Last Man In Tower

Title: Last Man In Tower; Author: Aravind Adiga; Type: Fiction

Adiga does not go for straight humour, nor does he do cynicism. But he mixes both in a strange combination that seems to pop-out out of everywhere. In Last Man In Tower, like White Tiger, he goes for the underbelly of India to explore some of the dark, bitter realities. Then, what other place to go in search of dark, bitter realities of India than Mumbai? And which issue is better than real estate boom? The mushrooming of condominiums certainly have raised his eyebrows and, in Last Man In Tower, he scans them with a fine toothcomb.

The story of building one of the greatest residential complexes in Mumbai does not tell a tale of shining India. In Adiga’s India (in reality too), it hardly ever shines, except in some translucent germs floating on the city sewers (called nulla), by whose banks some of his characters live. Yes, they do work in these modern, luxurious apartments as cleaners, sweepers and maids and they are bribed by some of the residents to sift through the rubbish of other residents. For, as we all know, rubbishes contain rich hidden secrets buried in them. The maids oblige because they need the money. They are obviously insecure because their huts may be pulled down by municipal officials anytime and they need money to shift. That does not mean others are more secure. Everyone needs money in India and will do anything to get it. They are not criminals. In fact In Adiga’s novels, and in his India, there are no good guys nor can they afford to be. As they say ‘honesty is a luxury’ and people in India can hardly afford it.

Last Man In Tower tells a story of unscrupulous builders greedily grabbing land by every means possible. Again, they may not be bad people; the words ‘unscrupulous’ and ‘greedy’ are too simple to define their lives. That is another trouble with India where corrupt don’t actually know they are corrupt. Unscrupulous actually are not called that word. Because there is no other way to make it big; otherwise, you don’t step into Mumbai. Or rather you don’t step into India. The moral spectrum is so skewed and the society’s structures are practicality designed around this that it is extremely difficult for a person of unimpeachable honesty to live a peaceful life. There is one person Last Man In Tower with such integrity. He is indeed, the last man in tower. Well, this is no spoiler because Adiga makes it clear right from the beginning. The question is how do you look at this person, what impressions do you form about him, and how much are you coloured by the impressions other characters form of him? How much his own destiny informs you of what has become of India?

Adiga expects you to delve into these questions and subliminally we do find answers too, but they are too confused. Just like the characters; just like what happens in India. There are no straight answers. You are in Mumbai. The words hypocrisy, selective integrity doesn’t make sense. Gods don’t matter much either because they too are in collusion. They take bribe in return for answering your prayers. You are careful not to anger them, because they will put so many obstructions in your path you are bound to run back to them in penance.

What happens in the end does matter. They story does pick up pace as it rushes to its inevitable conclusion and, in that journey, turns into a suspense thriller. What happens in the end may not be believable. But is it? We don’t know. Just like the moral standards of the people of Mumbai, the end too is not very clear. Is it a happy ending? It is indeed, if you count the number of characters end up becoming happy. But is it happy ending? Did Good triumph over Evil? Well, that depends on what you consider as evil. They come in various shapes and sizes and wear multiple camouflages. Just like Gods, who too had to compete with the evil that often you can’t distinguish.

Last Man In Tower is not as satisfying as The White Tiger, as much as the word ‘satisfying’ can be use of the literary experience. I hadn’t read Between the Assassinations, his second novel, so it is difficult to trace the journey, but his third outing is sufficiently Adigaesque. The basic elements are all there. In his Booker winning attempt, he raced past the events at breakneck speed with clear focus. In Last Man In Tower, he invites you to settle down, somewhere by the side of the nulla in Mumbai, and encourages you to explore the place. Street by street, station by station, condo by condo, people by people.  Slowly, and inexorably they engulf you, the rich in the star hotel coffee shop and the rats in the local restaurant.

You do, however, have to have a watch on the hut you built by the nulla because it might be demolished anytime by a builder; who has bribed the local municipal official to acquire the place. Unless, of course, you have bribed the local police, who then can inform you ahead so that you can collect your stuff before the place is bulldozed.