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Demolishing A Social Edifice

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Expectations are always high when Booker winners sit down to write their next novel. The novelist feels the strain as well, and this is sometimes transmitted to the work. Adiga seems to have no such problems.

Last Man In Tower, Adiga's new offering, is a story about that most universal (other than stupidity) of human conditions: greed. Vishram Society in Vakola, Mumbai, is a decades-old structure whose Tower A, occupied by a cross-section of people, is a tower of respectability. Battling water shortage, sewage leaks stray dogs — those charming features of any Indian metropolis — the residents get along with the usual schisms and alliances. Of the lot, the most respected is Yogesh Murthy (Masterji), a retired school teacher whose daughter had died several years ago, and his wife just a year before the tale opens. His son, Gaurav, lives in another sector of Mumbai and has little time for the old man.

Enter Dharmen Shah, Demolition Man, a.k.a Builder. Shah, himself suffering from a variety of ailments – the result of inhaling dust from his construction business – wishes to buy out Vishram Society and build new, plush apartments there. Initially the residents are appalled by the idea, but slowly, selling their old property and making a decent pile of money seems to many a wise move. Older residents, like the Pintos and Masterji, however, are uncertain of a move to a new location at their age. Shah begins his not-so-invisible maneuvers to secure the property; first starting, as is done in shining India, with bribes (or ‘sweeteners' as he calls them). The secretary of the Vishram society and other residents are tempted, and Shah reels them in with the help of his ‘left-hand man', Shanmugham.

Masterji holds out, even as all his neighbours, yield. Vishram breaks down, with everybody secretly against everybody else (in the hope of getting some more sweeteners from Shah) but openly against Masterji for what they see as his selfishness and stupidity. Left without allies in the building, Masterji turns to his son who also wants him to sell. He takes legal advice, and the lawyers suggest the same. Cops, old students, all turn away. Meanwhile, inspired by Shah and driven by greed, the other residents start harassing Masterji. Stubbornly, the old man does not give in. And the others are forced to take one final step…

Adiga keeps the plot going, about that there is little doubt, and he can create good atmosphere. What does not quite work is the logic of his characters' behavior; Ibrahim's conversion to the ideology of greed, or even, more problematically, Masterji's mulish insistence that he will not let go of the decrepit house. To all appearances he is a wise man, but in this one matter, he seems not to think. Unless, what we are supposed to see is his geriatric stubbornness and defiance. Adiga's success is, strangely, Shah. He is different from the prototype cruel villain, as he battles his juvenile delinquent of a son, and his own ailing body. What we recognise in each character is the essentially greed that blinds all humans, where loyalties dissolve in a vat of liquid finance. A strong sense of self-preservation destroys all bonds, as Masterji discovers. A tale of modern India,  Last Man in Tower is worth at least one read.