LAST MAN IN THE TOWER by Aravind Adiga

Book Quote:

“In the old days, you had caste, and you had religion: they taught you how to eat, marry, live and die. But in Bombay, caste and religion had faded away, and what had replaced them, as far as he could tell, was the idea of being respectable and living among similar people. All his adult life Mastejri had done so; but now in the space of just a few days, he had shattered the husk of a respectable life and tasted its bitter kernel.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (SEP 20, 2011)

When does the heartfelt convictions of one solitary man negate the jointly held consensus of the rest of any civic society?

That is the question posed at the center of Aravind Adiga’s audacious new novel, an impressive and propulsive examination of the struggle for a slice of prime Mumbai real estate. It is a worthy follow-up to Adiga’s Booker Prize novel, White Tiger, as he goes back to the well to explore the changing face of a rapidly growing India.

Adiga pits two flawed men against each other.  The first is Dharmen Shah, a burly and self-made real estate mogul who is the “master of things seen and things unseen.” Through his left-hand man, the shady Shananmugham, he offers each resident of the Vishram Co-operative Housing Society the highest price ever paid for a redevelopment project in the suburb of Vakola.

Just about every resident jumps at the chance to sell – the anxious Ibrahim Kudwa, an Internet-store owner and the only observant Muslim in the neighborly society; social worker Georgina Rego who loathes amoral redevelopers but wants to trump her wealthy sister; Sengeeta Puri, who cares for her son afflicted with Down’s Syndrome; Ramesh Ajwani, an ambitious real-estate broker and more.

Only one resident holds out: Masterji, a retired schoolteacher who lives alone after the recent death of his wife and the death of his daughter. Only here, at Vishram, can he cling to his memories and so he refuses to sell, even when the pot is sweetened… even when he is threatened emotionally and physically. Masterji is the one immutable roadblock between Shah and his legacy.

Whether the reader sympathizes with Masterji – who stands in the way of his neighbors’ most audacious dreams, and whose integrity and incorruptibility borders on narcissism – may be equivalent to, say, how each of us felt with the Ralph Nader spoiler in the Bush-Gore election. Was he an honorable man to have taken a stand? Or was he simply an egotist? There is a grudging admiration for Masterji’s stand, mixed with an impatience and frustration at how this high-principled man stubbornly torpedoes the will of the majority.

Shah is ruthless but also fair-minded: his price is more than fair. Masterji is principled but tin-eared to his neighbors’ pleas as the deadline to accept the offer looms. And as the developer – and his one-time friends – become more and more desperate, the novel cranks up to almost unbearable suspense, with a hint of a Lord of the Flies scenario. Like Piggy in that novel, Masterji is seen as less and less human as the conflict endures.

The background to this tension-filled plot is Mumbia itself, where countless workers commute on nightmarishly overstuffed trains, where they all emerge: “fish, birds, the leopards of Borivali, even the starlets and super-models of Bandra, out of the prismatic dreams of Mother Garbage. Here, fetid slums, the most luxurious high-rises of the future, and the temples of old co-exist within a fragile and all-too-often corrupt democracy.

A Dickensian quality pervades this ambitious novel, which fearlessly tackles electrifying themes: what price growth? Will good people risk their humanity when faced with a chance to score a big payday? When does the will of a man who foregoes monetary gain resemble selfishness as opposed to virtue? And who can we trust to stand by us when we take a lone stance? This book of contrasts – between a man of finance and a man of virtue (although, of course, it is not as simple as that)… between wealth and squalor… between the old and the new is a tour de force. And it is certain to add to Aravind Adiga’s already sterling reputation.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 94 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (September 20, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Aravind Adiga
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

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September 20, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, India-Pakistan, Reading Guide, World Lit

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