Last Man in Tower

At the heart of Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower is an intimate, brutal murder, and the novel is crowded with lesser crimes, from personal betrayal to political corruption.  But calling Last Man in Tower a murder mystery is like calling Bleak House a legal thriller.  Adiga’s plot may be simple—a Mumbai real estate developer who sets his sights on a rundown apartment building is defied by a tenant who refuses to leave his home—but the world that Adiga creates is as broad and richly textured as that of any nineteenth-century epic.

Like Adiga’s The White Tiger, which presented modern India through the eyes of a servant/driver turned murderer/entrepreneur, Last Man in Tower depicts the boomtown chaos of Mumbai and the precarious lives of those caught in its riptide.  “A few lucky hut-owners were becoming millionaires, as a bank or a developer made extraordinary offers for their little plot of land; others were being crushed…” Some backwaters remain.  On a decaying cooperative apartment building, for example, “[l]uxuriant ferns, green and reddish green, blur the corners of some windows, making them look like entrances to small caves”; while in the adjacent lane “…rats and bandicoots dart like billiard balls struck around the narrow alley…” This is Vishram Society Tower A, where the human residents are as intertwined as the vegetation surrounding them.  Part of one another’s lives and part of the decrepit edifice, these characters—from fiery Mrs. Rego to sweet Mrs. Puri; from the oily secretary to the philosophical gatekeeper—occupy a delicate web held together by modesty and custom.  “They had the security of titles and legal deeds…and their aspirations were limited to a patient rise in life…. It was not in their karma to know either gold or tears; they were respectable.”  

Adiga’s wonderful depiction of this ordered microcosm is tender and humorous, reminiscent of the mid-twentieth-century master R. K. Narayan, whose comic spirit hovers over these pages.  The atmosphere darkens, however, when the Vishram Society tower is selected for purchase and demolition by Shah, the developer, who believes only in “[b]uildings rising above the earth and concourses of money running below it.”  Cajoled, bribed and intimidated, all but one of the residents accept the buyout.  Only Masterji, a retired teacher and brokenhearted widower, insists on staying.  “A man who does not want,” Shah fumes when Masterji resists, “who has not secret spaces in his heart into which a little more cash can be stuffed, what kind of man is that?” Gradually Masterji’s neighbors are persuaded to remove the obstacle that stands between them and a fresh start.  The final act is both inevitable and shocking.  Yet the perpetrators are not wholly villainous, and Masterji is not merely a victim.  Adiga has made them too human for that.   His Mumbai too is a character in flux, created “…through the desire of junk and landfill…to become something better.  In this way they all emerged:  fish, birds, the leopards of Borivali, even the starlets and super-models of Bandra.”