India’s Dark Underbelly

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker Prize for his first novel, White Tiger (2008), a dark underbelly account of a master/servant relationship that, through violence, reverses the previous class order while simultaneously questioning centuries old beliefs and practices in his native India.  A year later, Adiga published an equally dark comedy, also probing traditional roles of caste and culture.  More a collection of linked short stories, Between the Assassinations (2009), for me, was the stronger book.  The prolific Adiga has now written a second novel, Last Man in Tower, returning to the same themes by ratcheting up the question that greed plays in destroying decades-old friendships while probing the place of violence in destroying those relationships once assumed to be sacrosanct.

Dharmen Shah, a ruthless businessman, is used to getting his way.  When he looks at two high-rise apartment buildings in Mumbai which are on prime property but are also considerably run down since their construction several decades earlier, Shah sees a golden opportunity to make a staggering profit.  Offer the owners huge amounts of money for their individual apartments, tear down the buildings and construct much more elaborate structures and call the new twin towers: Shanghai, an elite address for the rich, which Shah believes will be his legacy.  The legal caveat is that it’s a matter of all or nothing.  Everyone has to sell or the deal doesn’t go through.

All of the occupants of Tower B quickly agree, move out of the six-story building, and demolition begins.  In Tower A, there are three hold-outs, led by a retired schoolteacher, fondly referred to as Masterji, whose wife died a year ago and who believes that he cannot leave the building where he lived with his wife for thirty years.  The two other hold-outs cave in rather quickly, leaving Masterji as the focal point of all the other occupants’ anger.  It’s a simple matter for Masterji; he’s content with what he has and doesn’t see any reason to move.

Enter greed—at least for the numerous other occupants of Tower A.  Masterji receives anonymous phone calls, threats and intimidations—persistent harassment to break him down so that he, too, will sign the papers, get his money, and abandon the building.  Shah is the most surprised because he believes that every man has a price, “secret spaces in his heart into which a little more cash can be stuffed….”  Not so with the retired teacher.  Thus, it’s not very long before more drastic measures are taken to eliminate Masterji so that the others can quickly strike it rich.  Nor is it much of a surprise that it is Masterji’s oldest friends in Tower A who ruthlessly turn against him.

That’s enough about the story.  Adiga’s strength as a writer is his sense of detail and in this novel that means his picture of Mumbai, a city undergoing enormous change, especially economic, but also environmental.  This, for example, is one paragraph describing an incident on a street in Mumbai:

“A cow had been tied up by the side of the fried-snacks store, a healthy animal with a black comet mark on its forehead.  It had just been milked, and a bare-chested man in a dhoti was taking away a mildewed bucket inside which fresh milk looked like radioactive liquid.  Squatting by the cow a woman in a saffron sari was squeezing gruel into balls.  Next to her two children were being bathed by another woman.  Half a village crammed into a crack in the pavement.  The cow chewed on grass and jackfruit rinds.  Round-bellied and big-eyed, aglow with health: it sucked in diesel and exhaust fumes, particulate matter and sulphur dioxide, and churned them in its four stomachs, creaming good milk out of bad air and bacterial water.  Drawn by the magnetism of so much ruddy health, the old man put his finger out to its shit-caked belly.  The living organs of the animal vibrated into him, saying: all this power in me is power in you too.”

A glass of milk anyone?

Unfortunately, Shah is a cardboard character not nearly as convincingly drawn as the similar ruthless financer in Kamala Markandaya’s recent novel, Bombay Tiger, which shares a number of other similarities with Adiga’s story.  Masterji is fully rounded and completely sympathetic—the heart of the story—but even he cannot compensate for the novel’s plodding pace.  Too bad, because Aravind Adiga is clearly one imaginative writer, willing to pull down the shibboleths of traditional Indian order.

Last Man in Tower
By Aravind Adiga
Knopf, 419 pp., $26.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

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