Book review: 'Last Man In Tower'

Sunday, 28 August 2011 - 8:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

As in The White Tiger, Adiga creates a narrative that examines an essential conflict of our time.

Last Man In Tower
Aravind Adiga
Fourth Estate
422 pages

Last Man In Tower is set in Tower A of the Vishram Co-operative Housing society in Vakola, Mumbai. It is an aging, run-down apartment building inhabited by a disappearing breed, the middle class. The occupants of Tower A are a closely knit bunch, having supported each other through many crises, trials and tragedies. Yet, when a builder approaches the society with a lucrative offer, friendships that have spanned decades start to fall apart.

The novel takes for inspiration a phenomenon that has swept every Indian metro in recent years: middle class families wooed by sky-rocketing property prices sell their modest homes and move into penthouses, swapping their scooters for cars, Godrej almaris for imported teak cupboards, thrifty habits for a lifestyle of affluence. In Adiga’s Last Man In Tower, a retired sixty-one year old science teacher, ‘Masterji’, is the last man to resist the builder’s offer.

Masterji’s resistance in the face of the rising bribes and threats of the builder find a parallel with the struggles of men and women, all over India, who resist the clearance of their homes to build dams, bridges and factories. These changes, promising prosperity, often endanger something intangible but important — a way of life — in Adiga’s novel; not to forget middle class integrity and decency. In the new India of the skyscrapers that replace low-rise apartment buildings, respect is accorded in proportion to income, and software engineers and investment bankers command more respect than teachers like Masterji.

As in The White Tiger, Adiga creates a narrative that examines an essential conflict of our time. Nonetheless, the book drags in the beginning — the set up takes too much time, describing the building society, the characters, the layered and complex relationships. The conclusion is expected, and doesn’t surprise the reader. Occasional awkward phrases (like “sleeveless saris”) give the feeling that the book has been rushed.

In The White Tiger and Between The Assassinations, characters are provoked by rage and frustration, moved to unexpected conclusions and explosive, furious acts of violence. Most of the acts of violence in Last Man In Tower are indirect — clandestine, planned, discrete, often symbolic. Adiga depicts his characters with great sympathy and understanding, so much so that everyone in this novel is a victim, and suffering — even the builder, his thug, and the avaricious neighbours of Masterji. Masterji and his opponent, Darwen Shah, the builder, seek to define and find themselves through their acts —

Masterji in his determined resistance, Darwen Shah in the buildings he creates. Both are motivated more by stubbornness than by rage. An element that worked for Adiga in his earlier works, the searing anger and hatred that drives the plot, and empowers the characters of The White Tiger and Between the Assassinations, is largely absent in Last Man In Tower.

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