I’ve been thinking about Aravind Adiga’s Last Man In Tower for some weeks now, and remain curious about it. This may be a function of its own ambivalence, being as it is a novel uncertain as to which character is its hero and which its villain. The book is the story of a down-at-heel apartment building clinging onto its middle-class status despite peeling plaster and failing fortunes. Vishram Tower A decays in a corner of a Mumbai changing so fast that its inhabitants – teachers, civil servants, small businessmen – can only look on the younger denizens of the neighbouring Vishram Tower B – computer programmers, financiers, whizz-kids – and distrust them.
The novel is therefore about communities – how they form, but also how they oppose each other. “People were forced to adjust; temporary compromises congealed.” [pg. 17] The western reader barely recognises the limited water and communal living of Vishram Tower A as middle class, and yet the self-definition of the community seems more important than any external perspective. Nor is the tower exclusive – over time, Hindus, Christians, even those of no belief at all, have gradually been allowed past the security guard stationed sleepily at its entrance. One might think this dynamism admirable, but Adiga seems less convinced: comparing a child with learning difficulties to Mumbai, he describes the pair of them as “[n]ever growing, yet somehow picking up new things all the time.” [pg. 33] The city and its communities emerge as contingent, and consequently Last Man In Tower is not so savage as Adiga’s writing has been previously. It is more uncertain, more humane.
Nevertheless, the better angels of the community’s nature are not in evidence when a developer offers each of the two Towers’ inhabitants an inflated price for their property, in exchange for them moving out prior to demolition. Tower B agrees in its entirety almost immediately; the more old-fashioned Tower A proves trickier. In particular, the retired teacher known with respect as Masterji proves firmly recalcitrant. Facing off against the developer, Dharmen Shah, Masterji at first seems the indisputable hero of the piece: Shah is a ruthless villain, destroying homes and livelihoods in pursuit of empty profit, which he tends to spend on fast women and luxurious cars; Masterji, on the other hand, is studiedly humble and spends his days teaching children, reading books, and dispensing homely wisdom. He is the quiet man who stands up against rampant corporate greed. “These developers and builders are mafia,” the Marxist Mrs Rego insists at one point. [pg. 39] What cause more noble than repelling them?
For his part, Shah intones, “In the village, a man lives as a social animal […]: pleasing his father, grandfather, brothers, cousins. His caste. His community. A man is free here. In the city.” [pg. 87] On the one hand, this strikes the reader as wolfish self-justification, the words of a man more interested in throwing off the bonds of mutual obligation than in encouraging everyone to be truly free. Yet on the other, Masterji’s insistence on his own authority, his superiority to the dwindling band of followers who stick with him despite the consequences their negative answer to Shah’s request will have on them and their children, comes to seem like vanity. “You have to respect human greed,” Shah insists elsewhere. [pg. 107]
Adiga has garnered a reputation as a savage yet somehow affectionate satirist. In Last Man In Tower, this gentleness is reflected in how much more carefully he circles around his subject. In The White Tiger, Adiga was focused on skewering modern India’s obsession with acquisition and commercial success; in Last Man In Tower, he’s more aware of the opportunity for change that dynamism might offer. “Bombay,” he tells us, “like a practitioner of yoga, was folding in on itself, as its centre moved from the south, where there was no room to grow, to this swap land near the airport.” [pg. 37] This is simply bare fact, driven by economic and social imperative: should the city wish to grow, and Vishram Tower A’s fading façade is evidence enough of what happens to a place which stands still, men like Shah are necessary. The moral conundrum is that communities are meant to stand for more than utilitarian convenience: “if one person says no,” an inhabitant of Tower A opines, “you can’t tear down the Society. That’s the whole idea of a Co-operative Housing Society. One for all, all for one.” [pg. 95]
There is a strong whiff of didacticism to all this, however. When the Vishram Society announces that “Yogesh Murthy of 3A (formerly known as ‘Masterji’) [should] be expelled from the Society” [pg. 274], that symbolic abandonment of respect as currency is a tad over-done; when we see advertisements for modern broadband which scream “IMPATIENCE IS NOW A VIRTUE” [pg. 296], we also hear the authorial voice rather too loudly. Yet in tender moments – “Masterji touched the wall of his son’s Society. It did not remember Purnima or Sandhya [his wife and daughter]” [pg. 194] – or when Shah is allowed some voice other than the brute’s – “Dhirubhai Ambani said he would salaam anyone to become the richest man in India. I’ve never salaamed anyone. This has been a city where a free man could keep his dignity” – we see countervailing arguments (Masterji’s son has lived in life-long fear of him) which add necessary grain.
Thus the ambivalence. Undoubtedly, the demolition of Tower A symbolises a loss – “In old buildings truth is a communal thing, a consensus of opinion” [pg. 216]. Yet there is a hint that Shah’s is a necessary transitional phase: “When I see you boys sitting here before me,” says Mrs Rego to some young cricketers near the end of the novel, “I know that there are future Masterjis among you, and this city will again be what it was, the greatest on earth.” [pg. 416] In a week in which our own communities have buckled under the strain of the competing demands of mutual obligation and economic imperative, Adiga offers a hopeful, if realistic, message: there is no avoiding the crucible, but as long as the memory of one demand is kept alive in the face of the other – even, and perhaps especially, when it seems futile or counter-productive to do so – there is a chance to forge new communities within its heat.