The good people of an old apartment block in Mumbai have been offered a fortune to move out. It is as if they have won Lotto. But unless they all accept the offer, no-one can benefit. There is a problem, however – Masterji does not want to move. This is the starting point for Last Man in Tower which is, stylistically, a very different novel to Adiga’s prize winning The White Tiger, even if violence and corruption are central to both. Whereas The White Tiger was a confessional novel, told in the first person by a man with a dark history, Last Man in Tower is a traditional third-person narrative where the stories are cleverly interwoven to keep you waiting and to expose the psychology of a group of people in an extraordinary situation. The characters, even the developer Mr Shah, are well rounded, their motives both simple and complex. Unfortunately, the women tend to be a bit shrill.
Class is a key element of the narrative. The people in the tower block are lower middle-class. They had money to buy into the tower block in the first place and although they are not in a great neighbourhood and the slums are just outside, they have a respectable address. Still, they do not have a lot of cash. They exist on salaries and pensions and life in Mumbai is not cheap. Well, that is to say, living is not cheap. Life is another matter. The nice middle-class people of Vishram Society want to move up and this money will give them mobility. They are middle-aged or elderly and they want to buy comfort and status. The warping effects of violence and corruption are deemed acceptable in the circumstances and Mrs Puri can even find it in her to blame Masterji for making her behave as she has done.
Interestingly, Adiga stresses throughout the novel that for this Mumbai, religion is not as important as class. Although the Society was originally established for Christians over the years this has broken down and now there are Muslims and Hindus living there. Masterji was the first non-Christian to be admitted. At one point he realises, to his horror, that his neighbours are treating him like an Untouchable. A Brahmin and a teacher, he derives his status more from his profession than anything else and education is another central theme. It is noticeable that the poorest characters in the story, Mary the maid and Ram Khare, the watchman, both place more emphasis on education than the others. Indeed, Ram Khare respects Masterji despite the fact that he has never tipped him because the teacher allowed the watchman’s lowly daughter to attend his evening ‘top up’ classes.
Yet, Masterji’s refusal to take the money is hard to understand. Adiga keeps us guessing. Is he motivated by nostalgia, ill health, morality, stubbornness or a new-found faith in Hinduism?
Mumbai is an amazing place. I visited it briefly in 1998 and I will never forget standing on the platform at Victoria Terminus (VT in the book), watching the goats chewing grass between the train tracks and listening to the local sales guys joking about making them into a good curry. The smell of damp was everywhere and the traffic was overwhelming. The people were great. I really enjoyed myself. But I was a tourist so it could only ever be a holiday snapshot. The everyday struggle to live in such a city would require enormous strength and, in the book, the challenges are clear. Masterji’s daughter has died in an all too common train accident, falling from the open side of a carriage. Mary lives in fear of a slum clearance destroying her tarpaulin house by the sewer. The streets are full of migrants and in Mumbai they have not come from overseas in a boat. They have migrated from the villages to the cities, like the White Tiger, seeking their Lotto ticket and facing resentment from the people who feel more entitled because they have been there longer.
Rich and fascinating, there are many more reasons to read this book. Treat yourself to a rich and satisfying novel with a social message because, although his touch is gentle and sometimes teasing, Adiga does not think that Mumbai’s relentless ‘what do you want?’ is the right question, or that violence and corruption are the answer.