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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2013



Maneeta Kahlon

Conceptualising Bombay City as A Character in Arvind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower

Bombay is the city where Arvind Adiga’s new book Last Man In Tower is located. The setting is important and the use of Bombay city is what sets the tone of the novel. This is one of the books that cannot be moved to any other city or if the city was changed from Bombay to any other metropolitan the bite would be missing from the novel for you see Bombay is not just the setting but almost a living character.Bombay has been explored in other books like Maximum City and Sacred Games but in those novels the treatment is completely different. Sumana Mukherjee  in her review of the novel writes, “All too often, the city novel carries the burden of hundreds of years of heritage and perception, enough to bog down the best book.”

But this is not so in this novel because throughout the novel the city is growing at an alarming rate and there is no or little romanticisation of the novel or nostalgia for the old world in Adiga’s novel.

Adiga in a recent interview said, “The novel usually evolves out of something I've seen or read. “Last Man in Tower" began when I read an article in the Times of India in early 2007, describing a redevelopment offer by a builder, opposed by one old man in the building. I went to the building and spoke to some of the residents — so it evolved out of real life. I was looking for an exciting plot that would let me tell a story about Mumbai” (Interview)
Perhaps this is the reason reading the book you really feel like you are in Bombay/Mumbai. He describes the place and its people so well, you really feel like you are there. The descriptions of places, people, food, culture, etc have been interesting throughout the book. The start of the story is also interesting, the description of the flats, the residents. The tower in the title is Tower A an apartment complex that is handily situated near both the slums and the airport in Mumbai. The Society is made up of the residents of the tower. They are a close knit, middle class proud, virtuous group. When the Tower first opened it was for Catholics only. Diversity was gradual, in the 1960’s Hindus were admitted followed by Muslims in the 1980’s .All the inhabitants of this tower are aware that in a crumbling world, Vishram is pucca. It stands for decency, and old-fashioned rules and standards. A plaque placed in honour of  Pandit Jawaharhal Nehru visit describes the colony as ‘Good Housing for Good Indians’. Its residents are long term and consider the tower their home. They may fight, squabble and gossip about each other but they are devoted to one another. Tower A isn’t what it used to be, has any number of maintenance issues however Vishram Society and its ordinary residents are offered a chance at a new life when a builder offers to buy their apartments at an astronomical price but the condition that accompanies the offer is that all the occupants must agree and only then will the money be transferred in their accounts. This ‘once in a lifetime offer’, ‘god’s blessing ‘cannot take place because one occupant known as Masterji refuses to sell his apartment and becomes both literally and metaphorically the thorn in the flesh.

This is hardly difficult to believe and this could easily happen in Mumbai.  There are so many stories of men and women who refuse to be evicted, to make way for a shining glass and steel building or a factory. The newspaper carries news items like these every other day or so. This is all too real and truthful but the story has yet to unfold and the story is built on the fact that the other tenants want to sell and the story takes the enormous proportions of conflict between good and bad.  Masterji becomes the villain, a kill joy and this widower and retired schoolteacher gradually finds himself pitted against his family, his friends, and even his city.
The very human characteristics of corruption, greed and lust are felt by the inhabitants of Vishram Housing Society. Each resident has dreams to be wealthy and to be successful. Buying a home was a middle class aspiration for a long time and one which people strove for in their life. Adiga uses the setting beautifully, the entire book can be summed up in the line that the city doesn’t stop growing : “Look: how this city never stops growing: rubble, shi-, plans, mulch, left to themselves, start slurping up sea, edging towards the other end of the bay like a snake’s tongue, hissing through salt water, there is more land here, more land… All of Bombay was created like this: through the desire of junk and landfill, on which the reclaimed city sits, to become something better.”(Adiga: 2011, 146)

There is something noble about the unceasing pursuit of betterment so why should its inhabitants also not desire to grow and have dreams especially when the opportunity knocks at their door. Adiga says, “The city of wealth was playing its usual cat-and mouse- games with migrants: gives them a sniff of success and money in one breath, and makes them wonder about the value of success and the point of money in the next” (Adiga: 2011, 322) Tower B of Vishram Housing Society was filled with young executives eager to rise in the world and the decision to vacate was unanimously and quickly finalized. Mumbai is a fast changing reality and the determination to change is reflected in the characters’ desire to change and this is the reason why Adiga’s characters behave the way they do but as the city transforms, it doesn’t always improve. A man is innocent because he has not had a chance at corruption ‘Man is like a goat tied to a pole.’ Meaning, all of us have some free will but not too much’ (Adiga: 2011, 44)     and when the opportunity presents he becomes mercenary and a murderer.

Adiga is a compelling writer for modern urban India; Mumbai appears in a new light in every other book. In Aravind Adiga's Last Man in the Tower, it is a cradle for lives that reflect the city itself- decaying in parts, hungry for overnight fortunes, with pangs of humanity and 'living harmoniously' thrown in.

“What is Bombay?” “a window answers: banyan, maidan, stone, tile, tower, dome, sea, hawk, amaltas in bloom, smog on the horizon, gothic phantasmagoria (Victoria Terminus and the Municipal Building) emerging from the smog.”  (Adiga: 2011, 51)

Mumbai  is literally a city which  never stops growing, created by junk, rubble and mulch, is every land developer’s dream and Adiga’s chief characters grow around this stereotype- resulting in stereotype themselves. Mumbai is a monster. At the same time Adiga appreciates the growth and development. His admiration is for the new dream merchants of Mumbai, those who hustle and force change upon this city and have little patience for the past.
It's not just the incredible descriptions of places and the people who inhabit them; Adiga applies the same amount of detail to a colorful cast of characters. Very much like Balram in The White Tiger the characters here too have shades of grey and the schoolteacher, while occupying a kind of knee-jerk moral high ground, is shown to be far from faultless in his own right. Similarly, one finds strands of sympathy for the developer, who could have been a caricature capitalist, and whose project is less about making money than it is about his need to leave some kind of tangible mark on the world.

Masterji is not fighting for more money. He is only, to quote a minor character in this novel, an American journalist living in Mumbai, ‘making a statement against unplanned development’. He is motivated by a desire to prove that Mumbai, which he describes as once “a city where a free man could keep his dignity,” could still be such a place. He's simply fighting for "The earth, in infinite space. A point on it was the city of Mumbai. A point on that was Vishram Society. And that point was his." (Adiga: 2011,297)

But Bombay is seen in this book as loud, dangerous, mysterious and wild having economic disparities and cosmopolitan delights.

This book is dedicated by Adiga to “my fellow commuters on the Santa Cruz- Churchgate local line” So how is Mumbai portrayed?  in many ways, The harsh realities  are expressed by Adiga. Extremes of wealth and poverty, luxury and squalor exsist side by side.   Mumbai’s garbage pit is ‘a marsh: cellophane, eggshell, politician’s face, banana leaf, sliced-off chicken’s feet and green crowns cut from pineapples. Ribbons of unspooled cassette-tape draped over everything like molten caramel.’ (Adiga, 2011, 140)

Adiga mentions foul air and excrement-laden byways, shit and its stench time and again.
One of the characters laments, “How else will we improve?  Look at the trains in this city. Look at the roads. The law courts. Nothing works, nothing moves: it takes ten years to build a bridge” (Adiga: 2011, 55)

Sumana Mukherjee   says this is Adiga’s Mumbai: An open wound scabbed over by bright lights, but one only needs to scratch the surface to expose the rot. The blackness, in this world, has no redemption. (Mukherjee)

Last Man in Towerattacks a number of romantic notions, like the idea that the old buildings and neighbourhoods have a sense of community, that new developments are clinical and characterless. Masterji exclaims that “in the old days, you had caste, and you had religion: they taught you how to eat, marry and die. But in Bombay caste and religion had faded away, and what had replaced them, as far as he could tell , was the idea of being respectable and living among similar people. All his adult life Masterji had done so;but now, in the space of just  a few days , he had shattered the husk of a respectable life and tasted its  bitter kernel.” (Adiga: 2011, 217)

The book is rich in texture and detail concerning modern Mumbai. “South Mumbai has the Victoria Terminus and the Municipal Building, but the suburbs built later, have their own Gothic style: for every evening by six, pillars of hydro-benzene and sulphur dioxide rise high up from the roads, flying buttresses of nitrous dioxide join each other, swirls of unburnt kerosene, mixed illegally into the diesel, cackle like gargoyles, and a great roof of carbon monoxide closes over the structure. And this Cathedral of particulate matter rises over every red light, every bridge and every tunnel during rush hour.” (Adiga: 2011,174)

It raises issues of urban development the massive real estate growth that has taken place in Mumbai in the last few years. It does contain a lot of the same things of The White Tiger. At the end of the novel, Adiga writes, “Nothing can stop a living thing that wants to be free”. (Adiga: 2011, 419). It is this unbending will and the ambitions that Mumbai fosters that he commemorates in Last Man in Tower.

Adiga’s prose is fascinating as he describes Mumbai, one can see, hear, smell, taste, truly experience Mumbai through his descriptions. His description of a crowded market as “a row of blue wooden stalls, lit by white tube-lights or naked yellow bulbs, in which the most disparate trades were conducted side by side: a chicken shop smelling of poultry shi- and raw meat, a sugarcane-vendor’s stall haloed in raw sucrose, a Xerox machine in a stationery shop yawning flashes of blinding light, and a barber’s salon, busy even at this hour, stinking of shaving cream and gossip.” (Adiga: 2011, 69) and somewhere else he goes on to say,“In the market by the station, mango sellers waited for the returning commuters: ripe and bursting, each mango was like a heartfelt apology from the city for the state of its trains” (Adiga: 2011, 49)

Adiga himself offers his admiration for Mumbai, in an interview he said, “I spend a lot of time out on the street, walking, observing things. These experiences are particularly rich in Mumbai. I love the city and wanted to capture my experiences in exploring her in a novel. Mumbai made me a successful writer, and I will always be grateful to her and her people. The real hero of "Last Man in Tower" is Mumbai. (Interview)





Adiga, Aravind.  Last Man in Tower. India: Harper Collins, 2011. Print.

Sumana Mukherjee  Book Review: Last Man in Tower. Available at : article/appraisals/book-review-last-man-in-tower/30032/ . Accessed on 3 Feb 2012.

Srijana Mitra Das, Interview. They mocked me because I didn’t know who Lionel Richie was' TNN Jun 26, 2011, 01.41am IST Available at http://articles.timesofindia. .  Accessed on 3 Feb 2012.

Tania Mary Viver. Review. Last man in tower. Teresian Journal of English Studies - Vol. 3, No. 1 - October 2011. Available at : /tjes2011.pdf#page=136 . Accessed on 3 Feb 2012.