Af­ter mid­night, mad­ness in Mum­bai

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jose Borgh­ino

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.

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