Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Adiga: Last Man in Tower - What would you do?

Communal living has long been a source for fiction writers - ask any soap opera or tv drama creator. Whether it's the world's longest running soap Coronation Street , Jimmy McGovern's er... "The Street" or Glendarroch in Take The High Road.  This drama can be intensified though when the community is literally living on top of each other in a communal tower as in Indian wunderkind Aravind Adiga's latest storming work - a searing and topical indictment of our neo-liberal world and what it makes people become.

The community here though is not just set up for dramatic tension and interaction they are an organisation - the tower they live in is a housing co-operative in Mumbai.  All decisions have to be made collectively, the neighbours have regular Parliaments to discuss issues related to the property and they employ the Secretary ,also a tenant, and the staff drawn from the nearby slums.  The flats are meagre with poor water supply and electricity but it is theirs.

The dilemma is immediate.  I am not giving anything away because the author puts the issue up front in the preface.  A property developer symbolic of the new wealth at the top of Mumbai puts an offer of untold wealth (in this world - specifically £210,000) to each tenant  so he can demolish the tower and build luxury flats which as is pointed out even with the money they get they wouldn't be able to afford.  As a co-op though everyone needs to agree or the entire deal falls away.  So do you keep the property developer at bay , maintain the co-operative housing or take the money and run.   The end result as Adiga also clearly signposts from the beginning  is that eventually only one resists : "The Last Man in Tower".

As a novel then the narrative is unusual in that the dilemma is immediately apparent and does not unfold over chapters.  I think this allows Adiga to clear the deck though and simply focus on how different people react to these situations.  In a sense it is the fleshing out of a philosophical dialogue or  a "political" discourse which in a sense all of us as inhabitants of a deregulated neo-liberal world have to engage with, particularly those of us that want to live in a better different sort of world.

5 paragraphs in and I haven't mentioned any of the characters which is strange because they are not simply pawns to fill in Adiga's discussion of  "choices".  The Last Man is the most respected part of the community a teacher Yogesh Murthy known as "Masterji" - he is recently widowed, retired and teaches the kids of the coop all sorts to help them with their schooling.  His apartment is full of books which he lends out.  In a sense Masterji is symbolic of Old India with its emphasis on education rather than the raw chaotic energy of bonkers entrepreneurial capitalism as shown by the property developer and offeror of the riches, self made millionaire Dharmen Shah.   One of the criticisms of the work could be it tries a little too hard to be allegorical.

He is not initially alone though "communist" social worker Mrs Rego and elderly couple the Pintos (Mrs Pinto is blind and would not be able to easily adapt to a new building) also hold out at first. In fact they seem more adamant than Masterji. The rest of the community almost immediately is turned by the cash though - which will be paid in installments and has to be agreed by a specific time limit.  At the core of the supporters are sleazy estate agent Ajwani, lazy coop Secretary Kothari and the formidable Mrs Puri who is the carer for her son with Downs Syndrome.

Another literary problem though is that many of the residents can only really be names as the work couldn't examine them all.  So they are literally just Yes votes to the offer.  This is slightly offset though by another character - the city of Mumbai which is portrayed brilliantly in the work.  The geography, politics, architecture and energy of the city are all here - and key moments for all the characters come in very distinct locations of the city.  To help there is even a map of the city at the start of the book

This interaction of contemporary city politics and structure with people reminded me very much of Tom Wolfe's work - the New York of Bonfire of the Vanities but even more the Atlanta of A Man in Full.

All dirty tricks are wheeled out by the property developer and his thoughtful but cynical sidekick to break the resistance.  Blackmail, financial and emotional, Violence, real and imagined all are used.  But still Masterji holds out - in fact the longer the battle goes on the stronger his principles become.  In one excellent scene he watches the poor of Mumbai struggling in a cafe after their back breaking work and sees the importance of his struggle.

Shah's ultimate weapon though, and he knows it, is to get the community to do his dirty work for him.  Initially the pressure is subtle Mrs Puri asks him to think of his family - a disaffected son and daughter in law who have little to do with him.  This is a common refrain in the work - each person by taking the money thinks of their immediate family and what they could do with the money.  How any individual who would prevent them helping their unit is the ultimately selfish man - although Masterji himself is protecting a broader view of family or community.  But the dreams for their families have a very precise cash limit - meaning they are limited by their very nature (and of course reliant on destroying a bigger property).  Access to these figures of cash which neo-liberalism does periodically particularly in the Majority World where the population are so desperate.  This community cannot be thrown out of their slums by security firms or the state they need to be persuaded by a cash incentive that it would be best for them.  I was reminded of the Elvis Costello/Robert Wyatt line from Shipbuilding "diving for dear life, when we should be diving for pearls".

Dreams of a better society which albeit in a twisted way the cooperative movement represented are shattered over the offer of hard currency.

Masterji is not persuaded and the methods used by the community become more and more horrible. His education once the virtue is now degraded, children are withdrawn from classes.  In a telling passage when they are attempting to undermine his character they criticise his educational methods stating he didnt stick to exam syllabus but tried to teach them "other" stuff.  Again showing how modern turbo capitalism attacks all elements of old societies that are not of immediate "use".    He seems to be able to resist it all though until the deadline. The climax when it comes is shocking, I thought, even though perhaps inevitable.  Although there is the partial redemption from an extremely unlikely character.  If it is an allegory Adiga is not optimistic over where this neo-liberal world is leading us and it is also not a coincidence that Mrs Puri borrows Murder on the Orient Express from Masterji at the start of the book.

There are flaws in this intriguing work.  The breaking of Mrs Rego's resolve is not particularly convincing as she is the only one with an explicit immediate political opposition to the development. Perhaps Adiga is making a point on the corrupt nature of Communist Politics in India or is cynical of the left-ism of Arundhati Roy who Rego has  pictures of up on her wall.  Either way I thought it didn't work.  In contrast to the Pintos where the threat of violence and the effect it has on an old couple is powerfully written.

I also thought it seemed a little rushed this is his third work in as many years - energy is good in writing and this novel abounds in it but I think more work could have teased out even more some of the themes.  Getting into the generally villainous Mrs Puri's head and the feelings she has to her disabled son or looking at the slum-life which surrounds the Tower.  This is all done but sometimes had too break neck a speed.

What is done well is his use of animal metaphor which is becoming a constant in his work.  Masterji's sighting of a jackal in the Zoo before the whole story begins - the Secretary's mystical memory of flamingoes.  Really strong and again accurate because of the prevalence of wildlife in Indian urban society.

As an Indian novel there is little reference to caste or really religion (only in passing and in one particularly odious character) and this is explained by the fact that Mumbai is now ruled by money.  Shah states it is all that matters - in contrast to when he was making his wealth.  That wealth as Shah finds offers no protection or guarantee which I think is one of the many points Adiga is making.  I could write on and on about this novel - there is much to read and argue about - so do it!  Anyway for £210 k what would you do?

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