Last Man in Tower

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Overview

From the Booker Prize–winning author of The White Tiger, a stunning novel of greed and murder in contemporary Mumbai.
 
At the heart of this novel are two equally compelling men, poised for a showdown. Real estate developer Dharmen Shah rose from nothing to create an empire and hopes to seal his legacy with a luxury building named the Shanghai. Larger-than-life Shah is a dangerous man to refuse. But he meets his match in retired ...

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Overview

From the Booker Prize–winning author of The White Tiger, a stunning novel of greed and murder in contemporary Mumbai.
 
At the heart of this novel are two equally compelling men, poised for a showdown. Real estate developer Dharmen Shah rose from nothing to create an empire and hopes to seal his legacy with a luxury building named the Shanghai. Larger-than-life Shah is a dangerous man to refuse. But he meets his match in retired schoolteacher Masterji. Shah offers a generous buyout to Masterji and his neighbors in a once respectable, now crumbling apartment building on whose site Shah’s high-rise would be built. They can’t believe their good fortune. Except, that is, for Masterji, who refuses to abandon the building he has long called home. As the demolition deadline looms, desires mount; neighbors become enemies, and acquaintances turn into conspirators who risk losing their humanity to score their payday. Here is a richly told, suspense-fueled story of ordinary people pushed to their limits in a place that knows none: the new India as only Aravind Adiga could explore—and expose—it.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

This is Aravind Adiga's second novel. The White Tiger, his first, won the UK's prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2008. Last Man in Tower renders a Mumbai real estate crisis that takes several dangerous and surprising turns. Real estate developer Dharmen Shah sees a glistening opportunity to turn a decrepit apartment building into a high-rise luxury tower. Most of the residents of the crumbling Vishram Society building are eager to snatch Shah's generous buyout offer; only one, a retired schoolteacher, stands resolutely against the tide. As the demolition deadline approaches, he faces the unleashed fury of his outraged neighbors. Distinct, memorable characters and a powerful commentary on human motives.

Marcela Valdes
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…Vain, shrewd and stubborn, [Masterji] is one of the most delightfully contradictory characters to appear in recent fiction.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
When Mumbai was still Bombay, the apartment building became the new village, inhabitants growing up and old together, intertwined in one another's rhythms and needs. Tower A of the Vishram Society is one such building—both a character and the setting in this highly allegorical yet riveting novel, Adiga's first since winning the Man Booker Prize for The White Tiger. Here, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Communists have lived together for decades, finding recent common ground in their suspicions about the new "modern" single girl in 3B. But when a developer offers each resident an astronomical sum to move out so that he might build a luxury condo, greed threatens to destroy the community. But one holdout, the teacher Mr. Masterji, is determined that knowledge and principle will protect him. Though occasionally overwritten ("The hypodermic needle of the outside world had bent at his epidermis and never penetrated"), Adiga is a master of pacing. The momentum builds as Masterji's neighbors become consumed by money, allowing Adiga to show his characters grappling with circumstances, and enduring difficult changes of heart. Adiga takes a harsh look at Mumbai's new wealth, but his characters are more than archetypes. Though the allure of capitalism has won them over, the inhabitants of Tower A are at the mercy of the rich as much as their neighbor, the teacher, is at the mercy of them. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“Epic. . . Adiga capture[s] the vicious underbelly of modern-day real estate in India’s maximum city. Even more so, he taps into the lives and minds of India’s growing middle class. They inhabit the sphere between the city’s slums and, say, the world’s first billion-dollar home recently built in Bombay, with more square footage than the Palace of Versailles.  Like the United States more than a half a century earlier, India is in its ascension, and all the materialism and belligerence about who might be getting left behind is a perfect echo of our Cold War era. The Indians of Adiga’s book yearn for material stability. What that means, how much one really needs to be secure, is at the heart of the story. For the defiant Masterji, [what it means] is the dangerous desire of wanting nothing other than to die in the place where his family’s memories reside.”
—Meera Subramanian, Orion Magazine
 
“Vivid. . . A novel written by a Man Booker prize winner [comes with] high expectations, [and] Adiga’s latest Last Man in Tower, does not disappoint. He skillfully builds the backdrop for his story. With few words, he sets the scene of poverty and filth in the slums in sharp contrast to the newfound riches made by some in Mumbai, contrasting the new India and its bright technological future with the last remnants of the British Raj. . . . Graphic and colorful . . . thought-provoking and intense.”
—Christine Morris Campbell, The Decatur Daily 
 
“In the rapidly expanding city of Mumbai, where new buildings sprout like weeds, the construction business isn’t just a front for illegal activity, it’s a raison d’être. When a less-than-ethical developer tries to lure, and later coerce, a community of long-standing tenants out of their apartment complex, it is only the widowed schoolteacher of 3A who continues to rebuff him. In this struggle, Adiga—the author of the Man Booker-winning The White Tiger—maps out in luminous prose India’s ambivalence toward its accelerated growth, while creating an engaging protagonist in the stubborn resident: a man whose ambition and independence have been tempered with an understanding of the important, if almost imperceptible, difference between development and progress. A-”
—Keith Staskiewicz, Entertainment Weekly

“Aravind Adiga, winner of the Man Booker Prize for The White Tiger, brings readers another look at an India at once simple and complex, as old as time and brand new. . . . Adiga has written the story of a New India; one rife with greed and opportunism, underpinned by the daily struggle of millions in the lower classes. This funny and poignant story is multidimensional, layered with many engaging stories and characters, with Masterji as the hero. He is neither Gandhi nor Christ but an unmistakable, irresistible symbol of integrity and quiet perseverance.”
  —Valerie Ryan, The Seattle Times

“It sounds far too clinical to say that Aravind Adiga writes about the human condition. He does, but, like any good novelist, Adiga’s story lingers because it nestles in the heart and the head. In Last Man in Tower, his new novel about the perils of gentrification in a Mumbai neighborhood, the plot turns on a developer’s generous offer to convince apartment residents to leave their building so that he can build a luxury tower in its place. The book mines the tricky terrain of the bittersweet and black humor, always teasing out just enough goodness to allow readers a glimmer of hope for humanity. Adiga won the Booker for his debut, The White Tiger, and his new novel shows no signs of a sophomore slump. Last Man in Tower glides along with a sprawling cast of characters, including the teeming city of Mumbai itself. . . . With wit and observation, Adiga gives readers a well-rounded portrait of Mumbai in all of its teeming, bleating, inefficient glory. In one delightful aside, Adiga notes the transition beyond middle age with a zinger of a question: ‘What would he do with his remaining time—the cigarette stub of years left to a man already in his 60s?’ . . . Adiga never settles for the grand epiphany or the tidy conclusion. In a line worthy of John Irving, Adiga writes: ‘A man’s past keeps growing, even when his future has come to a full stop.’”
—Erik Spanberg, Christian Science Monitor

“First-rate. If you loved the movie Slumdog Millionaire, you will inhale the novel Last Man in Tower. Adiga’s second novel is even better than the superb White Tiger.  You simply do not realize how anemic most contemporary fiction is until you read Adiga's muscular prose. His plots don't unwind, they surge. [Last Man] tells the story of a small apartment building and its owner occupants, a collection of middle-class Indians—Hindu, Muslim, Catholic. There is love, dislike, bickering, resentment. Most of all, there are genuine human connections. Trouble begins when a real estate mogul decides to build a luxury high-rise where the building currently stands, offer[ing] residents 250 times what their dinky little apartments are worth. The result is chaos . . . life-long friends turn on each other. Money—even the possibility of it—changes everything. What makes [Last Man in Tower] so superb is the way Adiga balances the micro plot—will Masterji agree to sell?—with the macro: How Mumbai is changing in profound, often disturbing ways. Most of all, Last Man in Tower asks the eternal questions: What is right, what is wrong, what do we owe each other, what do we owe ourselves? Just brilliant.”
—Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

“What happens to a man who is not for sale in a society where everyone else has his price? That is the subject of Adiga’s adroit, ruthless and sobering novel. Masterji is sequentially betrayed by neighbors, clergy, friends, lawyers, journalists and even his own grasping son as the reader roots for some deus ex machina to save him. Adiga, who earned the Man Booker prize for White Tiger, peppers his universally relevant tour de force with brilliant touches, multiple ironies and an indictment of our nature.”
—Sheila Anne Feeney, The Star Ledger

“When does the heartfelt convictions of one solitary man negate the jointly held consensus of the rest of any civic society? That is the question posed at the center of Aravind Adiga’s audacious new novel, an impressive and propulsive examination of the struggle for a slice of prime Mumbai real estate. It is a worthy follow-up to Adiga’s Booker Prize novel, White Tiger, as he goes back to the well to explore the changing face of a rapidly growing India. . . . Whether the reader sympathizes with Masterji—who stands in the way of his neighbors’ most audacious dreams, and whose integrity and incorruptibility borders on narcissims—may be equivalent to, say, how each of us felt with the Ralph Nader spoiler in the Bush-Gore election. Was he an honorable man to have taken a stand? Or was he simply an egoist? There is a grudging admiration for Masterji’s stand, mixed with an impatience and frustration at how this high-principled man stubbornly torpedoes the will of the majority. . . . A Dickensian quality pervades this ambitious novel, which fearlessly tackles electrifying themes: what price growth? Will good people risk their humanity when faced with a chance to score a big payday? When does the will of a man who foregoes monetary gain resemble selfishness as opposed to virtue? And who can we trust to stand by us when we take a lone stance? This book of contrasts—between a man of finance and a man of virtue (although, of course, it is not as simple as that) . . . between wealth and squalor . . . between the old and the new is a tour de force. And it is certain to add to Aravind Adiga’s already sterling reputation.”
 —Jill I. Shtulman, Mostly Fiction Book Reviews 
 
“We humans are an optimistic lot. We want to believe that things will get better. . . . What would we do if just one old man kept us from fulfilling these dreams? This is the question that dogs the residents of rundown Vishram Society Tower A in Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga’s follow up to his Booker Prize winning debut novel, The White Tiger. . . . In his earlier works Adiga’s tender attention to the frustrations, yearning and anger of a cycle-cart puller, train station porter, and chauffeur lifted away the dehumanizing mask of vocation and poverty to reveal familiar vulnerabilities and aspirations. Now Adiga’s shrewd empathy extends to middle-class characters like the building’s secretary, and African born ‘nothing-man,’ who plans to use his windfall to move somewhere with a view of migrating flamingos. . . . Adiga examines cruelty and ugliness to find the trampled shreds of virtue and humanity beneath. His brilliance comes from showing good and bad hopelessly mixed together like, ‘water, the colour of Assam tea, on which floated rubbish and blazing light.’ After all—and in spite of our collective penchant for optimism—the same rubbish is piling up everywhere and there may not be much more we can do than appreciate the blazing light.”
 —Erin Gilbert, The Rumpus.net 
 
“Adiga, author of the highly acclaimed White Tiger, returns with this morality tale about events at a respectable, solidly middle-class building in Mumbai. The veneer of respectability and hard-earned bonhomie falls away after the residents—Hindu, Christian, and Muslim—are offered a windfall by an unscrupulous real estate developer who wants them to move. It is a credit to the author that the reader manages to keep straight the large cast of unforgettable and all-too-believable characters. . . . In the end, there are no heroes in this viper’s nest of competing desires and petty jealousies, as the residents’ uglier natures are gradually revealed in the face of their greed and disappointment. The swarming oceanfront metropolis of Mumbai, in various stages of development and decay, functions as a character in its own right. You won’t be able to look away as the novel hurtles toward its inevitable train wreck of a conclusion in this stunner from Adiga.
—Lauren Gilbert, Library Journal (starred review)
 
“Funny, provocative and decadent: 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; he worked as a financial journalist for Time magazine in India. . . .The topic [in Last Man in Tower] is real estate and the conflicting interests of community and development. A charming, ruthless real estate mogul offers the residents [of] the Vishram Society $330,000 per family to leave their crumbling six-story complex so he can build a luxury skyscraper. Almost everyone is thrilled [except] 61-year-old Masterji, a science teacher so attuned to the stars and the moon, to the ideas of history and political idealism, [that he is] deaf to the emotional pleas of his neighbors. Anyone who has ever had an important request categorically refused knows the wretched, helpless fury that such opposition can provoke. The 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. . . . Vain, shrewd and stubborn, [Masterji] 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 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. [Last Man in Tower has] many delights. Adiga told the Times of India: ‘Money is amoral. It can liberate people as easily as it can destroy them.’ In Last Man in Tower, we watch it do both.”
—Marcela Valdes, The Washington Post

“The Booker Prize-winning author of The White Tiger delivers a masterful portrait of booming Mumbai told through the struggle over an apartment building between an ambitious property developed and a humble, defiant schoolteacher. With this gripping, amusing glimpse into the contradictions and perils of modern India, Adiga cements his reputation as the preeminent chronicler of his country’s messy present. . . . [A] must-read book [of the] Fall.”
—Malcolm Jones and Lucas Wittman, Newsweek

“When Mr. Adiga's energetic first novel, The White Tiger, won the 2008 Booker Prize, the judges praised the Indian-born author for undertaking ‘the extraordinarily difficult task of gaining and holding the reader's sympathy for a thoroughgoing villain.’ Last Man in Tower is set in a crumbling apartment building in Mumbai, which a real-estate developer wants to clear out and transform into a luxury high-rise. Many of the residents happily agree to take the handsome payoff and leave; others dig in their heels, spurning the developer's bribes and threats. Adiga populates his fiction with characters from all parts of India's contemporary social spectrum, and the intensity of his anger at aspects of modern India is modulated by his impish wit.”
—Cynthia Crossen, The Wall Street Journal 
 
“An aging ex-schoolteacher and a ruthless developer face off in Man Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga’s riveting tale of power, money, and corruption in Mumbai.”
Marie Claire 
 
 “A devilishly on-target comedy of greed, conspiracy, and bloodshed . . . A high-stakes drama concerning the fate of an old apartment building on the swampy outskirts of Mumbai, Man Booker Prize winner Adiga continues his satirical inquiry into the forces at work in the new India. . . . Dharmen Shah, an ambitious developer, is hell-bent on buying out the coop group, tearing down the tower and erecting a monumental dream palace. His cash offer functions like a stick thrust into a beehive. Everyone is abuzz and ready to sting as some view the buyout as a godsend, while others think it’s a catastrophe. In this shrewdly constructed microcosm, Adiga wryly yet tenderly portrays a spectrum of struggling individuals . . . As the promise of wealth trumps basic decency, Masterji, a tragically deluded man of principle and pride, becomes the last holdout, clinging to the tower as emblematic of all that is under assault in a mindlessly greedy, materialistic world. Adiga’s calculatingly detailed and elaborately suspenseful, charming yet murderous tale asks painful questions about community, the dark bewitchment of money, and all that we endanger for ‘progress.’”
 —Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review
 
“A gripping novel about real estate, greed, and community. There’s a building in Mumbai we get to know as well as the protagonists: Vishram Society Tower A, an unremarkable six-story structure a stone’s throw from the Vakola slums. The residents are middle-class professionals, respectable people typified by Masterji, the 61-year-old retired physics teacher and recent widower. Mr. Shah is [a] far from respectable but hugely successful builder. His is a rags-to-riches story; he’s now at the top of the heap. Vishram’s towers’ proximity to the financial center attract his attention; they must be demolished to make way for his magnificent new project. Masterji is the lone holdout. Stubborn and irascible, he is that rare individual who has no price; he wants nothing. Shah could have his enforcer cripple or kill him, but he wants the building’s gossipy denizens, by now frantic for the money, to do the dirty work. With great skill, Adiga spotlights the slippery slope, as the unthinkable becomes the thinkable and finally, the doable. The author sets us up for the kill while placing it in context: the riotous sights, sounds, and smells of Mumbai. Adiga nails the culture of corruption. How exciting to watch a writer come into his own, surpassing the achievement of his first novel.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review
 
“When Mumbai was still Bombay, the apartment building became the new village, inhabitants growing up and old together, intertwined in one another’s rhythms and needs. Tower A of the Vishram Society is one such building—both a character and the setting in this riveting novel, Adiga’s first since winning the Man Booker Prize. Here, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Communists have lived together for decades, finding recent common ground in their suspicions about the new ‘modern’ girl in 3B. But when a developer offers each resident an astronomical sum to move out so that he might build a luxury condo, greed threatens to destroy the community. . . .Adiga is a master of pacing. The momentum builds as neighbors become consumed by money, allowing Adiga to show his characters grappling with circumstance and enduring difficult changes of heart. Adiga takes a harsh look at Mumbai’s new wealth, but his characters are more than archetypes. Though the allure of capitalism has won them over, the inhabitants of Tower A are at the mercy of the rich as much as their neighbor, the [principled] teacher, is at the mercy of them.” 
Publishers Weekly, boxed review

“As with The White Tiger, [in Last Man in Tower] Adiga describes an India that is avaricious, acquisitive and insecure. His earlier work told the story of a desperate, rural poverty; Last Man in Tower depicts a genteel middle-class impoverishment of imagination and hope. Whether it is through the fight for water or the battle to board the commuter trains, Mr. Adiga captures with heartbreaking authenticity the real struggle in Indian cities, which is for dignity. A funny yet deeply melancholic work, Last Man in Tower is a brilliant, and remarkably mature, second novel. A rare achievement.”
The Economist 

From the UK:
 
“Magnificent . . . A richly evoked, Dickensian world that explores the chasm between rich and poor, the venal and the incorruptible . . . Adiga succeeds in giving a voice and a sense of humor to the powerless. . . . All human life—and longing—is here. Marvelous stuff.”
—Sebastian Shakespeare, The Tatler
 
“As well-paced as any crime story. Every one of the huge cast of characters is brilliantly drawn. I’m aghast with admiration. There is no one writing fiction as good as this in Britain or America.”
—A. N. Wilson, Reader’s Digest
 
“Evocative, entertaining, and angry . . . All of Adiga’s gifts for sharp social observation and mordant wit [come] to the fore. . . . Teeming with life and skullduggery.”
—Ceri Radford, The Telegraph
 
“A subtle and nuanced examination of the nature of personal corruption . . . [Adiga] continues his project of shining a light on the changing face of India, bringing us a picture that is as compelling as it is complex.”
—Alex Clark, The Guardian
 
 “Timely . . . An unsettling novel, well suited to the febrile and shifting city it seeks to reclaim.”
—James Purdon, The Observer
 
“Richly comedic . . . Beautifully done. . . . Funny and engaging as he can be, Adiga never forgets the seriousness of his subject . . . A morality tale for the modern age [that is] as honest as it is entertaining.”
—John Burnside, The Times
 
"Acute observations and sharp imagery . . . An indictment of the hypocritical mores of the middle class, prepared to cut corners and take recourse to ‘number two activities’ in its hurry to move up in life. Like all cautionary tales, it embodies more than a little truth about our times.”
—Vikas Swarup, Financial Times

“Ambitious . . . Memorable . . . Adiga is Dickensian in the extent of his cast. Around his two main characters he marshals more than 20 others . . . [He] lays out this most frenetic of megalopolises before us, by turns fascinating, sensual and horrifying, as his writing takes an impressive step onwards.”
—Peter Carty, The Independent on Sunday

“Richly evocative . . . To make a building such as a block of flats the frame for a novel has rich possibilities in a modern world where lives are forever being forced together by collective structures. . . . Adiga [shows] considerable skill at evoking the quotidian lives, domestic and communal, of Tower A’s inhabitants.”
—Adam Lively, The Sunday Times

From the Hardcover edition.

Library Journal
In the midst of a financial boom, a lone resident of a cosmopolitan Mumbai building holds out when his neighbors sell to a developer seeking to build an expensive high-rise. (LJ 9/1/11)
Library Journal
Adiga, author of the highly acclaimed White Tiger, returns with this morality tale about events at a respectable, solidly middle-class building in Mumbai. The veneer of respectability and hard-earned bonhomie falls away after the residents—Hindu, Christian, and Muslim—are offered a windfall by an unscrupulous real estate developer who wants them to move. It is a credit to the author that the reader manages to keep straight the large cast of unforgettable and all-too-believable characters. One resident, retired teacher and widower Masterji, holds out purely on principle—or is it for some other reason even he doesn't understand? In the end, there are no heroes in this viper's nest of competing desires and petty jealousies, as the residents' uglier natures are gradually revealed in the face of their greed and disappointment. The swarming oceanfront metropolis of Mumbai, in various stages of development and decay, functions as a character in its own right. VERDICT You won't be able to look away as the novel hurtles toward its inevitable train wreck of a conclusion in this stunner from Adiga. [See Prepub Alert, 2/28/11.]—Lauren Gilbert, Sachem P.L., Holbrook, NY
The Barnes & Noble Review

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."

Anna Mundow writes "The Interview" and the "Historical Novels" columns for The Boston Globe and is a contributor to The Irish Times. Reviewer: Anna Mundow

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307950147
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/1/2012
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Export Edition
  • Pages: 576

Meet the Author

Aravind Adiga is the author of The White Tiger, which was awarded the 2008 Man Booker Prize, and a collection of stories, Between the Assassinations. He was born in India and attended Columbia and Oxford universities. He is a former correspondent for Time magazine whose work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, The Sunday Times (London), and the Financial Times, among other publications. He lives in India.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

If you are inquiring about Vishram Society, you will be told right away that it is pucca—absolutely, unimpeachably pucca. This is important to note, because something is not quite pucca about the neighbourhood—the toenail of Santa Cruz called Vakola. On a map of Mumbai, Vakola is a cluster of ambiguous dots that cling polyp-like to the underside of the domestic airport; on the ground, the polyps turn out to be slums, and spread out on every side of Vishram Society.

At each election, when Mumbai takes stock of herself, it is reported that one-fourth of the city’s slums are here, in the vicinity of the airport—and many older Bombaywallahs are sure anything in or around Vakola must be slummy. (They are not sure how you even ­pronounce it: Va-KHO-la, or VAA-k’-la?) In such a questionable neighbourhood, Vishram Society is anchored like a dreadnought of middle-class respectability, ready to fire on anyone who might impugn the pucca quality of its inhabitants. For years it was the only good building—which is to say, the only registered co-operative society—in the neighbourhood; it was erected as an experiment in gentrification back in the late 1950s, when Vakola was semi-swamp, a few bright ­mansions amidst mangroves and malarial clouds. Wild boar and bands of dacoits were rumoured to prowl the banyan trees, and rickshaws and taxis refused to come here after sunset. In gratitude to Vishram Society’s pioneers, who defied bandits and anopheles mosquitoes, braved the dirt lane on their cycles and Bajaj scooters, cut down the trees, built a thick ­compound wall and hung signs in English on it, the local ­polit­icians have decreed that the lane that winds down from the main road to the front gate of the building be called “Vishram Society Lane.”

The mangroves are long gone. Other middle-class buildings have come up now—the best of these, so local real-estate brokers say, is Gold Coin Society, but Marigold, Hibiscus, and White Rose grow and grow in reputation—and with the recent arrival of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, a five-star, the area is on the verge of ripening into permanent middle-class propriety. Yet none of this would have been possible without Vishram Society, and the grandmotherly building is spoken of with reverence throughout the neighbourhood.

It is, strictly speaking, two distinct Societies enclosed within the same compound wall. Vishram Society Tower B, which was erected in the late 1970s, stands in the south-east corner of the original plot: seven storeys tall, it is the more desirable building to purchase or rent in, and many young executives who have found work in the nearby Bandra-Kurla financial complex live here with their families.

Tower A is what the neighbours think of as “Vishram Society.” It stands in the centre of the compound, six storeys tall; a marble block set into the gate-post says in weathered lettering:

This plaque was unveiled by Shri Krishna Menon, the honourable defence minister of India, on 14 November 1959, birthday of our beloved prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

Here things become blurry; you must get down on your knees and peer to make out the last lines:

. . . has asked Menon to convey his fondest hope that Vishram Society should serve as an example of “good housing for good Indians.”

Erected by:

Members of the Vishram Society Co-operative Housing Society Fully registered and incorporated in the city of Bombay 14-11-1959

The face of this tower, once pink, is now a rainwater-stained, fungus-licked grey, although veins of primordial pink show wherever the roofing has protected the walls from the monsoon rains. Every flat has iron grilles on the windows: geraniums, jasmines, and the spikes of cacti push through the rusty metal squares. Luxuriant ferns, green and reddish green, blur the corners of some windows, making them look like entrances to small caves.

The more enterprising of the residents have paid for improve- ments to this shabby exterior—hands have scrubbed around some of the windows, creating aureoles on the façade, further complicating the patchwork of pink, mildew-grey, black, cement-grey, rust-brown, fern-green, and floral red, to which, by midday, are added the patterns of bedsheets and saris put out to dry on the grilles and balconies. An old-fashioned building, Vishram has no lobby; you walk into a dark square entranceway and turn to your left (if you are, or are visiting, Mrs. Saldanha of 0C), or climb the dingy stairwell to the homes on the higher floors. (An Otis lift exists, but unreliably so.) Perforated with eight-pointed stars, the wall along the stairwell resembles the screen of the women’s zenana in an old haveli, and hints at secretive, even sinister, goings-on inside.

Outside, parked along the compound wall are a dozen scooters and motorbikes, three Maruti-Suzukis, two Tata Indicas, a battered ­Toyota Qualis, and a few children’s bicycles. The main feature of this compound is a three-foot-tall polished black-stone cross, set inside a shrine of glazed blue-and-white tiles and covered in fading flowers and wreaths—a reminder that the building was originally meant for Roman Catholics. Hindus were admitted in the late 1960s, and in the 1980s the better kind of Muslim—Bohra, Ismaili, college-educated. Vishram is now entirely “cosmopolitan” (i.e., ethnically and religiously mixed). Diagonally across from the black cross stands the guard’s booth, on whose wall Ram Khare, the Hindu watchman, has stencilled in red a slogan adapted from the Bhagavad Gita:

I was never born and I will never die; I do not hurt and cannot be hurt; I am invincible, immortal, indestructible.

A blue register juts out of the open window of the guard’s booth. A sign hangs from the roof:

All visitors must sign the log book

and provide correct address and mobile phone number before entry

by order—

The Secretary Vishram Co-operative Housing Society

A banyan tree has grown through the compound wall next to the booth. Painted umber like the wall, and speckled with dirt, the stem of the tree bulges from the masonry like a camouflaged leopard; it lends an air of solidity and reliability to Ram Khare’s booth that it perhaps does not deserve.

The compound wall, which is set behind a gutter, has two dusty signs hanging from it:

Visit Speed-Tek Cyber-Café. Proprietor Ibrahim Kudwa

Renaissance Real Estate. Honest and reliable. Near Vakola Market

The evening cricket games of the children of Vishram have left most of the compound bare of any flowering plants, although a clump of hibiscus plants flourishes near the back wall to ward off the stench of raw meat from a beef shop somewhere behind the Society. At night, dark shapes shoot up and down the dim Vishram Society Lane; rats and bandicoots dart like billiard balls struck around the narrow alley, crazed by the mysterious smell of fresh blood.

On Sunday morning, the aroma is of fresh baking. There are Mangalorean stores here that cater to the Christian members of Vishram and other good Societies; on the morning of the Sabbath, ladies in long patterned dresses and girls with powdered faces and silk skirts return- ing from St. Antony Church will crowd these stores for bread and sunnas. In a little while, the smell of boiling broth and spicy chicken wafts out from the opened windows of Vishram Society into the neighbourhood. At such an hour of contentment, the spirit of Prime Minister Nehru, if it were to hover over the building, might well declare itself satisfied.

Yet Vishram’s residents are the first to point out that this Society is nothing like paradise. You know a community by the luxuries it can live without. Those in Vishram dispense with the most basic: self-deception. To any inquiring outsider they will freely admit the humiliations of life in their Society—in their honest frustration, indeed, they may exaggerate these problems.

Number one. The Society, like most buildings in Vakola, does not receive a 24-hour supply of running water. Since it is on the poorer, eastern side of the train tracks, Vakola is blessed only twice a day by the Municipality: water flows in the taps four to six in the morning, and 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. The residents have fitted storage tanks above their bathrooms, but these can only hold so much (larger tanks threaten the stability of a building this ancient). By five in the evening the taps have usually run dry; the residents come out to talk. A few ­minutes after seven thirty, the reviving vascular system of Vishram ­Society ends all talk; water is coursing at high pressure up the pipes, and kitchens and bathrooms are busy places. The residents know that their evening washing, bathing, and cooking all have to be timed to this hour and a half when the pressure in the taps is the greatest; as do ancillary activities that rely on the easy availability of running water. If the children of Vishram Society could trace a path back to their ­conceptions, they would generally find that they occurred between half past six and a quarter to eight.

The second problem is the one that all of Santa Cruz, even the good part west of the railway line, is notorious for. Acute at night, it also becomes an issue on Sundays between 7 and 8 a.m. You open your ­window and there it is: a Boeing 747, flying right over your building. The residents insist that after the first month, the phrase “noise ­pollution” means nothing to you—and this is probably true—yet rental prices for Vishram Society and its neighbours are at least a fourth lower because of the domestic airport’s proximity.

The final problem, existential in nature, is spelled out by the glass-faced noticeboard:

NOTICE

Vishram Co-operative Hsg Society Ltd, Tower A Minutes of the special meeting held on Saturday, 28 April

Theme: Emergency nature of repairs is recognized

As the quorum was insufficient, even on such an urgent issue, the meeting had to be adjourned for half an hour; the adjourned meeting commenced at about 7:30 p.m.

ITEM NO. 1 OF THE AGENDA:

Mr. Yogesh Murthy, “Masterji,” (3A), suggested that the minutes of the last meeting of “A” Building be taken as read as the copy of the minutes had already been circulated to all members. It was unanimously agreed that the said minutes be taken as read.

ITEM NO. 2 OF THE AGENDA:

At the outset, Masterji (3A as above) expressed serious concern about the condition of the Society Building and emphasized the need to start repair work immediately in the interest of the members’ safety and the safety of their children; most of the members gathered expressed similar . . .

. . . meeting was finally concluded about 8:30 p.m. with a vote of thanks to the chair.

Copy (1) To Members of Vishram Co-op Hsg Society Ltd, Tower A

Copy (2) To Mr. A. Kothari, Secretary, Vishram Co-op Hsg Society Ltd, Tower A

Pinned behind this notice are older notices of a similar nature. After more than four decades of monsoons, erosion, wind-weathering, air pollution, and the gentle but continual vibrations caused by the low-flying planes, Tower A stands in reasonable chance of complete collapse in the next monsoon.

And yet no one, either in Vishram Society or in the neighbourhood at large, really believes that it will fall.

Vishram is a building like the people living in it, middle class to its core. Improvement or failure, it is incapable of either extremity. The men have modest paunches, wear checked polyester shirts over white banians, and keep their hair oiled and short. The older women wear saris, salwar kameez, or skirts, and the younger ones wear jeans. All of them pay taxes, support charities, and vote in local and general elections.

Just one glance at Vishram in the evening, as its residents sit in white plastic chairs in the compound, chit-chatting, fanning themselves with the Times of India, and you know that this Society is—what else?—pucca.

-- Michael S. Miller Book Developer Scribe Inc. www.scribenet.com

telephone: 215.336.5094 extension 121 facsimile: 215.336.5094

7540 Windsor Drive Suite 200B Allentown PA 18195

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What are some of the major themes of the novel? How does Adiga set them forth even in the first pages through his description of Vishram Society? What do you think the banyan tree symbolizes?

2. The novel begins, “If you are inquiring about Vishram Society, you will be told right away that it is pucca—absolutely, unimpeachably pucca.” What does the word pucca mean? Why is this fact about Vishram important to the story?

3. How does Adiga use humor as social commentary?

4. On page 7, there is a quote adapted from the Bhagavad Gita: “I was never born and I will never die; I do not hurt and cannot be hurt; I am invincible, immortal, indestructible.” Which characters in the novel seem to feel this way?

5. Why is Masterji so respected at the beginning of the novel? How would he be treated in the United States?

6. According to Masterji, his wife’s favorite saying was “ ‘Man is like a goat tied to a pole.’ Meaning, all of us have some free will but not too much” (page 41). Does this prove true for him?

7. There are dozens of scenes that revolve around food. What do the characters’ eating habits tell us about them?

8. Is Dharmen Shah a villain? What are his intentions? Who else might be considered a villain in the story?

9. Discuss Masterji’s friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Pinto. Does envy come into play? How does the offer change their relationship?

10. What is the symbolism behind Mr. Kothari’s flamingos? What are some of the other characters’ influential memories?

11. There are several instances of betrayal in the novel. Whose struck you as most shocking?

12. The offer brings out many different emotions and reactions from the residents of Vishram. In general, how is the reaction of the women different from that of the men in the building?

13. Several of the characters have children, Masterji included. How does their role as parents influence their decision-making? How does parenting in the novel’s modern-day India compare to parenting in the United States?

14. After reading the sign his neighbors have posted criticizing him, Masterji thinks, “A man is what his neighbours say he is” (page 196). Is this true in the novel? How does that notion affect Masterji? Do you think the neighbors’ opinions were entirely new or had just lain dormant until he refused the offer?

15. What role does class play in the story? How does the neighbors’ treatment of Mary and Ram Khare reflect their attitudes in general?

16. Why do you think Mr. Pinto changes his mind about accepting the offer? Is it only about the money or are there other reasons as well?

17. When Shah hears the news about Masterji, he says, “ ‘I thought it would be a push down the stairs, or a beating at night. That’s all…I forgot we were dealing with good people’” (pages 358–359). What does he mean?

18. Why does Ajwani refuse to sign?

19. The last line of the novel is, “Nothing can stop a living thing that wants to be free.” What is this referring to?

20. Why doesn’t Masterji just agree to sell? What would you have done?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    a powerful character study

    In Mumbai, India real estate developer Dharmen Shah wants to tear down the dilapidated Vishram Society Tower A building and construct a luxurious high-rise condo in its place. Many of the current residents have resided in harmony there for years in what is a melting pot mini community with Hindu, Muslim and Christians living there. Regardless of religious beliefs, everyone even Communists accept the exorbitant money offered by Shah though all knows this will end their community as none will be able to afford the new edifice.

    That is everyone accepts the loot except retired widower schoolteacher Mr. Masterji. He refuses to sell his ethics to the developer. Once a welcome part of the middle class residents of Tower A, the teacher is now a pariah pressured to join the avaricious mob.

    Last man in the Tower is a powerful character study that looks at the plight of a hold-out who adheres to his principles though he does not quote understand why. With nods to the movies Twelve Angry Men and Batteries Not Included, Aravind Adiga makes a strong case that an apartment building is a harmonious hamlet until the capitalists arrive with plenty of money. Readers will appreciate this deep look at what makes a community and how easily the facade can be nuked.

    Harriet Klausner

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 2, 2012

    If you liked the White Tiger, you will like this one too. Fanta

    If you liked the White Tiger, you will like this one too. Fantastic characters and a compelling plot.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2013

    What a great read!

    For those who have never read anything by Aravind Adiga I can highly recommend his work. He has a great ability not to overwhelm with details, while describing people, places and situations in a very rich way.

    It can be a little difficult keeping track of the characters sometimes, but as the book goes on it becomes easier.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2012

    Loved it!

    Great read

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 29, 2011

    just ok

    Pretty depressing. just an example of the horrible conditions in India and another example of
    how greedy people are EVEN your own children

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted October 10, 2011

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    Posted July 27, 2011

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    Posted April 3, 2014

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    Posted October 3, 2011

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