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.

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