The (English) Bombay novel is an over-flexed genre, as are novels set in any hyper-cosmopolis of the world—where humans constantly negotiate with the city to perform tiny businesses of living, where the weight of history, geopolitics and power struggles unique to the city define its people’s personal decisions and wounds. There is inexhaustible fodder for stories in a mega-city’s entrapments and progressions.
Mumbai is Saleem Sinai’s retribution (Midnight’s Children), Ganesh Gaitonde’s puppet (Sacred Games) and Shantaram’s ruthless refuge (Shantaram)— and is many other things, when you include the few other works in which the city is not simply a convenient backdrop against which human struggles supposedly acquire meaning. Aravind Adiga’s third novel, Last Man in Tower, is another important Mumbai novel.
In Kiran Nagarkar’s Ravan and Eddie—by turns violent, tragic and deliciously comic—a seething microcosm of life in a Central Works Department chawl becomes a comment on the Bombay age that the novel chronicles (that the city ages ahead of India and has its own “age” is inarguable and can be said without sentimentality). Without a sweeping, grand narrative of the city or utilizing obvious references to its history, Nagarkar makes a Bombay universe riveting. In the way it delineates a milieu and exposes its idiocies and frailties, Last Man in Tower is similar to the dazzling Ravan and Eddie, though both works triumph in very different ways.
Through the residents of a middle-class housing society in Vakola, Adiga coheres a universe in which greed, hypocrisy and arrogance destroy human relationships for a larger, quintessentially amoral Mumbai good. It’s a neighbourhood that Adiga describes as “a cluster of ambiguous dots that cling polyp-like to the underside of the domestic airport”—coincidentally, peripheries of the corrugated setting of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. The variegated bunch of families of Vishram Society are selling their residential building to a powerful real estate don, a simulacrum of the all-powerful in Mumbai. In the process, everyone’s facade drops and the foundation of this “pucca” housing society crumbles.
Bylanes: The suburban neighbourhood Adiga sets his novel in is Vakola, a residential hub that has experienced huge growth in real estate. Hemant Mishra/Mint
Yogesh Murthy or “Masterji”, a widower and former teacher who takes “top-up” physics classes for children in the building, is the story’s emotional centre. He is a Luddite, a man whose will to stay true to his emotions and tragic attachment to the home he has known all his life overpowers his need for a better-looking home—in Mumbai, this translates to a better-looking life. As the story progresses towards a predictable but brutal climax, you will get glimpses of Masterji’s inner impulses, marvel at his tenacity and also be irked by his self-importance. In other words, it is a robust, consummate portrait.
As evident in his earlier novels, most strikingly in the Booker-winning The White Tiger, Adiga is not interested in nuances. Often brazen, and hardly layered, his characters are one-dimensional, made to represent a type. In the first book, the types seemed to exist for narrative convenience, to facilitate propelling a certain idea of India. Yogesh Murthy is a surprise that lingers after you have read the book’s last page.
But most of the other characters are line sketches, exaggerated by one peculiarity laid bare by things that their trash bins contain. Every morning, the building cat rummages through the bins kept out by residents for the garbage collector, revealing bottles of foreign liquor, used condoms and other assorted personality defining objects. Ms Meenakshi, Masterji’s next-door neighbour, is aloof and sexually active. Ah well, she is a journalist. Georgina Rego is a “communist” who, in speech, is unequivocal about the rights of the slum dwellers living adjacent to the building. Ashvin Kothari, the secretary of Vishram Society, who has bouts of crass philosophizing to justify his subservience to real estate, is a quiet, sold man. Shah, the builder, buys old buildings through Shanmughan, his lynchpin, who lives in a flat in Versova and makes a young woman aspiring to Tinseltown fame his easy and willing sex slave.
After 250 pages of this 417-page novel, one waits for how the end will arrive and not what the end will be. Vishram Society’s exposed residents no longer hold promise or interest because there are no organic progressions in or through them. Although there is no obvious moralizing, Adiga’s moral voice is Masterji. The others are based on observation, not chiselled by his feeling.
The triumph of Last Man in Tower is its sense of the city. The narrative is built, layer upon layer, by roadside temples, drawing rooms, beach joggers, particular kinds of silk shirts, street dogs, pigeons and debris on roads flooded by incessant rain. The two neighbourhoods, Vakola and Versova, get the author’s unflinching attention and the minutiae of life here is deeply observed: “The face of this tower, once pink, is now a rainwater-stained, fungus-licked grey, although veins of primordial pink show wherever the roofing has protected the walls from the monsoon rains”; “The rains had turned the pit into a marsh: cellphone, eggshell, politician’s face, stock quote, banana leaf, sliced-off chicken’s feet and green crowns cut from pineapples. Ribbons of unspoiled cassette-tape draped over everything like molten caramel”; “An invisible line went down the middle of the beach like an electrified fence; beyond this line, the bankers, models, and film producers of Versova were engaged in tai-chi, yoga, or spot-jogging. Behind the exercising crowd, a woman in a billowing red dress posed against rocks as a photographer snapped.... Homeless men stood in a semi-circle round the photo-shoot, from where they passed loud and accurate judgement on the model’s physique and posing skills.”
The author’s lived-in experience of the city is that of a newcomer obsessed with finding it. Like a new immigrant, he is angry with its enormity and unfriendliness, but open to its suffering and to embracing its contradiction. Some of the descriptions of the city and its neighbourhoods—not, however, the way most characters speak—have compelling narrative power.
Last Man in Tower is immersed in the small of a big city, and through these miniatures, a portrait of today’s Mumbai emerges. It is also a testimony to Adiga’s growing narrative sophistication.