One of the most successful debuts of recent years, Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger was alternately lauded for exposing the seamier side of the Indian success story—as if he were a journalist with breaking news—and criticised for the hypocrisy of attempting to create a protagonist inhabiting a vastly different social strata than the author’s—somehow missing the point of fiction being the ability to make things up convincingly. With few exceptions, the most notable being Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s scorching literary critique for theLondon Review of Books, the response to The White Tiger, as is too often the case with critical responses to writing from outside the Western world, tended towards being anthropological rather than literary, weighing up India rather than Adiga. Perhaps this can explain to some extent why his latest book places far greater emphasis on its message than on its execution as a novel.
In Last Man in Tower, Adiga expounds on his usual subject, the India beneath the glitz of the much-vaunted economic boom. A fat tome weighing in at over 400 pages, and billed as a cracking thriller, it’s hinged on a simple premise: a somewhat dodgy real estate developer wishes to knock down a creaky Mumbai apartment block, and all the residents—barring one—are eager to pocket the generous compensation package for moving out. As he becomes the only thing standing between the tower-dwellers and a lucrative deal, his situation progresses from being merely inconvenient to downright dangerous. Of course, it’s not really about interpersonal relationships souring due to the promise of cold hard cash, it’s about the number of people being forced out of their homes and what’s being done to the city in the name of progress. We know this because, not wanting to take any chances, the author tells us: ‘How many were being forced out of their homes—what was being done to this city in the name of progress?’
Tossing aside conventional fiction writing rules that encourage authors to ‘show and not tell’ the reader, leaving them to infer meaning themselves, it’s all tell-time and no show-time in Last Man. Sometimes, Adiga is even considerate enough to explain his viewpoint repeatedly, in one paragraph, just in case we were dropped on our heads as infants: ‘New financial buildings were opening every month… and the lucre in their vaults, like butter on a hotplate, was melting and trickling into the slums, enriching some and scorching others among the slum-dwellers… a few lucky hut-owners were becoming millionaires… others were being crushed… wealth came to some and misery to others.’
In a similar vein, characters aren’t really people so much as transparent plot devices with different names. As seen on theatre programmes, Last Man opens with a cast of characters. It provides their names, ages, professions and location in the building, and 400 reluctantly turned pages later, one doesn’t know a great deal more about them. The sleazy developer, for all the airtime he gets, remains a cliché, complete with a long-suffering moll who stays with him in the hope of landing a role in the movies. The cleaning lady fares even worse; ‘Her life was a hard one’, we’re told, something we could potentially have deduced ourselves.
As for the tower-dwellers, at best one knows what some of them eat, how they decorate their homes. We’re familiar with their daily routines, yet they fail to materialise into real people. Try as one might, one cannot imagine them, any of them, as anything above and beyond a sketchy description on a page. Towards the end, Adiga attempts to insert shades of moral ambiguity, an attempt that fails since one would have to care for it to matter. The paper-thin characterisation leaves one with a sneaking suspicion that the author disapproves of the residents, hence the lack of empathy that would have brought them to life.
The exception is the protagonist, presented as the last vestige of another type of India—retired schoolteacher Yogesh Murty, who goes by the solidly respectable title of Masterji. Adiga desperately wants us to know that he’s The Good Guy. And so, Masterji is introduced as having ‘a dignified bearing’. A few paragraphs later, we are informed that he ‘accepted his lot with dignity’. In addition, he is an atheist who teaches children science for free, drinks tea with labourers, says nice things about Muslims and single working women with male friends, is recently widowed, and, sealing the deal, had a young daughter fall from a crowded train to her death. I suppose this has the potential to be quite moving were it not for the rank sentimentality—‘the child that he made, the tracks unmade’.
Sentimentality, ultimately, is this book’s downfall. It doesn’t descend into the mawkish so much as live there, occasionally coming up for air. As a racy thriller, it has all the right ingredients—a plot with an urgent sense of momentum, a vibrant and challenging city as a backdrop, a broad spectrum of characters from across the country—that offer an opportunity to dig deep into all that is good and bad in modern India. Only, it isn’t written as a thriller. Adiga cares too deeply for the loss that comes with advancement to approach it that way. Last Man in Tower is written as a morality tale, which, along with being considerably less thrilling than a thriller, is also utterly unsustainable at this length.
The book isn’t helped by Adiga’s partiality for similes and metaphors, equalled only by his seeming inability to construct a halfway decent one. There is one rather fun line, all the more memorable for being the lone spark of wit and style: the woman whose ‘voice always had its knickers down’. Still, it doesn’t quite make up for the cupboards whose ‘doors gave way suddenly to let books and newspapers gush out with traumatic force, like eggs from the slit-open belly of a fish’, nor the woman washing dishes who ‘removed one wet utensil after the other from the foamy water, like a psychoanalyst extracting submerged memories’. Then there is his observation of the old and the new sitting side by side in the supermarket where ‘glitzy plastic satchels of instant Chinese noodles and malt powder twinkled beside the bananas like nouveau-riche cousins’. The most bewildering analogy is saved for the central character: ‘Amidst the silent germination of schemes and ambitions all around him, Masterji sat like a cyst, looking at the rain…’. Of this man apart, at a distance from material and even emotional concerns, we are told a few pages on that ‘the hypodermic needle of the outside world had bent at his epidermis and never penetrated’. One can’t help but point out that if he had indeed been like a cyst, this would not have been the case.