Monday, December 19, 2011

Last Man In Tower - Aravind Adiga

Underneath every old building that’s brought down and replaced by a new one, there remain dissenting voices that are either coerced into submission or forced into silence. Aravind Adiga’s new book Last Man In Tower deals with this theme and shows how, in matters of real estate, when big money is offered to you to part with your property, either you accept it or be forced into accepting it. You don’t have the choice to say no.

The theme of Adiga’s book is not new. There have been films made on it and probably books written (although I haven’t read one). But you can’t question the relevance of the topic in big towns of today’s India where often foreign or illegal money is pumped into big real estate projects, and obstructing laws and people subverted and silenced with the help of palms in positions of power (from police to politicians) that are forever willing to be greased.

In fact, big real estate projects are mostly made possible by the nexus of police, politicians and mercenaries. Without the collective might of whom, it’s not possible for a big project to fructify given that there is no limit to how many people’s lives and livelihoods (slum dwellers, middle class residents etc) a project affects, bringing sudden prosperity for some and forcible displacement for others depending on which side of the divide you are on.

Aravind Adiga’s Last Man In Tower covers the entire gamut of lives that are affected in various ways by these projects. Dharmen Shah, a big builder, makes a generous offer to the inhabitants of Visharm, an old building in Mumbai’s middle class neighbourhood, to leave the building so that it can be demolished to make way for a new glitzy tower, Shah’s dream project. Most accept the offer and some refuse. But as time goes by, the dissenters drop their opposition. One person, however, refuses to change his mind: Masterji, a retired school teacher who has fond memories of his wife and daughter in the building who passed away in not so distant a past.

Masterji’s refusal is not only a roadblock for Dharmen Shah to realize his dream project but also something that separates the other residents of Vishram from a cheque – that will toss them into the lap of prosperity, helping them out of their current-middle-class problems. Being well-meaning and somebody who gives the children of the building free tuitions, Masterji is the most respected person in Vishram , but because of his opposition to the offer, he slowly falls out of favour with all his neighbours, one after another. How the neighbours start conspiring against Masterji shows the middle class in poor light, exposing how they can sacrifice everything on the altar of ambition.

Before the book was released, Adiga had told in an interview that he would not like his reader to think Masterji is the hero and Dharmen Shah, villain. If there is any hero in the book, he had told, it’s Bombay. After reading the book I agree with him. He has shown how crushing poverty resides side by side with wealth. You only have to turn a street corner or move your sight slightly to go from a wealthy neighborhood to a slum. Bombay, Agida says in the book, puts a price on everyone. He who doesn’t put a price on himself in Bombay finds it difficult to survive.

While reading the book many questions sprang to my mind. Why doesn’t Masterji accept the offer? Does he not see if the offer is accepted by him, it will change the lives of his neighbours forever? What’s wrong with saying yes if it helps you get a better life? Shah is making a generous offer, after all. If every person in Masterji’s position says yes, in India, will not the discord between development and its opponents get over for good?

At the end of the story, a character tells another character, “I have learnt something about life, Mrs. Rego. Then he points his finger in the distance. And “Behind these overlapping wires, she saw (Mrs. Rego) banyan trees; all of which were hemmed in by fencing; except for one graying ancient, whose aerial roots, squirming through barbed wire and broken glass, dripped down the wall like primordial ooze until their growing tips, nearly touching the pavement, brushed against a homeless family cooking rice in the shade; and with each root-tip that had beaten the barbed wire the old banyan tree said: “Nothing can stop a living thing that wants to be free.”

Last Man In Tower is so close to reality that it sometimes reads like a work of nonfiction and leaves you in a grim mood and the mood grows on you. I think it’s because the world Adiga creates is very small for most part – just a building and the lives of people in and around it – with very occasional detours. The book also leaves you with a poignant aftertaste being built around only one idea: The irrelevance of ideals in today’s consumerist world. But later I felt the fact that Masterji refused to accept the offer to the last is a triumph of ideals; that he paid a price for it is another matter.

Like his White Tiger, Adiga again tells a gripping story and leaves you with many questions.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Vacation in Calcutta: Changing Landscape

I returned from Calcutta to Bangalore this week. Each time I visit Calcutta I feel the old Calcutta I grew up in has moved a few more inches back to make way for a new Calcutta. Most old buildings have made way for new apartments. The ones that have not received the interest of promoters are begging for repair to resist the effect of time. Their owners don’t repair them - either because they are not financially sound enough or because the buildings are let out, in parts, to multiple tenants who have not revised their rents for decades.

These buildings are generally sprawling with large verandas. They present risk to pedestrians walking under them. Some buildings have cautionary boards on them and the rest leave the pedestrians to their fate.

A little away from my area a ruin drew my attention. It is a heap of debris, remnants of an old structure under demolition now. At the middle of the ruin stands a grocery shop which has somehow escaped the demolition drive.

I asked how. The building belonged to a widow whose children are settled in the US. The widow owned several buildings which she willed away to charity organizations some time back. One of them she donated to the healthcare wing of an organization which is supposed to take care of her in return until she is alive.

The building with the shop within was also her property. It will be replaced by an ashram. The building, like other old buildings, had lot of tanents. While the other tenants accepted the financial compensation the promoter offered them to leave the building, the grocery shop owners (four brothers) refused to accept the payment and demanded a shop in the same position of the  ashram instead. The promoter refused and the grocer brothers went to court, halting the demolition drive. This is the story of any changing landscape.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

FDI in Retail: As I see it

No sooner than the noise over foreign direct investment (FDI) in airlines sank, India is talking about FDI again.  This time it’s in retail. This time, however, the political noise is of higher decibel than that of FDI in airlines. And it’s not surprising because FDI in retail affects a larger base of people than FDI in airlines.

The issue has already united opposition parties cutting across political beliefs.   

And in this ideologically untenable coalition of opposition parties, there is enough to laugh over for someone looking for it. The Left parties are congratulating the Right for putting up a stout opposition to the government introducing FDI.However, the FDI decision has found endorsement from various business leaders and some major English dailies. 

But what the opponents of FDI in retail really have to say?  They say it will bring in foreign giants who will wipe out the middle man engaged in taking goods and food from the producer to the consumer. (The middle man can be a neighborhood grocer or somebody (or a group) who takes produce from the farmer to the shopkeeper.)

The anti-FDI guys also allege that the multinationals will lower their prices so much that small shopkeepers, unable to meet the price onslaught due to poor cost and infrastructure capabilities, will be eventually driven out from the retail ecosystem. 

Telegraph cited a case study to address various concerns regarding FDI in retail. The study said that a sizable group of farmers in Bengal is producing potatoes for Pepsi (Pepsi Lays) potato chips. The potatoes they grow reach Pepsi via a network of middle men. Pepsi also uses these middle men as a conduit to pay the farmers. 

And it’s working. Some farmers interviewed by the paper said the rates paid to them are much more than the usual market rates and the payments are also made in a timely manner.  

So this addresses two concerns (a) the middle man, instead of getting wiped out, is a well-established part of the business cycle; (b) the farmers are not only getting better rates than they would through the conventional supply-chain model, but they are also getting their payments in a timely manner.   

Now comes the shopkeeper. I will share my personal experience in this regard. I am currently holidaying in Calcutta. And yesterday my mother handed me a list of goods to be bought from the market. I went to a shop and did my purchase. 

But just when I was walking out, it struck me that on the other side of the road lay big departmental stores where I could have gone. But I didn’t. Not because I owe anything to the shopkeeper but because it’s a habit to visit neighborhood shops to make such purchases. And this common habit has survived the entry of big players like Reliance and Mahindra into the Indian retail space.  

And anyone who is familiar with these shopkeepers knows that they are not particularly having a great time in the current scenario: in the absence of global retail giants. 

These shopkeepers cater to two kinds of customers; those who just walk in once in a while and those who make bulk purchases from them on a weekly or monthly basis. While their business can’t subsist on the casual walk-ins, the shopkeepers retain the bulk-buying customer base by employing soft-old-world customer-retention measures like social courtesies instead of better service or pricing. Because even among small shopkeepers there is enough competition and the quality of their goods hardly varies leaving the customer almost nothing to choose from.

But as I make my case for FDI in retail, I hear the government has put the decision to introduce FDI in retail in suspension due to political opposition.

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