This, apparently, was the question on Aravind Adiga’s mind as he was writing Last Man in Tower.
In his second novel (and third book – he’s also published Between the Assassinations, a collection of interlinked stories based in small town India) Adiga turns his attention to Mumbai’s construction boom and the rapid modernisation of the city. But Last Man in Tower is not just a Mumbai-based rehash of Booker prize-winner The White Tiger, substituting Delhi’s seedy underbelly for that of Mumbai. It’s more complex, more nuanced and generally has a very different feel.
The inhabitants of Vishram Society, fine upstanding people, living as they do in a ‘pucca’ apartment block, have been offered a substantial sum of money to move out and make way for a luxury redevelopment. For some it’s a dream come true; for others the idea of leaving their home of many years, a lifetime of associated memories, is not such an appealing idea. One by one they come around though, apart from ‘Masterji’, an old teacher who refuses to back down.
So that’s the plot in a nutshell. The meat of the book is the disintegration of relations between the neighbours and the triumph of gossip over common sense as tensions rise and their darker sides are revealed.
“The web was so complex now. Kudwa saw intentions buried in intentions within Vishram Society’ and was so absorbed in his thoughts that he did not notice when the white cat came into the office, climbed up on his table, and almost scratched Mariam’s face.”
Along the way we’re treated to tantalising snapshots of Mumbai and its residents: temples “receptive to free market logic”; the trauma experienced by an old man taking the subway at rush hour; the “fat and glossy” youth of West Mumbai; corrupt lawyers (“Understand? Don’t worry. We understand on your behalf”).
In the column quoted above Adiga also wrote:
“Judging by the way some sane people in India had responded to The White Tiger, I figured that if anyone at the Shiv Sena opened it, I would have to take an auto straight to my grand uncle Suresh’shouse and duck under a sofa.”
I can’t help suspecting that with Last Man in Tower he’s purposely toning it down, maybe trying to present a more balanced view. The inevitable consequence is that the earlier novel’s bombasticity is absent. Whereas the reader was pulled headfirst into TheWhite Tiger’s rollercoaster of a world, with Last Man in Tower he/she remains a spectator, observing the web of intrigue but remaining apart from it. With such a broad, diverse cast of characters it couldn’t really be otherwise. That also means fewer concessions to sensationalism, and Adiga’s turns of phrase are witty as ever. He has grown up, calmed down and come up with an admirable reflection on the state of his nation.
Any Cop?: The White Tiger was one of my favourite books of the last few years so I had high hopes for this one, and if I’m honest the common reader in me was ever so slightly disappointed. But it’s still a great novel – an entertaining, respectful and eye-opening portrait of boom town Mumbai.