Set in contemporary Mumbai, Aravind Adiga’s second novel, Last Man in Tower, focuses on Yogesh Murthy, the man who wants nothing, and the community who doesn’t understand him.
We humans are an optimistic lot. We want to believe that things will get better. Heaven, nirvana, enlightenment, revolution, progress, reform, elections, diet, clothes, cars, education, jobs, marriage, houses, investment, retirement, or if all else fails then maybe the lottery will transform our lives. 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. When one of Mumbai’s “new builders,” Dharmen Shah, offers to buy out the residents of Vishram Society each one embarks on a secret fantasy of a future that would compensate for suffering and hardships already endured. Yogesh Murthy, a recently widowed retired schoolteacher, known everywhere as Masterji, is the only one who won’t go along. Another way to ask the question above is: What can you do with a man who wants nothing?
Masterji draws upon an apparently endless reserve of what Dharmen terms “negative willpower.” He denies himself sweets and afternoon naps, corrects his dead daughter’s French in an old workbook, and finds little comfort in religion. His lamp becomes the sun and his fist the moon during the informal science lessons he gives local children. By repeating, “I want nothing,” he hems himself in. “He looked at the round water stains on the ceiling of his living room and saw asteroids and white dwarves. In the cursive mildew he read E = mc2.”
In his earlier work 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, an African born “nothing-man,” who plans to use his windfall to move somewhere with a view of migrating flamingos.
Ashvin Kothari spoke now of things even his wife had never heard. Of an African servant lady wiping a large porcelain dish and laying it on a table with a blue tablecloth; a market in Nairobi where his father was a big man; and then one more thing, a memory which blazed in his mind’s eye like a pink flame.
Flamingoes. A whole flock of them.
When he was not yet five, he had been taken to a lake in the countryside full of the wild pink birds. His father had put his thumbs under his armpits and lifted him up so he could see to the horizon; the flamingoes rose all at once and he had screamed over his father’s head.
Another neighbor, the indecisive Ibrahim Kudwa, recognizes the unspoken wish of his neighbors: “All of them could have been different men.”
Meanwhile Mumbai is in the throes of becoming a different city. Everyone and everything is jostling for space and even bits of flotsam are ambitious. Dharmen gazes through a fence that “was supposed to mark the land’s end, but a promontory of debris, broken chunks of old buildings, granite, plastic, and Pepsi-Cola had sneaked past it—the enterprising garbage pushed several feet into the water.” Dharmen tellingly imagines Mumbai springing into existence, “through the desire of junk and landfill, on which the reclaimed city sits, to become something better. In this way they all emerged: fish, birds, the leopards of Borivali, even the starlets and super-models of Bandra.” As a self-made man he views others as his “clay to squeeze,” but his power doesn’t make him immune to the fantasy of remaking himself yet again, going away with his mistress to “find a city with clean air,” and “have another son, a better one…”
Adiga illustrates the circularity of such aspirations by describing reactions to a tourist in jogging shorts:
“Having dreamed all their lives of better food and better clothes, the young men were looking at this rich foreigner’s appalling sweat, his appalling nudity. Is this the end point, they were wondering: a lifetime of hard work, undertaken involuntarily, to end in this—another lifetime of hard work, undertaken voluntarily?”
Possibilities pile up, goading the frenzy of aspiration and consumption onward. Stray dogs, lizards and foraging birds become as disposable as the surfaces they scamper across. Adiga resorts to lists to capture this excess of things. At crucial moments people abandon pronouns: by thinking “thing” and “it” instead of “he” and “him” they become capable of violence.
Much has been written about Adiga’s presentation of a corrupt and squalid India for the delectation of English speaking audiences. Even those who praise him use a vocabulary that seems limited to the “seedy,” or “seamy” or “dark underbelly.” The Telegraph mentions a “grim glimpse of human nature,” while the Guardian peers through his prose into “Mumbai’s grim heart.” It is true that vitriolic greed eats away and eventually dissolves the tangled relationships that bind the residents of Tower A together and the result is tragic. Adiga is familiar with the machinations of materialism. His former career as a financial journalist informs his understanding of “buildings rising above the earth and concourses of money running below it.” But those who prod the old cliché of India’s underbelly are like the residents who rifle through their neighbors’ garbage in search of damning scraps and bits of gossip. When Adiga’s prose climbs over “cellophane, eggshell, politician’s face, stock quote, banana leaf, sliced off chicken’s feet, and green crowns cut from pineapples,” he is a scavenger retrieving that which is useful or valuable. 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.
Author Photograph by Mark Pringle