Aravind Adiga it seems is like wine in a bottle. He only matures with age. If his The white Tiger and Between the Assassinations were brilliant, Last Man in Tower is a masterpiece — accurately portraying the fast-changing landscape of the world’s second fastest growing economy.
Coming just on the back of widespread protests over land acquisitions in all parts of the country, particularly the significant Supreme Court judgments in the Greater Noida land acquisition cases, Last Man in Tower puts the spotlight on the raging debate — land is required for development, but development at what cost? To grab the cash being offered or cling to one’s roots?
The background couldn’t get simpler — a typical middle class building in an area that used to be suburbs and now a hotspot of construction in Mumbai — Vakola. If the residents of Vishram Society — a curious mix of service class and retired people — pride themselves on anything, it’s their pucca way of life. Respectable residents of a respectable building, the pink colour of the building giving way to a “rainwater-stained, fungus-licked grey”, where the roof leaks every time it rains, where water supply is limited — two hours a day — where the neighbour can hear every time you flush… Yet our respectable residents are a happy community, bound by their middle-class sentiments and middle-class way of life.
In comes the coughing, wheezing, conniving builder Dharmen Shah and his “left hand man” Shanmugham, and all hell breaks loose. In true Godfather style, Shah makes an offer which no one can refuse — Rs 19,000 per square foot — and the story really takes off from there. Not everyone wants to leave — some of them have stayed there for years and for people like the blind Mrs Pinto, the society is like her eyes and ears.
Yet, none can benefit till all agree to vacate. As one by one all residents fall for Shah’s offer, later enticements, and much later the threats, the last man standing is Yogesh A. Murthy aka Masterji, a former schoolteacher and a widower, the most respected man in the building, who clings to the memory of his wife and daughter, and refuses to give up his flat and his rights.
It is precisely here Adiga justifies all the praise and honours heaped on him. Instead of a plain black and white story of an evil builder and aggrieved residents — the author beautifully portrays the various shades of human nature, as the same residents who for years stood by each other in times of crisis and shared each other’s happiness start baying for each other’s blood. A classic case of what money does to people. With the dreams of a new life about to become a reality, their petty jealousies and grievances win over their basic human niceties — even stooping to the levels of going through each other’s trash cans.
So, Sangeeta Puri, who wouldn’t mind keeping a mango bought for her darling Down’s Syndrome-afflicted son Ramu to give to the widower old Masterji, one whom she calls an English gentleman for standing by his friends, the Pintos, when the old couple initially refuse to sell their flat, doesn’t hesitate to call the same Masterji an evil, selfish, morally corrupt man after a couple of months.
The creepy, conniving Ajwani is a typical property dealer who doesn’t mind doing anything for an extra cut — to the point of actually assisting Shanmugham in threatening his fellow flatmates… The helpless society secretary Kothari is as helpless as they can get… his pettiness often hinted at but never proved… until the end… Poor Ibrahim Kudwa who doesn’t want to take any decisions and wants to please everyone finally finds himself taking every decision he knows is wrong in his heart… The Communist “battsleship” Mrs Rego with her sad past and torn between her beliefs and her struggle as a single mother…
Adiga brilliantly manages to bring to life every character. Even Shah is not a heartless bastard — he is a decent man, makes a decent offer, far better than what his rivals would do, he even admonishes Shanmugham the first time the latter threatens Masterji. Shah is a man with a vision, a man who wants to construct just once more, every time, to change the face of Mumbai — to put it on a path of progress — that is the way he sees it.
He is not really a money shark. He gets a pleasure in dealing fair. In fact, when he first makes his offer to Vishram residents, Shanmugham privately protests saying the offer is too high — at least Rs 9,000 higher than the going rate of Rs 10,000 per square foot. Shah replies that he has saved Rs 1,000 per square foot. How? Since people were expecting Rs 10,000, they would be overwhelmed by an offer of double that amount. Yet, Rs 19,000 is Rs 1,000 less than Rs 20,000. Funny logic. But Shah gives a glimpse into his heart here — heart of a man trying to be fair, trying to compensate people whose shelter he would be taking away.
On the other hand, Masterji is no hero. He is initially guided by his solidarity with the old Pintos, but increasingly it’s his ego, his frustration regarding his failure to fight his brothers-in-law when his wife was alive is what comes into play. The cops are not a typical villainous lot out of Bollywood movies. The inspector is respectful with Masterji and promises to help. True to his words, the constable visits the society and takes statements from the Pintos when they are threatened. There is the intriguing Parekh and Associates — the oh-so-typical lawyers spewing legalese and fighting for human rights — “Masterji… say to yourself, Mofa, Mofa, and close your eyes. You sleep with the law by your side,” always ready to make the best settlement possible, whether the clients want it or not.
The language is trademark Adiga — lucid and free flowing, marked by his characteristic sharp wit. Last Man in Tower is not about one good and one evil, not about one group versus the other. It is grim yet not dark like Adiga’s previous creations. Starkly political, yet with a universal appeal, Last Man in Tower is about the contradictions and the burning issues in our current society, the various shades of human nature present in each one of us.