For anyone who has flown into Mumbai, it’s a sight not easily forgotten: descending into the city’s main domestic airport, one gradually becomes aware that what looks at first like brownish water is, in fact, a vast undulating expanse of corrugated tin roofs extending to the edge of the runway.
Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger, in 2008. Photograph by: Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images
This is Vakola. It’s been called the biggest slum in the world, and while there are probably others that could dispute the title, its unmissable presence certainly does a good job of presenting visitors with stark evidence of just how low the bottom rungs on India’s social ladder are. It’s in the middle of Vakola that Aravind Adiga has chosen to set his new novel.
Adiga won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 for his debut novel, The White Tiger, and followed it up with the story collection Between the Assassinations. Both books – the former in angry, semi-satirical fashion, the latter with a more emotionally generous and wide-ranging palette – explored India’s conflict-riddled ascension to world economic power.
With Last Man in Tower, Adiga has struck a balance between the two, and in the apartment block Vikram Tower A he has created the perfect focal point. Built in what was a pristine suburb in the 1950s to house members of the Christian middle class, the complex gradually took in Hindus and “the better class of Muslim.” Now, though the building has seen better days, its aging residents take pride in maintaining the finest “pukka” standards amid the slum that has grown to encroach right outside its gates. Here, they feel, is a model of tolerance and stability in a place often in danger of sliding the other way. What they hadn’t figured on was the arrival of Dharmen Shah.
A self-made real-estate mogul, the blustery Shah never tires of reciting his personal success narrative: arriving in the metropolis from a country village with only the shoes on his feet, then rising with iron will and flexible ethics into a position as a leading player in Mumbai’s transformation into a new Manhattan. Now, in failing health, he’s set on capping his legacy by building the Shanghai, an address for the ultra-elite. All he needs to do is buy and raze Vikram and its surrounding shanties, and to do that he needs to buy off the tower’s residents. Most prove willing; the widower Masterji, a retired teacher with deep ties to India’s idealistic early years of independence, has other ideas.
As Vikram’s residents slowly give in to Shah’s monied ministrations, it’s easy to fear that the novel might settle into a predictable domino-principle plot, but Adiga is doing something more complicated than that. Vikram’s residents are no mere caricatures of opportunistic avarice: they have led hard lives and, presented in their advancing years with the prospect of material ease on one hand and the very real possibility of descending into the surrounding slum on the other, can be forgiven for leaning strongly toward the former. But even those most determined to move out and up are riven, right up until the exquisitely handled climax, with crises of conscience and indecision. The idealistic holdout Masterji, for his part, turns out to be no modern-day Gandhi himself: he may not have been such a paragon to his beloved late wife, and his son Guarav, off making a career for himself in a distant part of the vast city, feels abandoned. As he digs in his heels, Masterji is faced with a hard choice: hold out and he condemns his longtime neighbours to uncertainty, give in and it will look like he has simply been biding time for the highest price.
Readers familiar with Adiga only from The White Tiger may well be surprised at the new novel’s more restrained and reflective tone. It’s an approach that edges him closer to a writer like Rohinton Mistry than to the previously claimed influence of Salman Rushdie. Indeed, Vikram’s dwellers could almost be the denizens of the Mumbai neighbourhood of Family Matters, updated and aged a few years. The violence they face is less literal and sectarian than figurative and commercial, but is no less disruptive for that. Where The White Tiger had a justifiably caustic edge that sometimes sacrificed emotional nuance, Last Man in Tower pulls off the bravura twin role of moral parable and human drama.
Adiga has now, in short order, provided three very different views into a country changing at a rate that challenges even its most astute chroniclers to keep up, but he’s proving himself more than willing to take on the job. Taken in tandem with a recent non-fiction cousin, Suketu Mehta’s Bombay: Maximum City, this novel offers a glimpse, both cautionary and inspiring, of where we all may be headed.
Last Man in Tower, By Aravind Adiga, Bond Street/Doubleday Canada, 382 pages, $32