By Abdullah Khan
New Delhi, India
New Delhi, India
In his Booker-winning debut novel The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga exposed the ugly underbelly of the shining India. The antagonist of his debut book, Balram Halwai, was a country bumpkin, who learned the ways of city folks quickly to climb the ladder of the social hierarchy. He didn’t give a damn about the unethical and criminal aspects of his acts, and even philosophically justified his misdeeds, including his employer’s murder. Balram Halwai, in fact, was just an instrument for the author to paint a broader picture of the greed-infested and rabidly capitalist post- 1991 India- the country which once took pride in its Gandhian legacy but now being run by the carpetbaggers, pimps and middlemen. Adiga continues with the same leitmotif in his second novel (and third book) Last Man in Tower.
The protagonist this time around is Yogesh Murthy- a retired schoolteacher known as Masterji among his neighbours. An atheist and a highly principled man he lives in an old crumbling housing society known as the Vishram Housing Society. Built during the 1950s the society is the only ‘absolutely, unimpeachably pucca’ structure in the entire Vakola area of Mumbai, which mostly comprises of slums. The society in itself is a miniature of India; with all its religious and cultural diversity. The residents vary from a retired accountant, a small time real estate broker, an internet café owner, to a social worker, etc. There are Hindus Muslims and Christians. They are Punjabis, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Bengalis, etc. But despite their different culture and faith the residents live like one happy extended family.
One day, a well known Mumbai-based builder Dharmen Shah’s prying eyes fall on this society and he decides to buy it to build his dream project- a luxurious residential complex. He sends his emissary with tempting offers to all the society residents to sell their apartments to him. As the last date of the offer deadline nears, all the flat owners give in except ‘Masterji’. For Masterji the house harbours the priceless memories of his long gone daughter and recently deceased wife. His neighbours do not understand all this and start considering him a big hurdle in the way of their prosperity. At first, they try to convince him but when he refuses to budge, they start conspiring against him. Even his close friend Albert Pinto abandons him.
Thematically speaking, the novel is a discourse on the changing yardsticks of morality of the Indian middle class where values and ethics mean nothing, and where material possession stands for everything. Masterji here symbolises the last remnant of the ideals on which the idea of India was conceived. Dharmen Shah, on the other hand, represents today’s India. Like Balram Halwai he rises from the dirt and becomes a shining star. He does not shy away from performing morally or ethically wrong deeds if they guarantee him success. Just like Balram Halwai.
During the last two decades India has witnessed rapid economic growth that has created a big middle class and even bigger lower class. The former has great material aspirations and is simply brutal in its approach to achieving its goals. This upward mobility among the middle class has also created a huge demand for real estate. In the absence of any real government control, real estate has become a haven for unscrupulous and unethical businessmen. Under the political patronage, these builders function like the mafia- conducting their business with the stamp of legality. Adiga, undoubtedly, has created the character of Dharmen Shah from those real people.
Aravind Adiga has worked equally hard on all the characters. From the strange and secretive Secretary of the society to the guard Ram Khare, he has fleshed out each character equally well.. But, the central character Masterji doesn’t get the space he deserves. Even Dharmen Shah should have made his appearance more frequently. Further, the way Masterji’s neighbours behave after committing a ghastly crime doesn’t appear to be plausible. At places, the dialogue seems to be in the need of the tightening.
An apt commentary on the contemporary India but when it comes to literary merit , his last book Between the Assignations was better.