Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Reflections: Last Man in Tower

Vishram Cooperative Housing Society in Mumbai is home to many interesting residents - lonely, corrupt, insecure, ignorant, and ambitious. But life goes on. Gossips and petty squabbles are usually brushed aside, and common decency intermingled with friendships, even if they are opportunistic, hold the two apartment towers. One day, a powerful real-estate developer that's hungry to clear out some land to develop a grand building to bolster his ego, offers the residents a substantial sum of money to vacate the land. Money, the all-intoxicating green monster, slowly lures every family to accept the offer.... well, all except one stubborn, idealistic teacher that refuses to leave his old apartment in exchange for any sum of money. Masterji, the teacher, aggravates the collective sensibility of Vishram, for no one can understand why anyone would be so intractable when Goddess Lakshmi  in the form of an unimaginable amount of money) was ready to change all their middle-class lives for the better. If Masterji doesn't accept the offer, no one gets their money, and all their hopes of rebuilding a better future in the form of a better apartment and a better bank balance are all torn to shreds. One man is pitted against all the residents and the calculative people of the ruthless real-estate world. Adiga shocks his readers yet again through this thought-provoking novel that explores how far the allure of money can push people to the edge of morality, or rather immorality, while trying to make a living in an unapologetic city of constant rat-races.

This book is most memorable for its characters. There are not too many characters, but just enough to give flavor to the different types of personality that one usually encounters in a typical apartment complex. Each one is realistic and brilliantly depicted. The characters have their own back story that plays into their individual needs and motivation to procure the generous sum of money. Their desperation to gain the money is completely understandable, even if some of their motives are loathsome. There is a part of you that gets it - the primal part that connects with the greed and desire to move onto better pastures. And that's what shocks you the most. You are as repelled and turned off by the greed as you are frustrated by masterji's adamance. Masterji's character is fleshed out in a very intelligent and interesting fashion. His refusal to leave the apartment seems rooted in a non-capitalist agenda, but as the story develops, Adiga brings out so many interesting shades to his idealism and stubbornness, it's fascinating. You see a lonely man clinging to memories of his dead wife and daughter in his old flat, a scared old man holding onto his principles because he is afraid he has nothing else left for him, and a lost man not knowing how to reconcile his ego. At a certain point in time, every battle loses its meaning... the reasons and principles for initiating the battle are long forgotten, but the battle wages on and on, because no one knows how to end it. Everything just boils down to a battle of egos. 

I really liked this book. The ending does shock, and it might seem exaggerated, but the characters' arc of growth (or deterioration, in this case) is built with realistic and measured strokes of story telling. The ending is almost a parody, a satirical take on the darker side of human nature. Adiga intelligently explores what morality means to each of the characters, and how "good" and "bad" are so intertwined in each of us that the so-called "good person" can be connived into repressing his conscience, while the so-called "corrupt person" can be pushed to confront his conscience. It's a beautiful character study of greed, analyzed from multiple perspectives. All of this is laced with an incisively insightful social commentary on the real-estate world in Mumbai, where there are more people than available land. As India develops and booms with bigger buildings and more opportunities, there are still people being squandered and trampled in the mad stampeded to grab the elusive opportunities.

I thought this book was better than Adiga's acclaimed White Tiger for his portrayal of complicated characters in a seemingly simple, straightforward story. If you enjoy character sketches, this book is sure to impress you.

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