Last Man in Tower

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Last Man in Tower (Paperback), Aravind Adiga, book reviewAravind Adiga’s latest book ‘Last Man in Tower’ explores what it takes to turn ordinary respectable middle-class people into evil, devious, greedy beasts prepared to contemplate murder. It looks at how neighbours so emotionally and physically close that they live like extended family can become enemies. I would also say it offers wholly believable insights into the psychology of bullying and persecution – tracking how the perpetrators of abuse can convince themselves that they are in fact the victims despite their abusive behaviour. It’s fascinating stuff; a sort of ‘Lord of the Flies’ for India in the 21st Century but with seemingly sensible, normal, respectable adults instead of schoolboys. It’s the sort of book that has you thinking “That could never happen to me” at the beginning and gradually realising that this type of salami-slicing of morality could probably happen to almost anyone.

In an ageing and run-down six storey tower block not far from Mumbai airport, the residents receive a generous offer from a property developer called Mr Shah. Shah has a dream; he wants to buy the apartments of the residents in the two blocks of ‘Vishram Society’ – known as Tower A and Tower B – knock them down and build an ultra modern luxury apartment block. The area is up and coming, ripe for gentrification and he’s confident that he can make a small fortune as well as creating his legacy – a landmark building that merges all his favourite design elements into one big, brash and and probably rather ugly luxury apartment block.

Shah needs the agreement and signature of every resident in each block and in return he offers them more than double the going rate for their property and as an extra sweetener there’s a payment sufficient to cover the rent on a place for up to two months whilst they look for new homes. It sounds like an offer too good to refuse but if the money doesn’t buy Shah what he wants, he’s got plenty of other tactics to ensure he gets compliance.

As a commentary on big city life, Last Man in Tower is a fascinating look at the stresses and benefits of communal living in modern times. Traditionally the Indian family was – and in some places still is – an extended one with several generations living together in a shared home. Whilst that’s relatively easy to achieve in the countryside, it’s not so simple in the big cities like Mumbai where real estate prices are on a par with London or New York. Unlike some of the other major metropolises in India where the city can just keep expanding outwards, swallowing up fields and small villages as it grows, Mumbai sits on a finger of land surrounded by sea. The best bits are full, the new bits were reclaimed from the sea and expansion is severely restricted – yet people just keep moving to the city. In such places the old system of extended families has been replaced by groups of unrelated people of different religions, trades and backgrounds living together in apartment blocks, some of them – like the block in this story – run as residents’ cooperatives. The national expectation and weary acceptance of living in one another’s pockets and putting up with the annoyances of how other people go about their everyday life is part of the city dweller’s challenge to maintain a general sense or peace and respectability. It’s probably a similar challenge to finding a way to rub along with your annoying in-laws. You may not love them all but you have to find a way to not rip each others’ heads off.

“In Last Man in Tower we watch with horror page by page as a society disintegrates and erupts.”

The residents of Block B soon sign up. Block A people see Block B people as a younger, more flighty bunch and less of a community so they’re not surprised to see them agreeing to Shah’s proposal. Block B has an older, more settled demographic and not everyone is keen to sign. Christians Mr and Mrs Pinto are scared to leave because Mrs P is nearly blind and navigates the building by the holes in the wall and cracks in the stairs. They fear she won’t survive somewhere else. The Pintos’ friend, a retired Hindu schoolmaster known to all as ‘Masterji’, also doesn’t want to leave. It’s partly a case of solidarity with his friends and partly that he doesn’t want to leave the home he shared with his late wife and their daughter who died much too young. But there’s another aspect to his refusal to sign – a stubborn determination that the little man should have a right to say “No!” to big business, to refuse to give in to the highest bidder and to hell with what that means to his neighbours who all think it’s just his tactic to hold out for more money.

Shah brings in his fixer, the so called ‘Left Hand Man’. He’s a shifty fellow called Shanmugham whose illicit actions and arrangements must never be traceable to his boss. Several of the reluctant sellers are ‘bought off’ with various sweeteners. Shan schmoozes some and bribes others whilst Shanmugham uses more direct and aggressive tactics to intimidate. As the deadline for signing the deal draws close only Masterji refuses to sign.

Soon his neighbours take against him, refusing to speak to him, posting abusive notices about him and even getting his son to denounce him. Previously they were proud to know him, referring to him having the manners of ‘an English gentleman’. Their status was enhanced by association with such an honourable fellow. In a short time they’re casting aspersions about his teaching and calling him a paedophile. A woman with a disabled son smears her boy’s excrement on Masterji’s door, complaining afterwards that “He made me do that. I can never forgive him”. Her sin is his unforgiveable fault. His life is at risk as the neighbours – once respectable ‘pucca’ souls – come to see him as all that stands between them, their money and all the dreams that the money represents. How far will they go to destroy their old friend’s reputation and how low will they stoop to get what they want?

As time passes the neighbours get more and more desperate. Things they would never have imagined doing to another human being seem like viable options for getting compliance. After their bullying tactics have no result they start to claim that Masterji is the bully, the one holding them all to ransom for his weird old man principles, and they are the victims. “Poor us” they think “prevented from having what we want by this manipulative old man”. The anger and resentment of many are directed at one – they lie, they scheme, they consider increasingly extreme ways to get what they think they deserve. They enlist the help of others to do their dirty work but eventually have to take matters into their own hands. There’s one particular eerie passage where someone goes round the block handing out cotton wool to the neighbours so they won’t hear the screams of Masterji. Nobody can say they didn’t know what was going on.

We watch as respectable folk peel off layer after layer of what looks like normal behaviour to reveal increasingly violent and selfish attitudes. It’s all very sadly believable and whilst we might not see such extreme examples in our everyday life, I think most of us would be able to think of examples where we’ve seen the many gang up against the few, especially when they perceive their target to be somehow weaker than them. We also see one of the residents most eager to please the developer realise his mistake and recognise his descent into depravity.

It’s hard not to have some sympathy for the residents who see Shah’s offer as the answer to their prayers. Some can use the money to return to their home towns, others want to send it to their children settled in America, one wants to hire a nurse to help her look after her disabled child. All their motives are understandable. At times we will join them in thinking that Masterji should perhaps put the good of the many against the objection of the few (and eventually just one). Adiga paints the residents in shades of sympathy dripped with bitterness. We understand them but we don’t like them. They are reduced – despite their problems – to caricatures of greed and envy. As readers – especially readers of Indian fiction – our expectation is that Shah should be the bad guy, the one who forces and manipulates but instead we soon realise that he need only wave the money, step back and wait for the greedy people to take things into their own hands. It’s a chilling but utterly believable idea.

Aravind Adiga is probably best known for winning the Man Booker Prize a few years ago with his novel ‘The White Tiger’. Whilst that was a fascinating book about the dark side of city life, its setting in the luxury high-rises of the high-tech Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, contrasting the life of the servant and the master didn’t resonate with me the way the little people in the mouldy old apartment block in Mumbai did. I know both cities, I can picture the events but ‘Last Man in Tower’ is very much a Mumbai story. Perhaps it’s because Last Man in Tower is not about inter-class rivalry and exploitation of the poor by the rich, it’s somehow more shocking because it sets peers against one another. It pokes and prods until the respectable become the execrable. It’s the third of Adiga’s books that I’ve read and whilst I admired ‘The White Tiger’ I can’t really say I loved it. His other book ‘Between the Assassinations’ (I don’t say second as I think it was written around the same time as The White Tiger) is also excellent but I only really understood the point it was making when I reached the final page. In Last Man in Tower we watch with horror page by page as a society disintegrates and erupts. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


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Last Man in Tower
by Aravind Adiga

One Comment on "Last Man in Tower"

  1. JoV
    23/01/2012 at 20:02 Permalink

    I have been a great fan of Adiga since White Tiger. Perhaps this year is the year I’ll read this book. Thanks for the review.

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Written by koshkha
koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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