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Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga – the dark sides of real-estate in Mumbai and of human behaviour.

January 15, 2023 18 comments

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga (2011) French title: Le dernier homme de la tour. Translated by Annick Le Goya.

Bombay, like a practitioner of yoga, was folding in on itself, as its centre moved from the south, where there was no room to grow, to this swamp land near the airport.

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga is set in Mumbai, in the Vakola district near the airport, in a two towers apartment complex built in the 1970s.

Tower B, known as “Vishram Society” is like a vertical village of lower middle-class people. It’s also known as ‘cosmopolitan’ (i.e. ethnically and religiously mixed.) The various families have been living together in this building for years, they’ve raised children, grown old and have to share their private lives due to paper thin walls and building practicalities. Like in small town life, everybody knows everything about everyone and keeping a secret is illusory.

The Secretary [the concierge], not for the first time during his tenure, cursed the early – morning cat. This cat prowled the waste bins that the residents left out in the morning for Mary [The cleaning lady] to collect, in the process spilling beans, bones, and whisky bottles alike. So the residents of the building knew from the rubbish who was a vegetarian and who merely claimed to be one; who was a rum – man and who a gin – man; and who had bought a pornographic magazine when on holiday in Singapore.

What was I saying about secrets?

Now, in the ever growing and changing Mumbai, a property developer, Mr Shah, has set his eyes on two towers built in the 1970s. He wants to buy out all the current owners, demolish the towers and rebuild expensive condos on the land.

Mr Shah is ready to pay a hefty sum to all the owners based on the square meters of their apartment to encourage them to move out.

A useful note at the beginning of the book explains that Mr Shah’s offer is equivalent to $330,000 per family, in a country where the average per capita annual income in 2008 was around $800. So, if people accept Mr Shah’s offer, they become very rich and have enough money to relocate somewhere else.

Last important thing to know: Vishram Society is a Registered Co – operative Society. Not a jungle. If even one person says no that means that the Society cannot be demolished.

The novel shows the dirty methods used by property developers in Mumbai to put their hands on prime land, to throw working classes out of some neighbourhood to gentrify the area. In Mumbai, slums, older building and modern towers are near each other and this passage about a beach sums it up:

Here, in this beach in this posh northern suburb of Mumbai, half the sand was reserved for the rich, who defecated in their towers, the other half for slum dwellers, who did so near the waves. Residents of the slum that had encroached upon the beach were squatting by the water, defecating. An invisible line went down the middle of the beach like an electrified fence; beyond this line, the bankers, models, and film producers of Versova were engaged in tai – chi, yoga, or spot – jogging.

Builders have no qualms about bullying people into agreeing and they have special people to do it.

Every builder has one special man in his company. This man has no business card to hand out, no title, he is not even on the company payroll. But he is the builder’s left hand. He does what the builder’s right hand does not want to know about. If there is trouble, he contacts the police or the mafia. If there is money to be paid to a politician, he carries the bag. If someone’s knuckles have to be broken, he breaks them.

People in Vishram Society have heard stories about builders’ methods and swindles. They are cautious, they wonder where things could go and how they can be sure to get the money after they’ve signed the papers to sell their apartment.

Rather quickly, all the inhabitants agree to sell and the only one who doesn’t want to is Masterji, an old widower who refuses to leave the memories of his late wife and daughter behind. At least, that’s what he thinks his motives are.

This opportunity to get rich for the owners and to get richer for the promoter is like a bomb in a carefully built life balance between the inhabitants of the Vishram Society.

Last Man in Tower relates how Mr Shah manoeuvres to get what he wants. It also depicts how this tower-village copes with the one inhabitant who blocks their way to wealth.

Adiga’s book is cleverly done because it is not Manichean, the bad developer on one side and the poor old man on the other side. The greedy people and the virtuous one. Mr Shah intends to pay the money he promised, in the builder category, he’s not the worst one. But still. He counts on the neighbours to pressure Masterji into selling.

Masterji’s neighbours want the money, and most of them for good reasons: to provide for their son with Down’s syndrome after they die, to raise their children in a better neighbourhood, to help their grownup children to settle in life, to live a little and stop counting every penny.

And Masterji’s refusal is not just sentimental. There’s something else at stake here, someone who wants to stand up for himself when he wasn’t able to do it in this life, someone who sticks to his principle for the sake of them only.

Last Man in Tower is a dark tale, a book that shows how quickly people turn on each other when money is involved and circumstances push them to pick a side. We know that dark side of humans, we’ve witnessed it in wars and it’s the same mechanism at work here.

Adiga’s novel exposes the workings of the real estate market in Mumbai and digs into the dark corners of the human soul but it is also a vibrant picture of Mumbai and life in this sprawling city. The slums, the markets, the temples, the overcrowded public transports, the heat, the monsoon and the incredible pollution.

South Mumbai has the Victoria Terminus and the Municipal Building, but the suburbs, built later, have their own Gothic style: for every evening, by six, pillars of hydro – benzene and sulphur dioxide rise high up from the roads, flying buttresses of nitrous dioxide join each other, swirls of unburnt kerosene, mixed illegally into the diesel, cackle like gargoyles, and a great roof of carbon monoxide closes over the structure. And this Cathedral of particulate matter rises over every red light, every bridge and every tunnel during rush hour.

When I was reading, I thought it was a bit too long but now that I write about it I realize that the pace of the narration suits what the author had to show and say.

The book was published in 2011, wonder how the real-estate market is in Mumbai now.

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