Monday, July 11, 2011

Readable, Not Towering

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian.


Avarice runs through the pages of Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower the way local trains criss-cross the city of Mumbai. In a plot that’s drawn from local headlines, the novel deals with the rapaciousness of realtors and the amorality of the self-interested middle class. The eponymous last man is one Yogesh Murthy, known to all as Masterji, an upright former teacher now in his 60s whose moralistic stance is the motor that drives the action to a gruesome finish.

Last Man in Tower’s events are largely set in one Vishram Society, comprising the dilapidated Tower A, built in the 1950s, and the smarter, relatively newer Tower B. This corner of an eastern suburb of Mumbai, surrounded by slums and next to the domestic airport, is, we’re ironically informed from the start, very “pucca”, being “middle class to the core”. Comprising retirees, cyber-cafe owners, real estate brokers and more, “the men have modest paunches, wear checked polyester shirts over white baniyans, and keep their hair oiled and short. The older women wear saris, salwaar kameez or skirts, and the younger ones wear jeans. All of them pay taxes, support charities, and vote in local and general elections”.

Adiga spends time and effort in delineating the lives and circumstances of the residents of this building; unfortunately, however, there’s little that’s unusual in this portrayal. The husbands and wives are uni-dimensional in their desire to keep up with the Jains, protect and care for their offspring and desire to forge better lives. All of these seem to be within their grasp when self-made real-estate mogul Dharmen Shah makes them a takeover offer that’s several times more than the market rate, in order for him to demolish Vishram Society and erect a multi-storeyed monstrosity in its stead.

Though the rest are won over by Mammon, it’s Masterji, indulging in memories of his deceased wife and daughter, who alone puts his foot down and refuses to vacate. Unmoved by the entreaties of his neighbours, pleas of his son and hostilities of Shah’s henchmen, Masterji believes he can find refuge in the police, the law and the media. Events, however, spin out of control, leading to a denouement hinted at early on when Adiga specifically mentions an Agatha Christie title on Masterji’s bookshelf, the one dealing with dark deeds on the Orient Express.

While the other characters are somewhat predictable in their actions and stilted dialogue, it’s interesting that Masterji isn’t painted in Mahatma-like shades. His intransigence over the years and habit of “controlling appetites and sorrows” is shown to estrange his former students as well as his son, and one can understand why his upright, rigid stance creates vituperation among others. His novelistic opposite, the gutka-chewing Dharmen Shah, is at least unabashed about his desires and motives, ignoring diseased lungs in his efforts to make his company, and his buildings, soar higher.

Throughout, Adiga deftly contrasts the city’s intersecting ways of life. Slum-dwellers, construction workers and the homeless appear as a counterpoint to the more privileged, oblivious few. At times, though, the broad-brush satire – the dominant mode of Adiga’s earlier The White Tiger – is too heavy-handed. For example, while Shah is at a construction site, we’re told that “a worker’s family was spending the nights on the unfinished fourth floor, which one day a technology executive or businessman would occupy…[their] washing…hung in the alcoves where Versace would soon hang; their little bars of soap and detergent did the work that expensive perfumes would do. And they probably did it better”. Later on, in another pointed comment, random acts of violence are planned on no less an occasion than Gandhi Jayanti. To further belabour the point, every now and again stray dogs chase puppies, cats slash at butterflies, moths get caught in ceiling fans and crows’ nests are demolished

Not for Adiga, then, the more nuanced approach revealed in, for instance, Anjali Joseph’s Saraswati Park or Nalini Jones’ What You Call Winter, two other works of fiction centered on Mumbai suburbs. This take-no-prisoners style serves the author well on the occasions that he employs Dickensian exaggeration bordering on the farcical – notably, when describing the antics of the legal firm that Masterji seeks out.

The prose, though proficient for most of the book, occasionally descends into spiky, strange patches. At one point, describing a dizzy-headed Masterji, we’re told that “explosions of glucose – comets and supernovae – lit up his private darkness; a bacchanalia had begun in his hyper-metabolizing cells”. Quite an affliction. For all that, Adiga does keep the action moving, cutting between disparate characters’ actions and motives with a degree of skill. There’s a compelling quality to the second half, when events move with a quality of grim predetermination. Vivid scenes build to a climax, giving way to a coda in which hypocrisy and conscience are well blended.

One needs voices that run counter to the grand business-page narrative of India’s burgeoning, shining middle class, and Adiga’s book is a necessary one in this context. It’s not exactly towering, but Last Man in Tower does possess the virtues of being readable as well as discomfiting in all the right places. 

My reviews of some other books set in Mumbai: Nalini Jones' What You Call Winter; Anjali Joseph's Saraswati Park; Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Thing; Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva; Murzban Shroff's Breathless in Bombay; and a round-up of 'Mumbai fiction' from 2008. 

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