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Review: Fiction: Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

Aravind Adiga's third novel, Last Man In Tower, sees a return to the form that won him the Man Booker Prize in 2008 for his debut novel White Tiger.

While White Tiger was a scathing look at the rapidly changing class system in modern India, Last Man In Tower is a gentler, more thought-provoking book. It examines how these changes are affecting all strata of that country's society, from slum-dwellers to property developers, ageing widowers to young professionals.

With his difficult second novel, Between The Assassinations, now firmly behind him, Adiga has confidently upped his game with Last Man In Tower to deliver a more ambitious, yet more subtle, tale.

The book is set in the Vishram Co-operative Housing Society, two middle-class tower blocks in the upwardly mobile Vakola district of Mumbai. When property developer Dharmen Shah offers to buy out the residents so he can demolish the tower block, only one inhabitant refuses.

Masterji, the retired teacher and widower, who spends his days longing for his late wife and deceased daughter, is the 'last man in tower' of the book's title and his refusal to sell his apartment turns this novel into a compelling story of greed, money, power and loneliness in one of the most populous places on earth.

Adiga's pitting of Masterji's desires against those of his neighbours sets up a complex moral question: is Masterji justified in asserting his right to live in the place he calls home at the cost of his neighbours' communal wishes and are we responsible for the happiness of others?

Mumbai is brilliantly drawn, a mix of old and new values, secularism and religion, western modernity and striking primitiveness, and Adiga juxtaposes these aspects of the city like rumbling tectonic plates.

At one point in the book, when Masterji refuses to finish his meal in a restaurant where he has just spotted a rat in the eaves, his fellow resident, Mr Pinto, says, "A man has to bend his rules a little to enjoy life in Mumbai." It seems like the ultimate wisdom on the city.

With property development and an expanding property bubble at the core of the book's plot, it is hard not to think of our own recent boom and bust throughout this novel.

Dharmen Shah himself represents the two sides of property development, suffering from debilitating and worsening bronchitis from years of working amidst asbestos and cheap paint, yet bedecked in gold jewellery and a belief that everyone can be bought.

The microcosmic worlds of Adiga's ensemble cast are wonderfully interwoven with his giant meta-arc. The book is a fantastic mix of saga, opening like a Jilly Cooper novel with a roll call of characters; modern fiction, with its neat structural device of apartment-block dwellers; and literary fiction, provided by Adiga's shimmering language, which reveals itself in intermittent and supple flourishes.

His descriptions are incredibly evocative, as with this line: "There were cupboards in each room; their doors gave way suddenly to let books and newspapers gush out with traumatic force, like eggs from the slit-open belly of a fish."

Adiga is strongly concerned in all three of his novels with social injustice and this book is shot through with graphic brutality and unflinching humanity and makes for a deeply absorbing story about modern life, not just in Mumbai, but on a global scale.

Indo Review