Nearly a decade ago, just five months after this novel was published, a brilliant nonfiction book entitled Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity illuminated the drama of life in one of the teeming slums that cluster together near the Mumbai international airport. It could be the very same slum where the servants live in Last Man in Tower, Aravind Adiga‘s penetrating novel of middle-class life in Mumbai today. Read both books, and you’ll gain an appreciation for the life lived by hundreds of millions in fast-changing India today. For those of us who enjoy the comfort of middle-class existence in the rich nations of the Global North, it can be an eye-opener.
Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga (2011) 482 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
In today’s dynamic, fast-growing Indian economy, millions of village-dwellers are flocking to the megacities where construction is underway at a mad pace. It’s these millions who crowd into festering slums and, if they’re lucky, find work as casual laborers or servants to the country’s growing middle class. The salaried jobs—in high tech, professional services, sales, hospitality, entertainment—typically go to the educated, English-speaking minority. In Last Man in Tower, a crumbling, five-story residential building called Vishram Society Tower A, houses thirty-nine people desperately clinging to a middle-class lifestyle. They live in Vakola, a neighborhood on the margins of Mumbai’s slums.
Casting a bright light on middle-class life in Mumbai today
Adiga centers his tale on two aging men: a retired high school physics teacher and widower named Yogesh Murthy, who is known as Masterji (a term of respect for his role at the school and his learning); and Dharmen Shah, a housing developer who sets out to purchase Vishram Society to make way for the “ultraluxury” tower that will be the crowning achievement of his real estate empire and serve as his legacy. Both men are ill, Masterji with diabetes, Shah with a severe respiratory illness. As the builder’s campaign to buy Vishram Society proceeds, the two men face off in an increasingly bitter and dangerous battle. Masterji refuses to sell his unit and eventually becomes “Last Man in Tower,” as a tabloid newspaper describes him. And he becomes a pariah to his neighbors and erstwhile friends in the building.
On the surface, this is a tale of greed—greed for the outsize payments Shah has offered the residents, and greed on the part of the builder and those in the building who seek him out for “sweeteners” to induce their neighbors to sell. But, as the story unfolds and we learn more about the circumstances of their lives, it becomes increasingly clear that their motives run deeper. Adiga has painted a portrait of middle-class life in Mumbai today in all its diversity and its ceaseless change.
For further reading
Some time ago, I read Aravind Adiga’s superb, Booker Award-winning novel, The White Tiger, which won the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. More recently, I’ve reviewed two other novels by the same author:
- Between the Assassinations (India’s diversity under a microscope)
- Selection Day (An Indian novelist celebrates cricket)
For perspective on life in the slum that borders the middle-class neighborhood Adiga writes about in Last Man in Tower, see Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (A searing look at poverty in India that reads like a novel).
You might also be interested in 25 good books about India, past and present and Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site (plus dozens of runners-up).
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.