ARAVIND ADIGA'S NEW NOVEL is set in exactly the kind of middle-class hell that one might turn to novels to escape.
The residents of an old housing society near Bombay's Santa Cruz airport suffer from all the expected middle-of-the-road woes and shortcomings—water shortages, lack of space and privacy, envy, penny-pinching, noisiness and nosiness.
Over their humdrum lives lies the patina of ‘respectability'—another name, we discover, for staying neutral, carrying on and making do. In fact, some of Vishram Housing Society's inmates are so inscrutable and dull as to have "no known nature". On the other hand, perhaps the lack of a nature is just a ruse, for "any man's public character in a place as congested as a co-operative society was understood to be, to some extent, a charade".
It is this charade that Adiga uncovers by setting the cat among the pigeons in the shape of a wily builder named Dharmen Shah, and his unswervingly loyal white-shirted left-hand man, Shanmugham. Shah, of course, dreams in buildings; where others might see a home, family, neighbours, landscapes and memories, the builder sees scaffolding and wet cement. He wants to buy out the members of Vishram and "redevelop" it into a multi-crore luxury housing project called Shanghai. This is a Shanghai that will be aesthetically daring ("Gothic, Italian, Indian, Art Deco styles, all in one") and erotically fulfilling. (As an observer in the novel notes of our China-lust: "The first experience of Shanghai being to a middle-aged Indian businessman what the first experience of sex is to a teenager.")
Where Vishram represents the old-world neighbourliness and modest aspirations of the past, Shanghai stands for the outrageous flamboyance of the present. The once-ordinary act of construction becomes a performance undertaken in the spirit of urban conquest. When these two imaginations meet, one must, naturally, succumb to the other. We know which one will have to go, but we still want, like those listening to an old cautionary tale, to be told that story again.
And Adiga has the story in his grip. He embraces the small and large horrors of this divided world, savouring them the way Vishram's residents secretly pore over the contents of their neighbours' dustbins to piece together any remaining secrets about one another. So, even though it can be enervating to read, in fiction, about dizzily escalating square-foot rates, water seepage and the current taste in bedsheets—simply because these things already crowd our lives—we read Last Man in Tower because every page confirms an awful truth: nothing excites our middle classes more than real estate.
So where does one turn to for the poetry? Poetry appears in the form of the recently-widowed Masterji who, perhaps ironically, is a teacher of physics, amuses himself with a Rubik's Cube and uses his giant volume of the Illustrated History of Science as a weapon when attacked. Masterji is not a sentimentalist but, unlike his neighbours' refuses to consider the past meaningless. In accepting the builder's offer, all the others dismiss their decades together in Vishram as a vacuum of deprivation in the face of the luxury that now awaits them. Masterji, however, sees familiar patterns in the smudges on his walls; the stairs echo with the footfalls of his dead daughter; and an old, camphor-smelling wedding sari conjures up his deceased wife. "Just as when a drop of formaldehyde falls on a dead leaf in a science class, revealing a secret life of veins, Vishram pulsated with occult networks. It was pregnant with his past."
Masterji's struggle is the struggle of the novel—how to convey the preciousness of the intangible in a world where everything has a price to it. The tragedy is not that everyone is driven by greed but that everyone assumes wanting more is the only logic left. Masterji fails to convince his friends that his resistance to Dharmen Shah is neither a ploy to spite them nor a gambit to force the builder to up his price. That a man would want to continue living in a rundown apartment that holds all the bits and pieces of his life baffles everyone the teacher turns to for help—the law, the police, the media and his own family
Meanwhile, his neighbours are busy not just rubbishing times past but also emptying space. Measured and price-tagged down to the last square foot, space becomes too precious to be bogged down by histories of association. When Mrs Puri—one of the more militant supporters of the takeover proposal—starts to dream of the money promised to her and surreptitiously shop for new apartments, she is riveted by the purity and clarity on offer:
What an enormous, high-ceilinged, light-welcoming apartment. And look at the floor: a mosaic of black and white squares. A precise, geometrical delineation of space, not the colourless, borderless floors on which she had fought and eaten and slept all her married life.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that Mrs Puri lies to her neighbours about going to the temple every time she sets out on these trips to worship at the altar of virgin space.
ARAVIND ADIGA'S PREVIOUS NOVEL, The White Tiger, about a disgruntled driver who kills his master for money, was praised for its outspokenness about class inequalities, but also criticised for the unconvincing voice of its driver character, Balram Halwai, whose idiom seemed remote from the ‘authentic' voice of the uneducated Bihari working class. There are certainly times when Halwai's turn of phrase strikes one as odd and discordant, and this shortcoming does make The White Tiger a weaker book. What makes it a successful book, nevertheless, is Halwai's utterly genuine mental landscape—his contempt for his roots, his desperate doggedness, his struggle to escape the numbing boredom of his job and his ambivalence about his masters. The last is especially significant.
There is a point in the novel—before the murder—when Balram Halwai comes into his own. Halwai's boss, "Mr Ashok", has been abandoned by his wife and takes to drinking. The driver has to stop the car one night so Mr Ashok can puke. As they sit there by the roadside—with Halwai sharing nuggets of folk wisdom with his boss—the driver's heart goes out to Mr Ashok. Never has he felt so tender towards his boss; never has he known him to be so helpless. This is also the very moment that the thought of murder steals into Balram Halwai's heart. The idea of a servant straightforwardly visiting revenge upon his master—an idea that runs through the book and has been taken for granted in all responses to it—is complicated by this moment of pure love. "Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love —or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?" Halwai asks himself as they drive away.
Adiga's project here is to reflect on inequality—not as a tired, old fact of life but as a dynamic that drives the relations between people. There is a constant seesaw in the novel—what one man gains, another loses—and it is never quite obvious who, ethically speaking, trumps whom. Despite the often polemical nature of The White Tiger it turns out by the end that there is no moral high ground left for any of the characters to occupy.
Last Man in Tower, too, attempts a degree of moral complexity, though not always with equally effective results. Adiga makes sure to leaven each character's dominant traits—Dharmen Shah's greed and hubris, for instance, is contrasted with his "instinct for fairness". Even better, he is shadowed by a memento mori—a dramatic cough of the kind that characters in old Hindi films periodically hacked out to signal their impending deaths. Similarly, Adiga is at pains to establish that Masterji is no saint; he lusts for his young neighbour, even if only in passing, and he never tips the servants. Soon, a pattern is discernable—ditherers become capable of murder, while shady men develop a conscience; those who are persistently kind to stray dogs can be acutely unkind to human beings, and the greatest critics of material riches turn out to be the easiest to buy off.
What makes this a remarkable novel, despite its somewhat obvious mechanics, is the author's wonderful feeling for the city. As if to recover the time and space that money whitewashes, we keep returning to Bombay. One Bombay embodies the atavistic yearning to grow: the Bombay arisen from the sea, created through "the desire of junk and landfill, on which the reclaimed city sits, to become something better. In this way, they all emerged: fish, birds, the leopards of Borivali, even the starlets and super-models of Bandra, out of the prismatic dreams of Mother Garbage." Then, there is the Bombay of suburban nightmares: the subway at Khar builds its own Victoria Terminus-like Gothic edifice from rush-hour traffic—"pillars of hydro-benzene and sulphur dioxide…flying buttresses of nitrous dioxide…a great roof of carbon monoxide…this Cathedral of particulate matter rises over every red light". Another Bombay exists only in the imagination of the wealthy: the "agglomeration of skyscrapers, billboards and glowing blocks" where "each building seemed to be illuminated by its price in rupees per square foot, glowing like a halo around it". Into each of these Bombays, Adiga inserts loving footnotes of poetry, such as when Masterji emerges from the melee of the commuter trains into a market full of mangoes—"ripe and bursting, each mango was like a heartfelt apology from the city for the state of its trains".
But the city at the novel's heart is actually a nostalgia, an old-fashioned, derelict thing much like the rain-stained and crumbling walls of Vishram. The Bombay that unfolds within these walls is one where people read Reader's Digest and are tentative about the Internet. These are people who write letters on blue inland letter paper, dream of going for coffee in the Taj when they get rich and are shocked to discover that a young neighbour has a live-in boyfriend. The word they use to censure her is "modern"' as quaint a word, in this context, as the appellation "Masterji".
This is a Bombay in which the new arrives before the modern can take hold. Before the conical lamps behind the dark windows of the Taj's Sea Lounge can be experienced firsthand, news arrives of NRIs buying flats worth 27 crore each in Parel.
The clever peon, Ayyan Mani, for instance, in Manu Joseph's fabulously funny Serious Men (2010), creates myths of genius about his 10-year-old son partly to impress the world but essentially to compensate his wife for the drudgery of life in a BBD chawl—a place into which 80,000 people have been crammed and from where Mani despairs of ever escaping. In the face of the builders who try to buy off the chawl's residents for large sums of money, Joseph's characters, like Adiga's, are divided about what to do.
Real estate blues also darken the narrative in Upamanyu Chatterjee's Way to Go (2010). Unlike Adiga, Chatterjee does not care to assign redeeming features to his builder, Monga—the man hungry, all through the book, to buy out the family home. Monga is venal and conniving; his singlemindedness makes the dreamy and doubting Jamun, the novel's hero, seem juvenile. Jamun may believe that he is the more civilised one, but Monga could "comfortably keep twenty Jamuns as servants to teach the master etiquette". All three novels confirm that the section of society in which a certain cultural capital counts for something—foreign education, good English, love of Western music—is increasingly a marginalised one. The novelist Rana Dasgupta picks this out in his 2009 Granta essay, ‘Capital Gains', on Delhi's neorich.
The Indian economy of the turn of the twenty-first century has been far too explosive for the tiny English-speaking class to monopolize its rewards. In fact, they have not even been its primary beneficiaries. Their foreign degrees and cosmopolitan behaviour prepare them well for jobs in international banks and management consultancies, where they earn good salaries and mix with people like themselves. But they are surrounded by very different people—private businessmen, entrepreneurs, real-estate agents, retailers and general wheeler-dealers—who are making far more money than they are and wielding more political power. These people may come from smaller cities, they may be less worldly and they may speak only broken English. But they are skilled in the realm of opportunity and profit, and they are at home in the booming world of overlords, connections, bribes, political loopholes, sweeteners—and occasional violence—that sends their anglicized peers running for the nearest cappuccino.
But if, in recent fiction, the easy buying and selling of homes—as of much else—is the basis for alienation, then the opposite—the possibility of retaining the family home—has potential for romance. We see this in Anuradha Roy's An Atlas of Impossible Longing (2008), where severance from a childhood home becomes the basis of a quest for both home and love. Here, the job of the hero, Mukunda, as a breaker and builder of houses is an enabling factor rather than a destructive one. The romantic mode results in the forces of capitalism being thwarted, the family home saved from destruction and love recovered.
A more contemporary reworking of the bourgeoisie romance of the home is evident in Jahnavi Barua's recent Rebirth (2011). Kaberi, a pregnant woman estranged from her husband, spends most of her time indoors in their apartment in Bangalore, waiting and remembering. The materiality of the house—its objects of fabric and wood and glass—and the familiarity of the domestic—rituals of eating, pleasure taken in freshly-cut flowers, memories of choosing furniture—become the emotional fibre of the novel, even as the reasons for the rift between the couple remain diffuse.
Perhaps this is simply one fate of the modern novel—to constantly return to the unsettled conditions in which we live and try to account for our material hungers. A hundred years ago, EM Forster wrote a kind of real estate novel in Howard's End—which is also the name, in that book, of a beloved house. He could have been talking about the residents of Vishram when he wrote, "We are reverting to the civilisation of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty."
A century on, perhaps the only home left for those such as Masterji—who resist packing their bags and participating in this civilisation on the move—is the novel. This could be why, despite its gloomy subject, Last Man in Tower has a streak of exuberant comedy running through it. Urban alienation has always been a rich source for modern fiction, and the specific alienation caused by the hijacking of the very environment in which we live and breathe gives fiction great scope to explore middle-class crassness. A world run on money and manipulation is hell. But, says Aravind Adiga' this hell could be—within the spaces of the novel that no Dharmen Shah can claim—transformed into a kind of freedom.