Funny, provocative and decadent: Aravind Adiga’s “Last Man in Tower” is the kind of novel that’s so richly insightful about business and character that it’s hard to know where to begin singing its praises.
That Adiga knows economics well should come as no surprise. After all, he worked as a financial journalist for Time magazine in India, and his first novel, “The White Tiger,” reveled in the darker consequences of a world turned flat. The story described a servant seduced by visions of wealth who murders his way out of poverty. It was as popular as it was controversial in India, and in Britain it captured the Man Booker Prize.
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.
Bit by bit, Adiga strips away the characters’ faith in themselves as good people, revealing long-buried seams of pride, greed, hubris, envy and cowardice. Under pressure, they turn against each other, giving voice to grievances buried for decades, and then turn toward each other to form a fearsome mob. At one point, Masterji stares at three of his neighbors, women who had once pampered and flattered him but who now conspire his undoing, and wonders: “Am I looking at good people or bad?”
The same question arises about Masterji himself. Vain, shrewd and stubborn, he is one of the most delightfully contradictory characters to appear in recent fiction. Is Masterji’s refusal meant to protect a more vulnerable tenant? Is he holding out for more cash? Is he simply afraid of change? Does he relish the sensation of power? Is his refusal rooted in incorruptible principle or dictatorial ego?
Adiga himself refuses to give a clear answer. Rather, he adds another layer by deftly, slyly aligning Masterji’s position with that of old India. It’s no coincidence that some of the novel’s most violent actions take place against a background of patriotic songs and Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. Or that the residents’ first action against Masterji is a boycott — a favorite maneuver of Gandhi against the British colonialists. In a country that has been dominated by a single political family — that of Nehru — for 60-odd years, the suggestion that the old Independence guard may have itself turned into a paternalistic oppressor has real bite.
Adiga’s novel isn’t perfect. He traces his characters’ wicked impulses more convincingly than he details their occasional surges of virtue, and the book’s final, hopeful note feels largely unearned. But these are small flaws compared with the novel’s many delights and its unusually evenhanded take on urban development. As Adiga told the Times of India, “Money itself is amoral. It can liberate people as easily as it can destroy them.” In “Last Man in Tower,” we watch it do both.
Valdes is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
LAST MAN IN TOWER
By Aravind Adiga
Knopf. 382 pp. $26.95