New Delhi, July 12: He grew up in Chennai and Mangalore and mentioned a lot about Delhi in his Booker-winning novel “The White Tiger” but for Aravind Adiga, Mumbai, which has the setting of his new novel, is his favourite city on earth.
“New Delhi has its charms - I love Chandni Chowk, Humayun’s Tomb, the Sunday book market at Daryaganj, and the Lodi Gardens. But Mumbai is my favourite city on earth. One reason is that I grew up in Mangalore, which is near the ocean, so I have to be near the waves. From the time I came to Mumbai,” Adiga told PTI in an interview. His just released “Last Man in Tower” is a suspense-filled story of money and power, luxury and deprivation set in the Vishram Cooperative Housing Society in Mumbai, close to the airport, under the flight path of 747s and bordered by slums.
According to the writer, Mumbai has made him what he is today. He came to the city in 2007 full of dreams like thousands of others.“Last Man in Tower”, published by HarperCollins’ imprint Fourth Estate, tells about real estate developer Dharmen Shah who offers to buy out the residents of Vishram Society, planning to use the site to build a luxury apartment complex.
Adiga now wants to concentrate on finishing his next novel. “I hope to finish another novel by October 2014, when I will turn 40. But, as my grandfather used to say, ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’,” he says.
Asked about whether the strong reaction from critics to “The White Tiger” had any effect on “Last Man in Tower”, he says, “I am aware that some readers in India were upset by ‘The White Tiger’. It was not my intention to hurt them. I’ve worked hard to make sure that no reasonable reader would be upset by ‘Last Man in Tower’. That said, I would be disappointed if some unreasonable people were not upset by it.”
Adiga doers not have any plan to attempt a non-fiction work at the moment. “In fact I’ve largely stopped writing non fiction pieces,” the former journalist, who wrote a book of short stories before “The White Tiger” says.
Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga – review
The Booker-winning writer Aravind Adiga has sharpened his observations of the new India in his new novel, Last Man in Tower
In his first, Man Booker-winning novel, The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga captured the contradictions of the new India; in this, his third book, he goes further: they are quite literally the building blocks of his plot.
Last Man in Tower tells the story of a struggle for a slice of shining Mumbai real estate, bringing all of Adiga’s gifts for sharp social observation and mordant wit to the fore.
The “last man” of the title is Yogesh Murthy, or “Masterji” as he is affectionately known, a retired schoolteacher who gives top-up science classes in his spare time. He lives in a crumbling but “absolutely, unimpeachably pucca” middle-class block of flats in the Vishram Housing Society. The water only works for a couple of hours twice a day and each monsoon threatens to bring the roof in; but this is still an idyll representing what was once, itself, “new India”. Citizens of every religion rub along together in a way, Adiga writes, that would have made Nehru proud.
Their shabby utopia is short-lived, however. A property mogul called Shah makes the residents an offer which is too good to be true: a payment of, on average, £210,000 per flat, so that he can bulldoze the old towers and build a glittery new edifice called the Shanghai.
Shah, dripping in gold bangles and wheezing with bronchitis, is the embodiment of social mobility and global aspiration. Having decided not to stay in the village of his birth to “shovel cow shit”, he moved to the city and made his way up in the toxic world of construction. With his health deteriorating, the Shanghai is meant to be his legacy; but Masterji stands in his way. Every family decides to sell their flat except the old teacher, who clings to the memories of his deceased wife and daughter that pervade the building.
Adiga offers a convincing if grim glimpse of human nature as these upstanding residents then turn on one another like stoats in a sack, maddened with greed and the prospect of losing their promised riches. His writing is rich and lush – as when he describes tyre ruts “hardened and ridged like fossilised vertebrae”, or observes that “age had accumulated in fatty rings around Mrs Puri” – if, at times, lacking in subtlety.
Mrs Puri’s son is an 18-year-old with Down’s syndrome. In almost every reference to the boy, Adiga notes that he is with his “Friendly Duck” toy or under his “blue aeroplane duvet”, bludgeoning home his role as an innocent, the idiot savant who whimpers every time someone turns on Masterji. A lighter touch may have been more powerful.
Still, Adiga succeeds in breathing life into an array of characters, from “communist auntie” the social worker, to Mary the cleaner, clinging on to her patch in the slum.
To defend himself against the controversy provoked by his harsh portrayal of his country in The White Tiger, Adiga cites the precedent of writers such as Dickens, who illuminated social ills. His scope, in this novel teeming with life and skulduggery, is indeed Dickensian, although his characterisation is anything but. Dickens painted heroes and villains; Adiga’s characters are bundles of moral ambivalence. Shah, the ruthless builder who hires thugs to rough up people who stand in his way, also hides bank notes for his labourers’ wives to find.
This ambiguity may ring true, but it does, on a basic level, lead to a detachment from the characters and gives a crucial brutal scene a touch of bathos. You can, however, forgive this in a writer who is so evocative, entertaining and angry.
* Ceri Radford’s first novel, A Surrey State of Affairs, is published by Abacus
Last Man in Tower - by Aravind Adiga (560PP, Atlantic, £17.99)