Swans Commentary » swans.com October 10, 2011  



Humanity Hanging On In Mumbai


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Adiga, Aravind: Last Man In Tower, Knopf, 2011, ISBN-10:0307594092, 400 pages.
"A man has to bend his rules a little to enjoy life in Mumbai." Page 68


(Swans - October 10, 2011)   The first page of Aravind Adiga's novel Last Man In Tower shows a map of Mumbai, colonial Bombay. There follows a run-down of the residents of a five-story apartment building in the Vakola district of the city. No publisher's gimmick, this is the perfect introduction. Like a tossing insomniac, Last Man In Tower obsesses on the city, watching it devour itself to excrete an ever-new monstrous surprise.

Yet Adiga isn't a travel writer. He no more gives us a municipal directory than James Joyce did in Dubliners. That's why the list of residents is as important as the map. Adiga conducts a moral weigh-in of Mumbai, and morality can only be about people.

Stripped to the bone, the story doesn't promise. A voracious property developer needs a block of old apartments cleared so he can redevelop the site at immense profit. He has only to convince each of the shabby genteel inhabitants to sell out to him. Since his power is as vast as his bank account -- the two being one in Mumbai -- he lures the residents out with money. If that doesn't work he applies criminal force. He has the police and every other authority in his pocket. The drama of the novel will be in how the residents react to his offers and how one hold-out says no and never.

At first glance the story appears to have served too often before. The first thing memory throws up is Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1956 play The Visit, where we also watch lucre play the devil with conscience. The comparison is instructive. Everything depends on what an author hangs on the bare bones. Durrenmatt dealt with a Protestant mindset in a Switzerland that smelled of disinfectant. Adiga drapes his story line with nothing less than the Indian subcontinent, sumptuous with rot. His characters, though vital to a fault, have to contend with the inhuman dynamics of Mumbai, India's runaway dragon. We are far from the twitching curtains and muffled tut-tuts of a tiny town in a tiny country.

Twenty years ago, Westerners saw Mumbai as a typical Third-World boom town. A stroll through the city gave the visitor indelible glimpses of wealth and squalor. As he gawked at the latest gleaming tower, he had to step with care over citizens bedded down on the sidewalk. Twenty years on, Mumbai has changed only in adding more of the same. But the Westerner feels increasingly at home. His own urban infrastructure is threadbare, some of his neighbors are homeless, and the poor have been pushed over the edge by the rich. A publicist called Huffington has in 2011 brought her Third World America out in paperback. Boom doesn't figure in her title. What astounds the visitor in Mumbai now is the economy's robust growth rate while back home spin-doctors juggle with zero and a decimal point.

Every writer has a public in mind. What that public knows and can take in sets limits to what he can write for them. This reciprocity goes unnoticed because most writers speak to their own, namely people like themselves. But with a writer like Aravind Adiga complications arise. He was born in 1974 to a notable family in Chennai, colonial Madras, and went through high school there. His family then moved to Australia where he acquired a second citizenship. University study at Columbia in New York and Oxford in the UK followed. He worked as a business journalist for The Financial Times before spending three years as South Asia correspondent for Time magazine.

Here then was a novelist with a foot in two very different worlds. He continues to write in English, though he now lives in Mumbai. His cosmopolitan status was much enhanced when in 2008 he won the UK Booker Prize for his first novel The White Tiger. The businessman writer in that novel has in view a very specific public, no less than the Chinese premier Wen Jiabo. The thug fantasist writes him a book-length letter explaining the role of crime and brutality in India's recent great bound forward. As an entrepreneur whose business plan included murder, he knows whereof he speaks. He's categoric about his own path out of village serfdom being the only exit available. Like all good satire, The White Tiger is merciless and painful. But, of course, Adiga, unlike his character, hasn't written for the man at the top of China.

Who then is Adiga's public? True to his background, it's bicephalous. Yours truly, a Western reader wanting to know about India, is typical of only one head. The other ranted from India against The White Tiger because it dismissed the country's "economic miracle" as a criminal conspiracy. The kafuffle revealed that the natives of the subcontinent are just as needful of clues about their bewildering country as any Westerner.

Adiga's second book plays on this duality of readership. Between The Assassinations looks closely at a fictional small southern Indian city. Each of the interlocking accounts of what really goes on in the place is prefaced by a page from a cod tourist guide that vaunts a bland positive. The overlooked negative that follows is roiling frustration wrought by status, caste, and religion. Corruption prospers and poverty echoes in the streets like theme music as Adiga surveys India from the bottom up.

Parrying the charge of being too harsh a social critic, Adiga has invoked the example of Charles Dickens. In effect the two novelists do pinpoint abuse in capitalist economies developing at breakneck speed. Strangely, though, Dickens comes out of the ramshackle 19th century with a progressive's sunny smile turned toward the future while India sometimes seems like a burden that Adiga can't get out from under. At times he appears to share the non-Dickensian fatalism of a character in one of his short stories: "There is no one coming to release us from the jail in which we have locked ourselves."

Whereas Dickens dominates his world from on high like a gossipy angel, Adiga needs literary straitjackets to tame his multilayered homeland. The White Tiger is cast as a single letter written during the nights and days of one week in Bangalore. Between The Assassinations is a guided tour over seven days in one small city. Last Man In Tower stays not only within Mumbai but mostly in the company of the lower-middle class residents of a single apartment block. Its action takes place between May 11 and December 25 and is set down as in a scrupulously kept diary.

Last Man In Tower joins Dickens in the fruitiness of its characters. They are thrust, hypocrites blushing like virgins into a world where money calls the shots. The ruthless developer, Shah, isn't an off-the-shelf villain. Like the anti-hero of The White Tiger he began life in a village with nothing. His climb began in the murky world of slum redevelopment. Moving into the construction of shiny high-rises, his desire to build overrides even his greed for money. He can't separate the two, of course, no more than he could begin to operate within the law. However, something like a sacred flame fuels his obsession to outdo his competitors in rebuilding Mumbai. The quest is in fact killing him. His lungs can't take the pollution his ambition has created. Coughing blood, he prays to a rubbish dump that will add land to the city: "Let me build one more time."

Shah, though a thorough scoundrel, refuses to deceive himself. He knows his spoiled son will surrender to drugs and alcohol and finish in jail. He also knows the affection of his young mistress is measured out by the cheques he writes her. Though he probes with delicacy the motives of those he must dominate, he never considers giving them an even break. His view that everyone in the city has a price would seem to be Adiga's.

Murthy, Shah's adversary, comes forward as a little-guy moral hero. He gives the unheard of answer of "nothing" to the number one Mumbai question of "What do YOU want?" This gets Murthy first declared mad and then murdered by his neighbors. On hearing that he has been pushed off his roof in a fake suicide, Shah reflects: "I thought it would be a push down the stairs, or a beating at night....I forgot we were dealing with good people."

For his part, Murthy has always deceived himself. His conflict with the developer has seen his lifelong delusions crumble one by one. The prestige of his decades as a teacher turns out to carry little weight with the new generation. He learns that many of his students saw him only as a bully and a crank. His deceased wife with whom he converses since her death as with a saint in heaven was in fact considered by her son and neighbors as a victim of a domineering husband.

These hard truths that an old man has to learn before dying recall King Lear. Murthy's "nothing" echoes Lear's bitter remark (in the play where the word is everywhere): "Nothing will come of nothing." ("Nothing ever changes. Nothing will ever change," says another Adiga character.)

Murthy, the retired schoolteacher, who refuses to sell his apartment in order to obstruct Shah's plan, takes what looks like a moral stand. But he's no hero. He's a stubborn old man whose embrace of principle was an accident that led him into a personal duel with the developer, a struggle between two kinds of power, not between good and evil. The money that selling would bring isn't coveted by Murthy because he knows he will die soon. His neighbors feel they do need the money, and with such intensity that they actually murder him "for the good of" their co-operative residents society.

Dickens had a sentimental strain that softened biting social criticism with flowing tears. Here, Adiga would have done better not to follow him. He has given us a city not very far down the road from hell. He has shown its denizens, even the putative "hero," caught up in its lures.

We can imagine the novelist returning one night to his residence in one of those new towers. He has been out all day exploring the city's underbelly, but also its pleasanter side. He notes that squalor is balanced by bling: "The defecators have left the water's edge at the slummy end of Versova beach; while, in an equal exchange, the posh end has rid itself of the joggers, callisthentic (sic) stretchers, and t'ai-chi practitioner."

Adiga says to himself, perhaps Murthy ought really to experience a pinch of optimism before being murdered. So he has the old man wander for a while amongst the most downtrodden of the city's workers. Solitude has weighed on him but suddenly he realizes he is not alone, all these isolated poor are equally struggling. It's Adiga's tender moment of Dickensian tear time. But the truth of his novel, which he has convincingly established, is that Mumbai makes people on all levels concerned only with their own wants. That the former schoolteacher, closed in his personal fate and, lower middle class to his boot tops, would abruptly awake to some cross-class, cross-caste, cross-religious universalism won't wash. It's tacked on, a happy ending afterthought, fit only to assuage the Mumbai Chamber of Commerce.

That is not to say that Last Man has no "positive" impact. This resides not in anything rousingly political, but in the shreds of humanity that remain in its citizens despite Mumbai's cruel culture of greed. Positive too is the way Adiga makes his pages fragrant with the millennial savors of India, the harvest of its stupendous civilization. Few novels impose the scent and texture of a country on its readers as this one. Surely positive, again, is the author's knack of never excluding from the glimpses he provides of "India Shining" the presence of the lowliest, a fresh arrival from a village who is ripe for exploitation or a wanderer not only homeless but without even a private niche where he can defecate.


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Published October 10, 2011