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.
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.
Shah’s doctor tells him to slow down and warns the developer he might be drifting into fatal workaholic territory, but to no avail. He has a left-hand man to do his dirty work, greasing the way while Shah does futile battle with his spoiled teenage son.
The Vishram Society Co-Operative Housing Society, the residents’ group governing the apartments, demonstrates the messiness of any parliamentary endeavor. Kothari, the co-op’s secretary, is thought to be skimming money and is sure to be ineffective. (“He was the laziest Secretary they had ever had, which made him the best Secretary they had ever had.”) The security guard has no interest in his job, taking little notice of who comes or goes.
Everyone gapes and envies at the slightest sign of upward mobility, though there is a common sense of decency that keeps petty slights and feuds from escalating to unmanageable levels.
Things don’t work. Water flows best only for several hours split between morning and evening, pre-empting the fiercest of neighborly rivalries in favor of successful dishwashing or a bath. With wit and observation, Adiga gives readers a well-rounded portrait of Mumbai in all of its teeming, bleating, inefficient glory. In one of many delightful asides, Adiga notes the transition beyond middle age with a zinger of a question: “What would he do with his remaining time – the cigarette stub of years left to a man already in his 60s?”
Another resident, Ibrahim Kudwa, delights in tweaking a sign at the apartments heralding what, no doubt, will be another inefficient repair. From “Work In Progress/Inconvenience Is Regretted,” Kudwa re-works the message to, “Inconvenience In Progress/Work Is Regretted.”
Shah, the developer, sets in progress something altogether more common: greedy group-think, a malady that leaves everyone changed but, in many ways, grinding along as they did before. Adiga never settles for the grand epiphany or the tidy conclusion.
In a line worthy of John Irving, Adiga writes: “A man’s past keeps growing, even when his future has come to a full stop.”
Erik Spanberg regularly reviews books for the Monitor.