In 2008, Adiga told National Public Radio that he wanted “The White Tiger” to “both entertain and disturb” so that readers would think long and hard about how the economic growth brought to India by globalization is transforming the country’s culture. Clearly, he’s gunning for the same effect in “Last Man in Tower.” But this time the topic is real estate and the conflicting interests of community and development.
The plot revolves around an old and venerated Mumbai apartment complex, the Vishram Society. Inaugurated in the late 1950s on the birthday of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and housing an affable mix of Catholics, Hindus and Muslims, the Vishram is a monument to Independence-minded idealism. Its residents are like a large, cheery family, exuding middle-class respectability in the midst of a slummy Mumbai neighborhood.
Indeed, their example has inspired a decades-long gentrification process, one that suddenly accelerates after a financial hub called BKC appears in the area, drawing global giants like American Express and HSBC. “The lucre in their vaults,” Adiga writes, “like butter on a hotplate, was melting and trickling into the slums, enriching some and scorching others.”
The butter reaches the Vishram in the form of Dharmen Shah, a charming, ruthless real estate mogul who offers its residents about $330,000 per family to leave their crumbling six-story complex so that he can build a luxury skyscraper named Shanghai in its place. Almost everyone in the Vishram is thrilled by the deal: “Now all of us in this building, all of us good people, have been blessed by the Hand of God,” one happy mother declares.
But 61-year-old Yogesh “Masterji” Murthy rejects the proposal, and since all the residents must vacate the Vishram for the Shanghai to rise, his opposition is enough to hold up everybody’s cash.
Anyone who has ever had an important request categorically refused knows the kind of wretched, helpless fury that such opposition can provoke. “There is so much anguish in the building over your strange actions,” one tenant tells Masterji. But the old science teacher, who is so attuned to the stars and the moon, to the ideas of history and political idealism, is deaf to such emotional pleas.
And that’s where Adiga’s novel pushes beyond dollars and cents, because “Last Man in Tower” is also an existentialist drama. Like Jean-Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit,” it provides a kind of locked-room character study as the residents of the Vishram try desperately, then viciously, to persuade Masterji to accept Mr. Shah’s lucrative destruction.