If you’ve ever lived in an apartment with a housing society, you’d know of the various ways residents get involved in each other’s lives. If you return to your apartment in the hopes of making it back home in anonymity – you might find these societies an annoyance.
In Aravind Adiga’s ‘Last Man in Tower’, all eyes are on one resident, a retired schoolteacher called Masterji – a widower and teacher who is the only person in the way of a $330,000 payoff for each of the society’s residents.
The tragedy of the Booker prize is that its winner’s future works are always compared to the award-winning one. So it is with Adiga’s ‘Last Man in Tower’ and ‘White Tiger’. The slightly nationalist reader might take it as yet another book that puts a darker shade over India’s growth story. But Last Man in Tower is an exercise in storytelling more than it is in morality.
He begins by painting a vivid picture of the quintessential Indian housing society – a pair of dilapidated towers, dating from a Soviet-influenced era of architecture and populated by a pleasantly diverse middle-class of Hindus, Muslims, Atheists and so on.
The apartment is the centre of life for its inhabitants – some have made their whole careers around it. But Mumbai is booming, and a real estate magnate wants to construct a set of ultramodern skyscrapers where the Vishram Co-Operative society once stood. To get the tenants to move, he makes them the $330,000 deal – but everyone in the apartment has to sign, or it’s off.
The novel takes you through the shoes of each character – and there are many. One becomes the eponymous protagonist – Masterji, not the first person in the tower to oppose the project, but ultimately, the last.
The novel spends many pages giving you a feel for its characters as human beings. But once word spreads of their looming windfall, attitudes change. Masterji, though prepared to say no to the offer, is shown in a moment of contemplation as people are unnaturally kind to him. “When you’re rich, you don’t have to give people things. They give you things”.
But once it is clear that Masterji is a $330,000 liability – the atmosphere changes. You can feel the air grow chilly around him even through the book. The builder and his henchman spread about like a Judas in the midst, riling people up for their project – and against Masterji.
In my experience, some older people oppose a redevelopment project because they are frightened of any kind of change. Some just want more money. And then there is one kind of person, the most dangerous, who says no because he is full of negative will power: because he does not enjoy life and does not want others to enjoy life. When these people speak, you must speak louder and clearer than they do.
***Last Man in Tower is a set piece for Adiga’s many ideological influences. The plot echoes a reality of so many in India – displacement with the promise of a payoff. The rich bidding the small to get out of the way of their plans.
Ultimately, it speaks of middle-class complicity in urban India. Ideals drive a group of residents to oppose the project – but ultimately, none refuse it for want of upward mobility. Masterji, a widower, cannot leave the apartment because it holds too many memories of the only thing that mattered in his life – a time when his family lived simply and joyously, without wanting more. The middle-class, ordinarily well-opined on matters of humanity – lose this same humanity when it comes to their own affairs.
Now, even his son, staying far away and dreaming of inheritance, is pitted against him for refusing the offer. Masterji has nothing to live or die for; so he chooses a moral compass without knowing exactly why. A chance encounter with Mumbai’s daily wage labourers, who also face the regular threat of displacement, reminds him that he is fighting for something larger than himself. He would pay the price for this, as the last man in the tower.
Adiga has a knack for navigating the urban labyrinth of emotion and inequality with his eyes wide open. The real-estate lobby, ostensibly the villains of the piece, are also shown as human beings – its leader navigating his own high-stakes version of a rat race. Nobody is exempt from the rat race – the magnate started out penniless in Mumbai like everybody else. As one of the characters, and the teacher’s would-be confidante, says:
The thing to do in a rat race is to win it. Not to run away.
Last Man in Tower is an incredibly detailed account of a housing society’s transition from the old India to the new. Like the White Tiger, it revels in contrasts – painted as intricately with words and emotions as a film is painted with light and shadow. Reading it is to take one’s moral compass, vaguely inherited from an older idea of India, and watch it spin – bidden and unbidden by forces out of our control. Adiga’s ability to read India in all its defiance makes him a powerful chronicler of the urban zeitgeist.
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