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.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Aravind Adiga was born in India in 1974 and attended Columbia and Oxford universities. He is the author of Selection Day, the Booker Prize-winning novel The White Tiger, and the story collection Between the Assassinations. He lives in Mumbai, India.
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.”
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
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:
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.
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Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga’s vivid, compulsively readable follow-up to his award–winning novel The White Tiger.
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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
If you liked the White Tiger, you will like this one too. Fantastic characters and a compelling plot.
I picked up this book because 1) I enjoyed Adiga's first novel, The White Tiger, and 2) the synopsis reminded me of several other books I've enjoyed that center on the residents of an Indian apartment complex, notably Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu. At first, the novel seems to fall into a similar category, revealing the various personlities and daily interactions of the diverse residents with a wry humor. But their generally peaceful relationships are disrupted by the offer from a developer who wants to tear down Tower A and Tower B. Initially, most of the residents of Tower A want to accept what seems to be a generous offer; but a few holdouts either suspect the builder's honesty or see no reason to leave the place where they have lived contentedly. The problem is that, under their rules, 100% of the residents must agree to sell. Using first logic, then legal technicalities, then bullying and rumors, then threats, the builder's henchman and the residents persuade all but one man to sign the agreement. At this point, any humor that remains is very dark, indeed.Adiga seems to be making a comment about the extent of human greed, especially in a cramped former 'third world' city (Mumbai) where prosperity has flourished more rapidly than such values as morality, empathy, justice, and a sense of community can allow. Tower A began to remind me of a colony of rats trapped in a sewer, climbing over one another to reach the only means of escape and resorting to the most primitive enactment of survival of the fittest. It's to Adiga's credit that he creates characters that are, initially, so likable, as this only makes the metamorphoses wrought by greed more despicable. His epilogue shows that, sadly, these changes were more than tranistory--perhaps a reflection on the changes success is bringing to the national character. If there is any light for humanity in the ending, it is in the fact that one character, over the course of what occurs, seems to have found a conscience.While I wouldn't rate Last Man in Tower as a "must read" book, readers who enjoyed The White Tiger or any of the many other books written in recent years that deal with the changing economic, social, and political landscape of modern India would probably find it worth their time.
Not as good as White Tiger and about 100 pages too long for the development of characters and storyline.. The real interest is the corrupting effect that greed has on simple people.
The first thing, the inevitable thing, is the comparison to The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga's first book that won the Man Booker Prize. (Side note: I have no idea about the awards most books win and don't really use those as a reason for reading - or not reading - a book.)I thought The White Tiger packed a punch, it was in your face, fast-paced... None of these characteristics are present in this book. This book has more of a slow, trickling effect. It kind of creeps up on you and then leaves you devastated, which is how I felt a couple of minutes after I finished it.Whereas the previous book was from the point of view of a poor person in India, this one examines a group of people who would probably fall into the middle class, or the lower middle class. It follows a similar pattern, in that it looks at how far people are willing to go to make money or, more accurately, move themselves up into a better situation. I kind of thought that the climax of the story towards the end happened too quickly, as well as the tying up of the rest of it, which was covered in the epilogue. Though, on the other hand, it makes sense because the crux of it all was everything leading up to it and how their mindsets changed over the course of time. In fact, the more I consider the book, the more "truthful" or "real" it seems. I can actually imagine that this could happen in India.As I think about it more while it processes, I may have more to say. End note: I do have a copy of Adiga's 2nd book, Between the Assassinations, checked out of the library but I'm not sure if I can take reading more of these depressing stories about India right now. Might have to read at least one book in between before I attempt that one.
This novel won't be to everyone's taste but I absolutely loved it. Middle class people living in a multistory building in the midst of the Mumbai slums are offered huge amounts of money to sell to a less-than-scrupulous builder. The catch ¿ everyone in the building must agree to sell. And there are holdouts.The story is filled with unforgettable characters and their all-too-human foibles. The writing is gorgeous:He cursed his luck. Of all the things to pick up from Falkland Road ¿ all the horrible names he had worried about ¿ gonorrhoea, syphilis, prostatitis, Aids ¿ he had to pick this up: a conscience.Dark and filed with irony and subtle humor, the story kept me interested throughout and made me care about characters who were not always very likeable people. Those readers who liked The White Tiger will most likely enjoy this novel as well.Thank you to the publisher for giving me an uncorrected proof for review. The quote may have changed in the finished edition.
In a July 2011 interview in a New Delhi newspaper (¿Press Trust of India¿), ¿Last Man in Tower¿ author, Aravind Adiga, revealed that the setting for his second novel was the same Mumbai condominium he lived in while he was writing his first Booker Prize-winning novel, ¿White Tiger.¿ He was infatuated with the vibrant neighborhood and fascinated by the diverse middle class people who lived there. He wanted to set his new novel in an urban setting and his former residence in Mumbai seemed like a natural choice. Contrary to what many readers imagine after reading this book, Adiga didn¿t set out to write a morality story or to write a novel deep with themes about the emerging new India. He set out to write an entertaining thriller. And, yes, I believe he does succeed in writing a remarkable and engrossing psychological thriller¿but I write thriller with a very tiny ¿t.¿ With a man falling from a tower on the cover, you know how the book will end and within the first few chapters you know who the falling person will be. Whatever suspense there is (and thrillers must have suspense), it comes with finding out how it happens, who is involved, and exactly what takes place. In any case, I think the ending will surprise most readers¿perhaps even leave them breathless.The brilliance of this book is not the thriller element of the plot, but the author¿s close attention to psychological character development. The author builds a large set of very real characters and then shows how each character is transformed by circumstances. It is important to note that although this novel is set in urban India, it could take place in almost any major urban setting. There is nothing uniquely Indian about the psychological transformations happening to the residents of this Mumbai condominium.In the beginning, it is quite hard to get into the story because there are so many characters with strange names. In fact, Adiga includes a directory at the beginning of the book so readers can easily be reminded of who¿s who. For me, the character directory was a necessary reference. At first, I was disappointed because the characters seemed like soap opera stereotypes. But all that changed dramatically as the book progressed. Adiga adds layer upon layer of character detail and soon his large cast take on genuine psychological depth. Readers will experience an authentic and exotic world. Everyone is portrayed in multiple and complex shades of grey. Even the hero has a lot of personality traits that most people would find significantly disagreeable. Everyone possesses aspects of their personalities that are both admirable and deplorable¿moral and immoral. The author obviously strives to help his readers to understand these characters and empathize with them¿and perhaps, ultimately, to forgive them. It¿s a thriller with a small ¿t¿ because there is actually too much complexity and detail in the characterizations. Some readers might knock off a full rating star for that, but, this didn¿t matter to me. I was not after the ¿thriller¿ part. This book will appeal to people who love characters rather than story, to people who view all individuals in shades of grey, to people who have no problem finding understanding and empathy for wrongdoers, and to people who don¿t need to like their main characters to enjoy a novel. Adiga¿s prose is every bit as wonderful as it was in ¿White Tiger.¿ There are luminous passages that make urban India come alive. This is first-rate psychological fiction with a thin thriller twist.
a bit overly long; kind of a depressing story but well written
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.
Pretty depressing. just an example of the horrible conditions in India and another example of how greedy people are EVEN your own children