Last Man in the Tower, by Aravind Adiga

Article published on July 18, 2011.

Vishram Co-operative Housing Society is a “pucca” housing estate home to good, middle class Indian families, many of who have lived side by side for many years in the thin-walled building. When developers come to tear down this grandmother of real estate and build luxury flats in its place, most of the residents are eager to sign up for the huge payout they will receive upon demolition. For them, the promise of so many rupees offers them the chance to go from the limited water supply and crumbling walls of Vishram to a new beginning of gleaming surfaces and lifts that actually work. At first some resist, but one by one their minds are changed, all except Masterji, a retired school teacher who has both raised and lost his family within Vishram’s walls. He alone resists the builder Mr Shah’s money and other attempts at coercion, becoming increasingly more strident as time goes on and the attempts to persuade him escalate.

In a book rich with symbolism, Mr Shah – who has come up from the slums, represents the new India of “talent-and-nothing-else” where old systems of caste, religion and background have fallen by the wayside in a new India ruled by money, violence and relentless modernisation. In this world, it seems that everyone has his price and can be persuaded eventually to join the tide of progress, everyone that is except for Masterji.

Adiga suggests a number of reasons for Masterji’s truculence. Perhaps it is because he doesn’t want to leave the place in which he lost his wife and daughter. Perhaps as his son says it is the vanity protest of a “weak man who has found a place where he feels strong”. Perhaps it is because he feels that in doing so he can put right a previous wrong and he wants, as Dickens once wrote of David Copperfield to become at last the “hero of [his] own life”. Most likely it is all of these and Masterji himself does not seem clear exactly why – only knowing that he feels he is part of something bigger and is in some way fighting a battle for a different kind of modernisation where there is a place for all of the “solitary, broken men” he sees around him.

The India Adiga introduces us too in the book is a world away from the India of Eat, Pray, Love and the backpacker trail. Like his previous books, (the Booker winning White Tiger and the short story collection Between the Assasinations,) Last Man in the Tower shines a light on a modern, murky India. It is both the India of bright shiny call centres and sleek apartment blocks and also of bribery, mafia and exploitation. The battle for the soul of Bombay is writ large here, with Masterji increasingly vilified throughout the novel for standing in the way of progress, only to be described at the close by the same neighbours as being the only one who had a conscience and was “free to the end”.

Weighing in at 419 pages, and tackling amongst other things poverty, murder, bribery, suicide, alienation and loneliness, this is not a light read in any sense of the word. But, as it gives the reader a fascinating insight into a changing India (especially when read together with Adiga’s other books), has some very touching portraits of Vishram’s tenants, and because Adiga’s prose is crisp and sometimes beautiful, it is definitely worth adding to your summer reading list – although if you are hitting the backpacker trail, you might want to wait for the paperback!



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