Going behind the story

Lead Review

Going behind the story

Last man in tower
Aravind Adiga
Fourth Estate
2011, pp 419
Rs 699

Analysing Jane Austen’s Emma as a detective novel, P D James, the crime writer, shows how a work of literary fiction can work as a thriller, provided the author builds up the elements of ‘mystery’.

Aravind Adiga sets up Last Man in Tower much like a crime thriller, setting the action in a closed community —  a block of flats, giving a thumb sketch of the dramatis personae, and as he goes along, a motive to commit a crime. Strangely, it is this aspect of the novel that weighs it down; it is the secondary story, the offshoot of the main, which works as a conventional moral tale, where the life and fate of an individual echo the story of a nation, that pulls the novel through.

Vishram Society, ‘unimpeachably pucca’, built in 1959, is a housing society for middle class families, the building unveiled by none other than Krishna Menon, India’s defence minister. Parallelling the country’s secular ideals, the building intended originally for Roman Catholics, first admits Hindus and then ‘the better kind of Muslims’ and has now become ruthlessly representative — Vishram has the Regos, the Pintos, the Puris, a Murthy, an Ajwani, an Ibrahim Kudwa and a modern Miss Meenakshi.

As the city of Bombay grows, the decaying Vishram becomes prime real estate and it is coveted by the developer, Dharmen Shah, a stock figure, complete with henchman and mini-skirted moll, who believes that ‘The builder is the one man in Bombay who never loses a fight’. Shah makes a gilt-edged offer to the residents of Vishram and wears down each resident’s resolve, even the ‘communist’ Mrs Rego’s. Murthy alone stands up to the builder.

Yogesh Murthy, ‘masterji’, if anything, is the exemplar of Nehruvian socialist India — a school teacher who teaches science, an atheist, a rationalist constantly worrying his Rubik’s cube, so open minded that after his wife’s death, he makes the change from his vegetarian routine to the Pintos’ non-vegetarian table quite smoothly.

He resists Dharmen Shah because he believes that in a democratic society, a man cannot be bullied; he is entitled to a life of dignity. But then, Yogesh Murthy alone finds his needs are satisfied with what he has, he does not aspire to his share of the gains of ‘development’, flowing out ‘like butter on a hot plate’.  

Underlying the urban sprawl and the new-found wealth is a sense of rot and decay, barely kept at bay, which Adiga constantly evokes. The bulk of this very long book is taken up in showing how opposition to Shah is whittled down to Murthy alone — last man in tower — as he imagines himself being described in a newspaper headline.

Murthy’s son too turns against him, his former students hail him as ‘Maximus the Gladiator’ but do little to help him and Shah induces the other occupants of Vishram to ‘help’ Murthy come round.  

The devices that Adiga uses are heavy and large. Murthy’s daughter-in-law returns his gift to his grandson — The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science — a fat tome that Murthy uses literally to defend himself when a couple of toughs break into his flat to intimidate him. Felicitous turns of phrase are followed by several that seem ill-judged.

Mrs Rego recalls the Bandra of her college days ‘where even the façade of a Catholic church had the quality and excitement of sin’, and Murthy reflects on the small portions served in his son’s house where ‘food merely tiptoed across his plate’; but ‘an eczema of blue-skinned bearded godmen…’ covers the door of a flat and ‘the red blossoms of a gulmohur (burn) like love bites on the summer’s day’, doing no favours either to nature or human passion.

What gives the novel its readability is Adiga’s skill in pacing and chiselling the narrative.  
Animal motifs abound in this book, illustrating the less desirable of human traits or the callousness of man. If the white tiger was the reigning animal of Adiga’s last book, it is the hyena this time ‘…filthy …majestic: … the dark dog-like grinning face, the powerful striped lower limb. …this mongrel beast looked like one of those half-politician, and half criminal, who ruled the city, vile and necessary.’

In a final incantation of despair, when Yogesh Murthy finds that every human agency has failed him, in a grotesque parody of a mantra, he calls to ‘pigeon… scorpion… stinging wasps… mosquitos’ to protect him from human beings.

Though Adiga leaves it almost till too late, and uses some rather bludgeoning metaphors and images, he effectively orchestrates a society, a city that in its quest for individual ‘betterment’ has lost its strength as a community, its sense of being an integral part of a holistic world. Masterji’s moment of enlightenment comes when he sits in a roadside tea shop, the kind he would not have dreamt of stepping into earlier, to drink tea with an emaciated rickshaw puller.

While Adiga sees the middle class with more sympathy here than in The White Tiger, he sees them as progressively losing touch with their humanity, the one essential civilising quality.

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