After midnight, madness in Mumbai
SALMAN Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize win for Midnight’s Children was a watershed moment. Before Rushdie, the prize had been dominated by English-born writers. Post-Rushdie, the empire struck back and almost two-thirds of the past 30 Bookers have gone to writers born outside Britain.
Indian writer Aravind Adiga broke into this non-Anglo winners’ circle with his first novel, The White Tiger, in 2008. A global bestseller, the novel not only put Adiga on the map, it also pointed to a new confidence in his burgeoning home market.
A rags-to-riches story that alternated between the obscenity of India’s poverty and the obscene wealth of New Delhi’s entrepreneurial elite, The White Tiger confronted the contradictions of India’s economic miracle with a darkly comic realism that, as one blogger put it, made Midnight’s Children ‘‘ seem positively twee’’.
Adiga’s second novel, Last Man in Tower, shifts the action to Mumbai, India’s largest city by population and its commercial capital. The shift is significant not only because it mirrors Adiga’s real-life move from New Delhi but also because it allows him to continue exploring on an even grander scale the themes of greed, corruption and moral disintegration. It’s not for nothing that Mumbai has been called ‘‘ Maximum City’’.
Last Man in Tower is the intertwined story of a group of lower middle-class Indians living in an apartment block known as Vishram Society (Tower A), which is described as ‘‘ absolutely, unimpeachably pucca’’. Unfortunately, it’s in a neighbour- hood — the toenail of a suburb called Vakola — that is definitely un-pucca:
Since 1959, when it was built near a swamp as a hopeful example of ‘‘ good housing for good Indians’’, this 18-apartment co-operative has stood as a ‘‘ dreadnought of middle-class respectability’’ amid mushrooming shanties.
But as the Indian economy gained momentum, so the tower block decayed. Once pink, its outer skin is now ‘‘ a rainwaterstained, fungus-licked grey’’. And as the rest of Mumbai boomed, so the relative cheapness of the land around Vakola attracted the attention of unscrupulous developers. The On a map of Mumbai, Vakola is a cluster of ambiguous dots that cling polyp-like to the underside of the domestic airport; on the ground, the polyps turn out to be slums, spread out on every side of Vishram Society. people who live in Tower A are a microcosm of modern Mumbai but it soon becomes clear there are two central characters around whom the action spins.
Yogesh Murthy, who lives in apartment 3A, is a recently retired, 61-year-old schoolteacher. Living alone since the death of his wife, he is universally respected by the other residents for his learning, restraint and fairmindedness. They all call him Masterji. His
daughter died in a tragic accident; his son is married and lives in a posher suburb.
Lined up against Masterji is the outsider, a property developer named Dharmen Shah. He is another of Adiga’s amoral, ruthless and dynamic entrepreneurs. A crude, rapacious self-made multimillionaire who grew up in rural Gujarat, he thinks nothing of bribing police and politicians or of breaking the bones of those who oppose him. Yet he is vulnerable and strangely seductive, and it is implied that without people such as Shah nothing would get done.
The inhabitants of Tower A are complacent. They gripe about the inconveniences of living in this globalised, supercity: the noise, the pollution, the utilities that don’t work. But they’re more comfortable than their near neighbours in the slums of Vakola and they’re missing the one thing that might make them act on their gripes: a better offer.
When Shah offers them twice the going rate for their apartments, some agree immediately while others require more convincing, in the form of ‘‘ sweeteners’’ or brutal threats. Eventually, everyone is ready to sell — everyone, that is, except Masterji. At first it seems that Masterji is holding out in solidarity with his two oldest friends, Albert Pinto and his wife Shelley, who don’t want to go because Shelley is blind and frightened at the prospect of re-learning the contours of a new building.
However, when the Pintos finally relent and accept Shah’s offer, Masterji becomes intransigent, arguing that the tower embodies the only traces in the world of his dead wife and daughter. His friends and neighbours, even his son, all now desperate to seal the deal with Shah, gradually turn nasty on him.
As he begins to feel persecuted, Masterji digs in and says he’s fighting for everyone’s right to say no, in a kind of Bollywood version of the much-loved Australian film The Castle.
In the most hallucinatory part of the book, where it looks increasingly as if Masterji is losing his mind, he finds himself in the part of Mumbai where day labourers sleep on the street. He suddenly feels a deep connection with these human victims of Mumbai’s success and decides he’s fighting Shah in their name, too.
But Masterji isn’t just a quixotic
saint, he’s also a sinner. And it’s the oldest sin — pride — that prevents him from changing his mind. In a climactic scene near the end of the book, Masterji’s mildly successful but weak son accuses him of being rigid, pennypinching and cruel, and says it was his obstinate pride that made his wife’s and daughter’s lives a misery. This shocking betrayal is contrasted with Shah’s no-good son cheerfully reassuring the property tycoon: ‘‘ One day, Father, we’ll be proud of each other.’’
It won’t spoil the plot to say that, in the end, Adiga delivers a mixed portrait of Mumbai. His writing vibrates with the energy of the city. It’s full of Indian words and slang and, paradoxically, at its most evocative and affectionate when describing the garbage on which Mumbai is built and the pollution it generates.
The result is an ironic saga that’s morally and ethically engaged, without being judgmental about characters as they do whatever it takes to survive the chaos of Maximum City. Jose Borghino teaches literary journalism at the University of Sydney.