Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

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

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
Ralph Nader
Are You Ready for Democracy?
Chris Martenson
Hell to Pay
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Debate Night: Undecided is Everything, Advantage Trump
Frank X Murphy
Power & Struggle: the Detroit Literacy Case
Chris Knight
The Tom and Noam Show: a Review of Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”
Weekend Edition
September 23, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Meaning of the Trump Surge
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: More Pricks Than Kicks
Mike Whitney
Oh, Say Can You See the Carnage? Why Stand for a Country That Can Gun You Down in Cold Blood?
Chris Welzenbach
The Diminution of Chris Hayes
Vincent Emanuele
The Riots Will Continue
Rob Urie
A Scam Too Far
Pepe Escobar
Les Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes, Obfuscation and Propaganda in Syria
Timothy Braatz
The Quarterback and the Propaganda
Sheldon Richman
Obama Rewards Israel’s Bad Behavior
Libby Lunstrum - Patrick Bond
Militarizing Game Parks and Marketing Wildlife are Unsustainable Strategies
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail