Last Man In Tower, Aravind Adiga’s hotly anticipated third literary offering flings the reader into the heart of Mumbai’s Vakola neighbourhood. Set against a backdrop of slums and rampant poverty, we are introduced to Tower A of the Vishram Cooperative Housing Society, home to a community of seemingly harmonious neighbours.
Adiga throws us into the insalubrious world of Mumbai’s building industry, personified by real estate developer Dharmen Shah and his left-hand man Shanmugham. Shah’s plan is simple: buy out the residents of Vishram Society and build a luxury apartment complex to house the city’s new generation of wealthy elites.
The narrative traces the consequences Shah’s generous offer has on the neighbours, many of who have lived together for a number of years. While the adjacent Tower B agree almost immediately, Tower A’s excitement is mixed with caution. We are repeatedly—and ironically—reminded of the building industry’s murky reputation by the respectable members of Vishram Society – “I know these builders and they are all liars and criminals” accuses single mother and “Communist Aunty” Mrs Rego.
Last Man in Tower is a book of dichotomies. While Shah and Shanmugham represent the alleged criminal building industry, and conversely, the neighbours are characteristic of law-abiding citizens, a paradox begins to emerge as the residents consider the offer before them. An ailing Shah begins to pick off the most reluctant dissenters, planting seeds of doubt in their minds. He is subtle in his actions, and we are left to watch as the real damage is done by members of the society themselves as these seeds develop roots.
We are also given brief glimpses into the lives of those on the margins of Vishram Society life. Mary, the slum-dwelling cleaner, and rum-swigging Security Guard Ram Khare remind the reader of the coexistence of towering wealth and festering poverty overlapping in Mumbai. Mary’s stoic existence severely undermines the ongoing bickering between the residents, who in reality, are relatively well off.
Is the lure of money stronger than friendship? Adiga would suggest so in this hard-hitting account of what the promise of wealth can do to a community. At first glance, Last Man in Tower is an account of greedy, middle-aged neighbours and squabbling pensioners. However it becomes clear that what the characters are chasing and what is within grasp for Vishram Society, is security.
Those looking into the Society are desperate for security. Mary lives an insecure life with the constant threat that her makeshift slum home will be ripped apart and the worry of losing her job if the luxury development goes ahead. Even Shah’s persistent efforts to better himself financially and socially, and to often distract himself, seem in pursuit of meaning and peace of mind.
For the Tower A residents, the money on offer is symbolic of Mrs Puri’s freedom from the constant caring for her disabled son, for a secure future for Mrs Rego’s children and for the chance to help retired Mr Pinto’s financially troubled son.
The author’s voice appears to be expressed through Frank, the objective American—who like Adiga did—works as a journalist. While the rest of the characters we meet assume that the principal dissenter, Masterji, simply wants a bigger “sweetener” to secure the deal, Frank recognises the protesting to be: “A statement, isn’t it? Against development. Against unplanned development.”
However, Last Man in Tower, treads a similar path to Between the Assassinations and bestselling Man Booker prizewinner The White Tiger in its preoccupation with issues of injustice and poverty. But, these are all-pervading, macro-level issues that need to be critically questioned and Adiga’s winning formula seems to be his ability to deconstruct and challenge India’s increasing gaps in poverty and inequality. When combined with his talent for weaving satire so effectively into the mundane, this makes for powerful reading.
As Adiga’s Last Man In Tower paints the development of India’s sprawling cities, it becomes more than just a revealing glance at the imploding relationships between a close-knit community. It becomes a parable for urban development in India as the grave consequences of unplanned development are revealed.
But, there is hope. By shining a light on all the Masterji’s of India who are prepared to stand up and fight injustice, Adiga is encouraging us to follow in the old teacher’s footsteps and stand up for what we truly believe.
Last Man In Tower is published by Atlantic Books in the UK on 16 June 2011
Published by the DSC Literature Festival here.