manipulates the residents into turning on one of their own in their greed, though the motivations and actions of all are more nuanced than they look at first glance. A mother seeks relief from the rigors of her grown son’s Down’s Syndrome; a social worker wants to match the affluence of her sister, and so on.
In a country with yearly per capita income of $800, the developer’s offer of $330,000 for each of their humble apartments seems like a dream come true to the residents. Except for the recalcitrant teacher, known to his neighbors as Masterji, who pines for his dead wife and vows never to leave the apartment they shared.
All of which leads to coaxing and, later, conspiratorial plotting to prod Masterji to complete the consensus within the apartment building and accept the offer. Just as a final solution comes together, one of the plotters, a deceitful real-estate broker (could this description be redundant?) and resident of the complex discovers a potentially devastating twist: “He cursed his luck. Of all the things to pick up from Falkland Road – all the horrible names he had worried about – gonorrhoea, syphilis, prostatitis, AIDS – he had to pick this up: a conscience.”
Adiga won the Man Booker Prize for his debut, “The White Tiger,” and his new novel shows no signs of a sophomore slump.
“Last Man in Tower” glides along with a sprawling cast of characters, including the teeming city of Mumbai itself. Dharmen Shah is the developer, a former slumdog turned millionaire who envies the efficiency of the Chinese government to build roads and bridges and airports as it makes way for rapid growth. Thus, Shah’s planned tower is called Shanghai in homage, signalling his hope that shantytowns and other impediments will be cleared away.