Tuesday, January 21, 2014
#3 [2014-CBR6] "Last Man in Tower" by Aravind Adiga
The White Tiger was one of my favorite books of the year when I read it back in 2008. For that reason, I knew I would have to eventually get around to reading Last Man in Tower (2011) by Aravind Adiga. Last Man in Tower is Adiga's second novel, which also takes place in contemporary India and encompasses the major changes taking place as money rolls in to such a large and dynamic country.
I appreciated that Last Man in Tower was a good book. And it's definitely one that sticks with you and makes you think. However, it didn't draw me in or awe me as The White Tiger had done. Perhaps it's unfair to expect so much all over again, but even though I'm glad I read it, I didn't feel as connected to the characters or their situation.
Mumbai, India is a vibrant city, pulsing with the new life that arrives every day from rural India as well as the influx from continued development and economic growth. Slums are overflowing and land is more scarce and more expensive every minute. Shah, a man of wealth, business, and questionable morals, offers the owners of "Tower A" and "Tower B" an extraordinary sum of money for them to move out so he can build a brand new, luxury building on the site. Many residents are thrilled with their luck at receiving more money than they could have dreamed of and begin to plan what they are going to buy with their riches. There are, however, a couple of residents who balk at the offer. Mrs. Rego is a social worker who helps people living in the slums. She has had people betray her in the past and is reluctant to believe in this too-good-to-be-true offer. Mr. and Mrs. Pinto are elderly and Mrs. Pinto, who is blind, is afraid of losing her way around a new home. On the other side are residents desperate to get the money and improve their lives. Masterji is a retired school teacher; he is someone who is loyal, noble, stubborn, and clueless all at once, and he does not want to move and lose the memories of his late wife and daughter.
So...this is about what happens when neighbors stop being polite, and start being real--ly selfish and mean to each other. Adiga is good at creating a sense of suspenseful dread. As soon as I hit the halfway mark, I was constantly thinking, "please don't do that, please don't do that," even as I appreciated why the characters were acting as they did. There is an impressive layering and complexity to the characters--they all have both good and bad characteristics. I think I expected the wealthy builder to be the "bad guy" in this book, and although he is not great, it seemed that every character was capable of evil given the right motivations. "'Man is like a goat tied to a pole.' Meaning, all of us have some free will but not too much. One shouldn't judge oneself harshly." (51) Perhaps what was most disturbing was to see how easily people could turn on each other, turn a blind eye to others' wrongs, and then justify it to themselves.
Adiga also ties the fate of Tower A together with the fate of Mumbai and probably India as a whole. "All of Bombay was created like this: 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." (162) Mumbai itself is being torn down and rebuilt and renewed, and although the redevelopment seems unavoidable, it is not clear that it is always a good thing. It certainly isn't a good thing for the people forced out of their homes in the slums, the Tower A cleaning woman losing her job ("Her life was a hard one. She had married a pair of muscled arms that drifted into and out of her life, leaving bruises and a child." 156), or Masterji who is tied up in the past.
With all this fascinating stuff going on, you might wonder why I didn't like this book as much as The White Tiger, and I did have some problems with it. Instead of just one main character that you follow throughout his life, Last Man in Tower is more of an ensemble with at least ten major characters that we learn about throughout the book. Sometimes details are thrown in near the middle of the novel, while some characters are virtually ignored until near the end. The narrative jumped around so much, especially in the first half of the book, that I had a hard time connecting to anyone. As soon as I got involved with a person's story, Adiga moved on. I also had a hard time understanding Masterji's motivation for refusing to move. Reasons floated up but it wasn't clear which was motivating him or if he even knew why he was being so stubborn. Although this ambiguity makes for some interesting thoughts and discussion afterwards, it could be frustrating to read. I'd still recommend it, especially if you have an interest in India, but I'd start with The White Tiger first.