The Vishram Society in Santa Cruz is a pucca society, despite its proximity to the “polyp-like” slums of Vakola, ethnically and religiously mixed, its reassuring middle-classness emphasised by the vehicles parked along its compound wall: a dozen scooters and motorbikes, three Maruti-Suzukis, two Tata Indicas, a battered Toyota Qualis and a few children’s bicycles.
It is an unlikely setting for a morality tale about greed, ruthlessness, complicity and death, but Aravind Adiga’s strength lies in his journalist’s ability to take the ordinary and make the reader see it differently. Last Man in Tower, to be published later this month, is his third book, following his Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger, and his collection of short stories, Between the Assassinations. The book is as heavily populated as Vishram Society itself, but two characters stand out.
The builder Dharmen Shah, the corrosion of his lungs symbolic shorthand for the man’s moral rot, makes an offer to the members of Vishram Society to buy out their flats at a rate they can’t refuse. The only man who refuses to consider selling his flat is Yogesh Murthy, the last man of the title; a retired teacher and widower whose stubborn attachment to his home will have terrible repercussions. Mr Adiga’s descriptive prose is crisp and glittering, his dialogue perhaps less convincing, but Last Man in Tower remains compelling despite the flaws.
The central conceit of Last Man in Tower is hardly new; Rohinton Mistry set his gentle, affectionate portrait of Parsis in decline in Firozesha Bag, as fictional a Bombay neighbourhood as Vishram Society. Mr Mistry’s short stories were rich in his particular brand of humanism, but they were sepia snapshots. Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu, also set in a Bombay apartment building, set a dying servant on the landing of a staircase that served as a kind of stage set, which was just as well for a book that was more Bombay Burlesque than Mumbai Noir.
Mr Adiga does this often in his writing, employing a shaky central conceit – a chauffeur-turned-millionaire writing letters to the Chinese Premier in The White Tiger, the lives and times of the TV-soap opera inhabitants of Vishram Society – as the scaffolding that allows a surprisingly solid story to grow up behind its frail lines.
Mr Adiga is probably one of the most popular and polarising contemporary writers working in India today. The White Tiger divided readers. Many loved the story of Balram Halwai, the driver who kills his employer and ascends to wealth, for Mr Adiga’s sharp editorialising and bitter condemnation of India Shining.
Many loved the book because it was a fast-paced read that didn’t condescend to its audience. The distinction between those who hated the book because it exposed the dark innards of the new, shining India and those who were uneasy about what they saw as a deep inauthenticity in the writing is a key one.
The former group of readers tends to dislike any portrayal of India – especially of the middle class – that is critical, or sharply questioning of the basic inequalities we’d prefer to brush under the carpet. The latter group of readers, and writers like Manjula Padmanabhan or Amitava Kumar, often question the nuances of a story like The White Tiger — Mr Kumar, for instance, found on nearly every page both a fine phrase, and also something “utterly cartoonish” or that sounded false.
But people will read Last Man in Tower for many reasons. Mr Adiga writes novels the way a really good journalist writes editorials — fuelled by a combination of rage and statistics. In an essay he wrote about Mumbai and how it had shaped his writing, he mentions meeting a lawyer’s son: “Boastful, proud of his status, obscenely well-connected, he seemed to me the incarnation of old money, old privilege, and old stupidity — the living reason that people like me from small towns had to leave India. There must be a whole caste of men like this in Mumbai, I thought, sipping gin-and-tonic and sucking the country dry.”
These are his targets, as much as the builders and the builders’ henchmen, and he is on far more secure ground analysing Bombay, where he lived, than he was on extrapolating on Bihar, where he travelled briefly. Mr Adiga writes cinematically, with an understanding of the rhythms of Indian English; reading Last Man in Tower is often like reading a screenplay, with exactly the same drawbacks and rewards. The writing can be erratic: the lift at Vishram Society moves in Mr Adiga’s compact, brilliant comparison, like “a coffin on wheels”, but a description of young people as fat and glossy, like “glazed chicken breasts turning on a rotisserie spit” misses the mark.
Almost a decade ago, Chetan Bhagat proved that Indian popular fiction could thrive. He did it with novels that struck a deep chord by mirroring the everyday concerns of Mr Average, written in unpolished, often sentimental prose. What we needed was a better popular novelist; someone who would replace that sentimentality with a more political anger, and articulate the frustrations and betrayal that ran in the veins of those who had been excluded, in one way or another, from privilege. Mr Adiga’s Last Man in Tower is uneven and schematic, but it marries a Dickensian grimness and satire with classic Bombay noir.