… but I’m becoming intrigued as I read the reviews. Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead meets a critique of Bombay development-mania …
I should say at the outset, that I enjoyed The White Tiger immensely and most of my students who read the book enjoy it immensely. It’s mostly a critique of class divisions in India, but it is quite cynical and dark, depicting crime as the only real way out of poverty (there is a vague reference to social revolution at the end of the novel, but it’s so inchoate as to be fanciful). So I’m of course interested in the new novel which is supposed to be about a housing developer in Bombay (I refuse to call it Mumbai, because unlike the other India cities that are going back to their precolonial names, there was no precolonial city called “Mumbai” — it was entirely a colonial invention, and I refuse to be cowed by the Shiv Sena) who tries to get people to leave their homes in an apartment building in order to build luxury apartments there. The Last Man in the Tower refers to the one hold-out who keeps the development plan from moving forward.
Reviews like this one from the Independent get me excited (but that’s because I have a spot for social realism):
Dominating the narrative is Mumbai itself, once again one of the mightiest cities on earth. The macrocosm for the novel is the countless millions of workers who endure nightmarishly crammed commuter trains each day and pack themselves into teeming communal housing each evening. But we are also taken to the fragile democracy of Versova Beach, where bankers and film producers jog alongside homeless people performing their ablutions; to the foetid slums, opulent high-rises, venerable temples; and in and around streets packed with a kaleidoscopic range of inhabitants. Adiga lays out this most frenetic of megalopolises before us, by turns fascinating, sensual and horrifying, as his writing takes an impressive step onwards.
But what’s also interesting is that book seems to have been inspired by actual social movements in Bombay agitating against slum clearance and corruption:
We tried to get the reticent writer, who once called Mumbai’s rental market “a bigot’s paradise”, to tell us whether his new work is an attempt at exposing the nexus between builders, politicians and bureaucrats. “I’m afraid I have to pass on this question,” was all he was willing to say. Social activist YP Singh calls the book significant. “Coming in the backdrop of several controversial redevelopment projects which displaced many, this will be an eagerly awaited book,” said the man who is responsible for exposing several housing scams.
At the same time, in discussions of the new book, Adiga openly declares himself in support of the economic neoliberalism of Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao (i.e. his preference for aggressively capitalist Congress Party economics as opposed to aggressive state-led capitalist development of earlier Congress leaders):
I wish I were a child of Nehru’s India! But I was born in 1974. I was a child of the harsher socialist regime imposed by Mrs Gandhi. I am not — and will never be — an opponent of the great economic boom initiated by Dr Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. In fact, I think it saved India from ruin and stagnation. I remember we had to bribe people in Mangalore in the old days just to get a confirmed ticket on Indian Airlines.
In 1990, I stood first in Karnataka in the annual SSLC (year 10) exams. When I came to Bangaloreto collect an award from the education minister, I was humiliated by the rich boys there — all of whom I had beaten — because I had a thick accent when I spoke English and I did not know whoLionel Richie was.
The divisions between small town and big city India have been broken down by liberalisation. I’m grateful for this…I do think people have a right to question how fast liberalisation is going and whether it’s damaging some sections of society. In the short term, India might lag China if we’re more introspective about our growth — but in the long term, we will surely outrun them. Those who interpret my novels as opposing liberalisation are misreading them. They’re marked by ambivalence, not opposition, to the changes… Money itself is amoral. It can liberate people as easily as it can destroy them. As I said, I’m not opposed to the great economic boom going on now. My role as a novelist is only to dramatize certain conflicts taking place because of the generation of so much new wealth. In “Last Man in Tower”, I urge people not to regard the developer simply as the villain, but to consider his positive attributes as well. Nor is Masterji, his opponent, a spokesman for me. He has his failings.
I’m actually looking forward to figuring out what I think of Adiga’s liberal critique of liberalism, and why the novel takes the social movements that are currently afoot against Bombay developers and turns them into this kind of humanist conflict (everyone is a hero and a villain rolled into one).
I confess that I am usually annoyed by the constant references to western writers when writing about Adiga’s work (even though I am occasionally guilty of doing the same. The Guardian’s review is particularly egregious:
His targets here are similar: the web-like social structures that surround citizens, creating a stasis that defies attempts at progress; the vacuum created by misgovernance that allows greed and envy to flourish; the bureaucracy – represented here by a double-talking lawyer straight from the pages of Dickens – that creates the illusion of order and justice while perpetuating the opposite. “You and I were trapped,” the real-estate broker Mr Ajwani, one of the novel’s most ambiguous figures, tells Mrs Rego, “but we wanted to be trapped,” and the novel goes the distance in exploring the attraction of collusion.
Last Man in Tower has a broader and more forgiving feel than The White Tiger, incorporating a gentler comic tone that finds affection as well as despair in poking fun at its characters’ pretensions and frailties. But Adiga’s anger at the India he describes – cities in which rapid economic expansion comes at an impossible price for a vast swath of their inhabitants, and in which the slow fading of the caste system has not been accompanied by a rise in social egalitarianism – remains undimmed. Describing his childhood reading in Mangalore, Adiga once professed his early enthusiasm for the works of Golding, Orwell and Shaw, three writers with a keen appreciation of the muddy intersections between individual and political will. In this complex and multi-layered novel, he continues his project of shining a light on the changing face of India, bringing us a picture that is as compelling as it is complex to decipher.
The Mumbai Mirror, for instance, seems to be bored by the idea of another book about housing developments in Bombay:
While his publishers are billing this as the new v/s old India narrative, to us it sounds like one of the smashing stories this newspaper often breaks. Vastly expanded no doubt, and we must admit, with fewer typos.
I have nothing but contempt for pieces like the one penned by Abhineeta Raghunath, for whom the only question worth asking seems to be will the novel sell as many books as its predecessor (The White Tiger):
White Tiger may have been a major hit, showering laurels upon the Booker Prize winner Aravind Adiga. The book had a great impact on book lovers everywhere. His latest book Last Man in Tower, which is to be released by the end of this month is being pre-ordered in large numbers across major stores in the city.
If you want a laugh, read the Wall Street Journal’s ridiculously vapid review of the book here, because the only thing that the Wall Street Journal can detect in the novel is its own journalism.
And if you want to see how a critique of western Orientalism now functions as the central theme of right-wingers, take a look at this nationalist piece in the Evening Standard:
An unfortunate tendency among Indian writers who achieve recognition in the West is to crown themselves as the moral custodians of their country – sermonising against its inconsistencies and iniquities, while paying little attention to why so many Indians (yes, poor ones, too) actually love their country and feel great optimism for it.
Vikas Swarup (of Q&A fame) added his two cents, too, in the Financial Times (though don’t expect to be blown away).