India’s Dark Underbelly

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.

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South